Years before the Covid-19 outbreak, flexible working arrangement was already on a growing rise of adoption in many organizations. A 2013 survey1 on over 3,000 manufacturing firms across the world revealed that nearly 50% of organizations in developed countries and about 20% in many developing countries allowed their managers to work from home at least once a week. The pandemic-driven government policy for lockdown and mobility restraint in many countries pushes many organizations to immediately adopt working from home as a sound solution for employee health safety as well as business continuity.
Working remotely has been encouraged over the past decade as it fosters better employee productivity, more flexibility for workers, and saving office operational costs. No wonder nearly seven in ten CFOs2 currently are considering to make remote working as a more permanent working arrangement. Despite these widely accepted benefits of remote working, studies3 also found that there are unanticipated consequences of adopting remote working that may lead to lower job satisfaction and burn out. Our organizational neuroscientists at Vanaya NeuroLab noticed that such negative impacts of working from home was due to some unintentional violations over basic human brain functions.
1. Our Brain Hates Losing the Sense of Control
Our brain loves to feel being in control. When we think that we have options and feel that we have the power to choose what is best for ourselves, our dopamine level will rise and give us a sense of joy. It explains why many studies1 found that remote workers reported higher level of work satisfaction and lower level of attrition. However, current practice of remote working during the outbreak period was not a free choice. Professional workers around the world now were forced to work from home for weeks without any options to work at the office or other places outside their house. Without a sense of control, our dopamine level decreases and we lose the joyful feeling.
2. Endless Video Meeting Drains Our Brain
In the midst of Covid-19 our break, video conferencing to replace the face-to-face meeting interaction is suddenly on the rise. There are two major concerns regarding this growing phenomenon. First, virtual interaction with video conference apps requires much higher level of focused attention than face-to-face interaction. Second, the absence of physical mobility to move between meeting locations leads to nearly endless back-to-back video meeting. We think that these practices increase our time efficiency and productivity. On the contrary, nonstop conscious focused attention for long hours and fast-pacing shift between screens and video meeting rooms causes head and neck muscular fatigue.
3. Constant Disruption Leads to Cognitive Overload
Working from home blurs the lines between professional and personal lives. Workers have to deal with home chores that may disrupt work now and then during working hours at home. Our brain capacity for conscious attention and working memory has some limit. Constant disruption that pushes our cognitive limit will cause cognitive overload and is perceived by our brain as a threat to stability. As a consequence, it activates our sympathetic nervous system, the fight and flight neural mechanisms, that leads to muscular tension, faster heartbeat, and body alertness. Being in endless alert mode will eventually lead us to exhaustion.
4. Long Work Hours Causes Brain Fatigue
A Bloomberg4 survey found professional workers who work from home tend to start working earlier and spent longer working hours than usual. That was because the line between work and home became much blurry, as nearly one in three professional workers are now struggling with work-life balance5. Studies found that excessively long working hours causes physical and psychological stress. Not only our body will release cortisol, the stress hormone, that may lead to a higher risk of stroke and coronary heart disease, mental fatigue will also potentially damage our cognition.
5. Our Brain Hates Social Isolation
Prolonged lockdown may cause a sense of loneliness and self-isolated as it prevents employees to have face to face social connection with their co-workers. Studies showed that minimum social interaction is associated with higher level of cortisol. Text messaging and emails cannot release oxytocin, the love and trust hormone that makes us happy, the way physical interaction does. Even though many workers attended multiple video meeting with sound of voice and eye contact, such virtual interaction tend to be more task-oriented and were lack of social bonding qualities.
Whilst our brain is already under stress due to the fear of health risk, financial distress, and uncertainty of the future, the forced policy of full-time remote working arrangement added more pressure to our brain. Knowing how our brain responds to this unprecedented situation allows us to learn how to cope it and bounce back stronger at the end. Managing the brain’s energy, maintaining mental resilience, and building change agility during the period of working from home need certain skills that are increasingly vital for professional workers around the globe.
Bloom, N., et.al. “Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment,” The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2015, 165-218
Kelliher, C and Anderson, D. “Doing more with less? Flexible working practices and the intensification of work,” Human Relations, 2009, 63(1), 83-106