Why a 'virtual commute' isn't such a bad idea for remote workers

Lydia Smith
·Writer, Yahoo Finance UK
·4 mins read
Portrait of smiling smart freelancer in casual clothes and spectacles enjoying his work at home
Portrait of smiling smart freelancer in casual clothes and spectacles enjoying his work at home

Six months after lockdown was first introduced, the novelty of working from home is beginning for wear off for some.

After the initial joy of ditching your commute, spending all day in your pyjamas and being able to work next to the fridge, the reality of working from home sets in. The line between work and not-work has become blurred — and each day seems to blend into the next in a never-ending stream of video calls.

However, for those of us who find it hard to switch off outside of “office” hours, Microsoft has the answer: Virtual commuting.

A virtual commute isn’t about visualising the morning aroma of coffee breath, or hearing someone else’s music blasting out from their headphones. Rather, it’s about giving people a period of time before and after work to transition into “work mode.”

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“The Teams update next year will let users schedule virtual commutes at the beginning and end of each shift,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Instead of reliving 8am or 6pm packed subway rides or highway traffic jams in virtual reality, users will be prompted by the platform to set goals in the morning and reflect on the day in the evening.”

Essentially, the virtual commute feature aims to help people bookmark the start and end of their working day — which is more difficult when working from home.

Rather than an extension of the work day, Microsoft hopes the update encourages employee wellness. They believe leaving space for individuals to let go of the working day and prep for the next will prevent people from checking in after hours.

According to the WSJ, the feature may also prompt workers to log how they are feeling too. If they are stressed, they may be able to block out certain times in the day to decompress or do a guided meditation with the popular Headspace app.

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It might sound gimmicky, but Microsoft may be onto something. Flexible working can provide huge benefits for employees, allowing us to avoid stressful commutes and work at times that fit around our lives and families. As many of us have realised though, working remotely comes with a whole host of additional challenges, especially during a pandemic.

Coronavirus has turned homeworking into the “new normal,” but boundaries between our personal and professional lives are beginning to erode. According to a survey of 2,000 people by LinkedIn and the Mental Health Foundation earlier this year, working from home means the average Brit is putting in an extra 28 hours of overtime a month. For young workers aged 16-24, this figure increases to 35.1 hours a month.

Even before COVID-19, many of us found it harder to switch off when working remotely. A survey taken at the start of 2019 by the occupational health service BHSF found 92% of home-workers answered emails outside of working hours. Just 39% of home workers said that their employers had produced any sort of guidance around working remotely.

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Sending the odd email after hours is sometimes necessary, but frequently putting in extra hours can leave us at risk of stress, anxiety and burnout. Each person experiences burnout differently, but signs of this state of chronic stress can include exhaustion, racing thoughts, anxiety and feeling detached from work.

It’s a growing problem among workers, so much so that the World Health Organisation labelled it an “occupational phenomenon” in 2019.

Microsoft’s virtual commute is certainly a novel solution to a serious problem, but whether it actually improves wellbeing among home-workers remains to be seen. Recognising the difficult elements associated with remote working may be progress, but asking employees to spend even longer on video calls and think about work tasks may not be the answer.

Instead, shutting down your laptop and going for a walk may be a more useful end to the working day. And perhaps even most importantly, employers should make sure they aren’t expecting too much of people — and ensure their staff don’t feel pressured to be seen as always available.