February 24, 2024

It’s been almost four years since the coronavirus pandemic inaugurated a period of sustained upheaval for knowledge workers. The first wave of change came in early 2021, with the Great Resignation—a mass exodus from the workforce that saw, at its peak, millions of Americans quitting their jobs each month. Then, in 2022, we got the Remote-Work Wars, in which bosses who’d thought of working from home as a temporary measure were surprised when employees claimed it as a right. Eventually, in many organizations, the fervor of the Remote-Work Wars settled into an uneasy truce that was based on hybrid schedules. But then, last summer, a third wave of disruption emerged. Many young professionals embraced the idea, filling social platforms with sympathetic declarations before they, in turn, weathered a derisive backlash. The over-all impression, throughout these years of turbulence, was that knowledge work was broken: somehow, its expectations, rhythms, and burdens needed to be redefined. Today, at the close of 2023, there no longer seems to be a revolutionary project roiling the knowledge sector. Something’s still wrong, above and beyond the usual challenges of office life. Everyone’s tired. What started with the Great Resignation has become the Great Exhaustion. How can we understand this vibe of weary disappointment? It’s useful to start with a simple question: What instigated these successive waves of knowledge-work disruption in the first place? Beyond the showy disruptions generated by the pandemic’s arrival was a more subtle but arguably even more important trend: a sharp increase in how much time the average knowledge worker engages in digital communication. A never-ending stream of new messages and calendars clogged with meetings force us to switch our attention from one target to another, creating debilitating feelings of mental fatigue and overload, and leaving little mental space for sustained effort on important objectives. We need to get serious about reducing digital communication—not just small tweaks to corporate norms but significant reductions, driven by major policy changes. There are many ways to make things better. One possible first step would be for business owners to set new ground rules. For instance, they could declare that, from now on, e-mail should be used only for broadcasting information, and for sending questions that can be answered by a single reply. Discussions that seem likely to take fifteen minutes or less should be conducted during office hours, minimizing the number of intrusive meetings and freeing everyone from endless back-and-forth e-mail threads. For those used to a culture of immediate responsiveness, the idea of having to wait to get an answer might seem radical—even unworkable. It turns out that waiting is sometimes no big deal.