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EECS Professor’s Research Could Aid in Achieving Work-Life Balance

Assistant Professor Alex Williams is one of two new faculty members to join the Min H. Kao Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science this fall. Dr. Williams’s research explores how intelligent and interactive systems can transform the nature of work and personal livelihood. He leverages theories from cognitive psychology and workplace studies to design new interactions that allow people to manage the every-day stresses of work both more effectively and more efficiently. He often collaborates with industry researchers to study his systems in the wild. He has published his research at leading venues for human-computer interaction research, including ACM CHI, ACM UIST, and ACM CSCW.

As a research intern at Microsoft Research, Dr. Williams used theories of cognition and occupational health psychology to design a conversational system named SwitchBot that helps people in transitioning between home and the workplace. By design, SwitchBot engages people in conversations as they arrive to work and as they leave work by inquiring about their emotion-related goals tied to their workday. Through a two-week study, Dr. Williams and his colleagues found that people were not only able to more effectively psychologically detach from work, but also achieve elevated levels of productivity when using SwitchBot.

Directly inspired by Dr. Williams’s work, Microsoft has created a new family of tools that enable people to achieve productivity by reflecting about their work-related emotions amid the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. These tools will be featured in both Microsoft Teams and Outlook, and they include a virtual commute experience for better work- and home-life transitions and integration with Headspace, a global leader in mindfulness and meditation. They will also include tools to help people connect more easily with colleagues, schedule time for focused work and breaks, and see insights and patterns personalized for individuals, managers and leaders.

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