March 2023 – What’s hybrid work doing to our brains?

While the hybrid work model benefits employees in many ways, it also poses unique cognitive challenges. How can we help our brains adapt to the new world of work?

Over the last few years, our brains have been forced to adapt to an overwhelming amount of change to the way we work, learn and interact with others.

HRM has previously written about the cognitive impact of remote work. During the pandemic, the impact of external stressors, reduced social interaction and increased screen time caused significant disruption to our brain chemistry. And, according to Peter Burow, Founding Partner of NeuroPower Group, the impact of this psychological upheaval is still being felt today.

“[During COVID-19], we had to adapt most of our daily routines. It was like being on holiday, where you have to adapt to new patterns. That can be both enjoyable and stressful. For many of us, when we first started working from home, it didn’t even feel like work,” Burow says.

“But pretty soon, we started to notice feelings of anxiety, stress and low mood, which we now know were primarily the consequence of missing our familiar routines and familiar faces. Interestingly, we can measure this with hard science via traceable shifts in both our brain hardware (neural pathways) and wetware (our neurochemicals).”

Humans are creatures of habit, explains Burow. Our daily routines and rituals have a big impact on our serotonin levels (serotonin is important because it’s like the ‘magic carpet’ for many of the other neurochemicals in the brain, he says.) When serotonin is disrupted, the whole system is out of whack.

When these rituals (for example, getting to work and having a coffee in our favourite coffee shop) are disrupted, the impact on our serotonin levels can leave us feeling either slightly flat/depressed or slightly anxious. Over time, these levels readjusted as our new routines became habits. As a result, the lockdown habits that formed during the height of the pandemic became hard to shake when office doors reopened because, once again, disrupting these newly formed behaviours disrupted our serotonin levels. The office lost its shine.

“This leads to the unusual situation of working from the office but following habits you formed at home,” says Burow. “When this happens, you can go into the workplace and hear a pin drop. Everybody’s on their laptop, and they’ll even message each other on their screen or device rather than getting up and talking to somebody face-to-face.”

What this tells us is that our teams are not necessarily going to bounce back to how they were before the pandemic. Instead, leaders will need to intentionally co-create their new hybrid world with their teams.

“Internationally, hybrid working is becoming the new way of working – I don’t think we’re going to be able to squeeze that toothpaste back into the tube,” he says. “And if that is the case, it fundamentally redefines the role of managers.”

Safeguarding mental health in a hybrid world

According to Burow, making hybrid work a success means maintaining the heightened focus on employee mental health that came about as a result of COVID-19. Managers should be aware that the lingering cognitive impact of isolation means we might find it harder to identify mental health concerns in both others and ourselves.

During the pandemic, he explains, we were getting more information thrown at us through a screen rather than face-to-face. Video meetings are interpreted by the brain as data that is accessed through the eyes, and this engages the data circuits of the brain rather than the emotional circuits. This meant we unconsciously became more data-centric and less people-centric. Our EQ has dropped.

“We are not like AI. Our brains are not good at remembering raw data… What isn’t synthesised into meaning and emotion largely disappears – we forget 95 percent of it.” – Peter Burow, Founding Partner of NeuroPower Group

It’s a brain-based phenomenon that NeuroPower Group’s lead neuroscientist, Misha Byrne, calls the ‘online empathy gap’. He identified that the brain circuitry that enhances our emotional intelligence and enables us to understand other people is the same circuitry that gives us insight into ourselves. Byrne explains that this means when someone asks how you are in a hybrid environment, your brain may not be able to answer the question accurately, because you are out of touch with how you actually feel.

In his words, “Sometimes people are working long hours in stressful situations and are physically burnt out, but if you ask them (how they are), on a genuine level they believe they are fine, when in fact they may not be. It’s only when they spend time away from the screen that they detox and realise they are not fine. They may actually be feeling frustrated or exhausted or depressed, but at the time the question was asked, their brain simply didn’t have access to this insight.”

Closing this ‘empathy gap’ is a critical new skill that managers need to learn. This can be done through a range of techniques and tricks. Just four of these are:

1. Actively create environments to reboot your team’s EQ.
Model taking time away from the screen to increase your EQ. Have walking meetings on your mobile away from Zoom, encourage face-to-face coffee catch-ups and don’t have video meetings when an email may be just as good.

2. Allocate the time to pause and find out how your people are doing.
Have meaningful check-ins and personally follow up after meetings, one-on-one, to check your people are okay (if not in person, then possibly on their mobile, because that doesn’t use the data circuits as much). Just because your people say they are okay doesn’t mean they are in reality.

3. Actively foster collaboration.
When we are working remotely, our brains work to efficiency rather than effectiveness. As a manager, you need to actively encourage people to collaborate, to reach out to others for help, to discover the strengths of their co-workers and encourage them to think about team performance rather than just individual performance. All this tends to happen automatically when we are all in the same room. It requires leadership to build bridges when everyone is working in different work spaces.

4. Help teams move from data to meaning.
“We are not like AI,” says Burow. “Our brains are not good at remembering raw data. Our human brains need to take data points and synthesise that data into meaning that is underpinned by emotions. What isn’t synthesised into meaning and emotion largely disappears – we forget 95 percent of it.”

Managers therefore need to intentionally meet teams face-to-face and help them synthesise information by getting in touch with how they personally feel about data and how others feel about it, to shape it into a cohesive narrative. What feedback are we getting from other teams? What does this mean? Meaning informs our motivation and is central to everyone pulling together. Get this wrong and your team will fracture rather than lean in.

Enhancing hybrid work

With all the upheaval the workforce has experienced in the last few years, it’s easy to forget that the hybrid model of working is still relatively new. Employers are still learning from trial and error, and there is still plenty of progress to be made.

“I think it will be another couple of years, probably another five, before we get to the other side, and we are working in a sophisticated way so that we’re able to get the right balance of remote and face-to-face work. I think most teams have realised that administration is best done alone and hybrid and creative collaboration is best done face-to-face,” says Burow.

So what needs to happen in order for us to get there?

1. Embrace the notion that the team is the smallest unit of performance.
“The number one thing is to move [the focus] from individual productivity to team productivity,” he says.

“What we’ve seen in the past is that everybody works together, yet everybody is individually rewarded. What we are [starting] to see now is that we have dispersed groups, but with everyone in the team rewarded in a way the team feels comfortable with. That way, the team leans in… When it comes to change, peer group pressure is one of your greatest motivators.” After all, we’re herd animals and our brains are hard-wired to seek belonging and feel valued. This is best achieved through team membership.

2. Intentionally distribute power to unleash team productivity.
In order to ensure that asynchronous working does not hold us back, Burow suggests transitioning from ‘top-down’ management to a distributed-power model.

“We need the groups themselves to be empowered,” he says. “We also need to have transparency of information so that all team members can make judgement calls even when they’re not working [at the same time]. You can’t wait for hours to make a decision until somebody else comes online because they’re choosing to work different hours. So we need to explore mechanisms to make decisions based on principles/judgements that are agreed on by the team.”

Leaders also need to be transparent and actively share team performance data, he says. Working asynchronously makes it much harder for employees to sense when a colleague or a client is dissatisfied with their work. This makes it much harder to learn from mistakes and adjust our course of action midway if it’s not hitting the spot.

3. Decide, as a team, what kind of work is best to do together as a team and what is best done from a remote location.
To ensure that your hybrid strategy works for everyone, it’s important to be strategic about when employees are required to come into the office; leaders must not assume that mandating a certain number of in-person days per week will be enough to satisfy employees’ social cognitive needs.

“Often, it makes conceptual sense to be regimented, ‘Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays we’re at the office, then on Fridays, you’re allowed to work from home.’ But often that doesn’t really work,” says Burow. “In practice, most team members prefer doing administrative work alone. But, regardless of their preference, creative and collaborative work is better off together. For the success of the team, sometimes members need to be willing to sacrifice personal preference for team performance. To do this each member needs to feel valued and integral to the team.

As the war for talent heats up in the emerging hybrid world, those who can create high-performance teams that lean in to deliver on shared goals and support each other with flexibility will be the clear winners, both in terms of achieving corporate KPIs and in terms of employee satisfaction, happiness and engagement.

Source: HRM Online

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