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How hybrid working affects your brain

Brain scientists and other experts quickly realised that the remote work conditions demanded by the pandemic had an impact on the brain and performance. Most of the attention went to the adverse impact of isolation and the relatively new mass phenomenon of “Zoom fatigue” (often characterised as “brain fog”). However, remote work has both positive and negative effects, and the emergence of the hybrid workplace creates new challenges and new opportunities for managers.

As a neuroscientist, and the CEO of a brain training company which has moved to a hybrid model, I think about this a lot. I am happy to share what we’ve figured out so far, as we enter a new world of hybrid workplaces.

Pros and cons of remote working

We know that isolation has a negative impact on cognition and that certainly impacts work. At first, we compensated with a sharp increase in Zoom meetings, but quickly dialed back (due to Zoom fatigue).

We found some, but not all, of our team members really enjoyed working at home. They reported fewer distractions, better ability to focus on individual work, and lower stress due to better balance of work and family. On the other hand, some found home and family can be a distraction, missed the in-person social connections, found it difficult to keep work from creeping into all hours of the day, and were eager to return to the office.

Ideal hybrid working

Hybrid work, if properly managed, should allow people to have the best of both worlds - being at home (with the time dividend of not commuting) when periods of intense focus are required (assuming that particular team member is not distracted at home), and being in the workplace when periods of intense interpersonal collaboration are required.

Employers can maximise cognitive benefits by allowing individuals or small teams to make decisions about where to work each day to promote cognitive efficiency and overall productivity. This means top executives shouldn’t dictate a global policy - for example, in-person work for everyone on Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday - and should let small groups sort out what makes them most productive. A software engineering team might only decide to meet in-person once a month, whilst a marketing team might alternate between periods in the office to brainstorm new campaigns and periods at home writing the copy.

The brain needs downtime

Many people report working more hours from home than they did at work. Some of this can be attributed to a lack of commute. But in some cases, working from home can turn into working without boundaries - scheduling calls before breakfast or after dinner, and emails and messages around the clock. This may seem good for productivity, but it comes at the cost of cognitive performance. To deliver peak performance at work, the brain needs downtime - a good night’s sleep, as well as time for friends, family, and leisure. To operate at its peak, your brain needs recovery time - just like your body.

Probably the biggest risk from remote work is mistakes in social cognition - how our brains recognise and interpret social cues from others. It’s easy on a Zoom to misread reactions and, for example, think that someone is frustrated with your idea, when they’re just frustrated with being on Zoom all day. Look at the calendars of team members and try to avoid back-to-back Zoom calls.

Social cognition errors can lead to big problems - poor group work and morale, missed deadlines, or key employees leaving. Managers can also make the mistake of underestimating the contribution of remote workers, and therefore should make an added effort to interact with each team member to make sure they don’t fall prey to “out of sight, out of mind.” Rather than having some in a conference room and others joining by Zoom, you may decide everyone should join a meeting by Zoom to be on an equal footing.

Nurturing your talent

Employers can build a workplace that maximises cognitive performance, and that will help attract and retain top talent. A great hybrid work strategy can make you an employer of choice for top performers - or, you can become an employer top performers avoid, because they seek a place that helps them be their best.

The right workplace benefits strategy can help as well - offering ways to help every employee maximise their cognitive performance - through choice of workplace, personalising the work environment, and offering tools to improve cognitive performance.

Written by Dr Henry Mahncke, CEO of brain training software provider Posit Science

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