If you find a day of online video calls exhausting, you’ll be glad to hear that you are not alone. In our second podcast in the Working It Out series – ‘Lockdown Brains’, Louise Minchin talks to Catherine Loveday, Professor of Neuropsychology at the University of Westminster, about the effect that remote working is having on our brains and ability to concentrate.
There are lots of advantages to remote working and many organisations are now encouraging a hybrid work pattern, so that employees and businesses get the best out of working in home and office environments. Businesses are utilising digital software solutions that enable remote working, alongside video conferencing to bridge the critical space between workplace-based face-to-face meetings and traditional telephone calls. While this solution offers more than a purely audio call, many users are unaware of how much demand video calls are putting on our brains.
In a face-to-face meeting we see, hear and pick-up on myriad signals from each other, from shifts in body language, changes in audio frequency, small sighs and sounds of agreement, to facial expressions. As sophisticated social beings we take and interpret these cues, often unconsciously. On a computer screen though, much of this is lost. The image of the other person, or multiple people, is much smaller for a start, and we can only see a part of them. We’ve all struggled to persevere with meetings where sound and / or vision keeps breaking up and freezing. Our brains are in overdrive, trying to fill in the gaps and make sense of it all. Added to that, we’re all trying to maintain a professional demeanour. When our broadband lets us down, we may fear that we look unprofessional and ill-prepared, adding to our stress, even though we know these things happen to us all.
Now that people are starting to return to more office-based working they are finding meetings so much easier. In a new hybrid working world, where some people may be attending a meeting in person and others are online, great care must be taken that the remote workers are not disenfranchised with inferior information or the ability to contribute.
Our Workplace Trends Survey found that 14 per cent of employees were working remotely from their bedrooms, rising to 25 per cent for the 18-24 year-olds. Catherine warns that we should always work at a dedicated workspace, not from bed as this leads to poor sleep and poor work performance. She says, “Sleep is such an important part of brain restoration. We have own neuronal ‘street sweepers’ that ‘clean’ our brain while we’re sleeping, and all of our memories are consolidated.” This may be a reason why many, particularly younger employees, are keen to get back to the office.
Tips to support better memory and concentration when working from home:
- Create an enriched home workspace, with photographs and other easily movable objects to ‘refresh’ your view from time to time.
- Try working from another room occasionally or moving your chair to face a different way.
- Plan to move more. Our brains are stimulated by new sights and sounds, so taking a meeting on the phone whilst out walking might be the key to a more productive discussion and better recollections of it later, despite not having a pen and paper to hand.
- Avoid back-to-back online calls, to give the brain time to recover and reorientate, and keep the meetings short.
- Get enough sleep and make your bedroom a laptop and device-free zone.
Employers can help by:
- Making sure everyone working remotely is given high quality equipment for an optimum video and audio experience during online meetings, making it less demanding and tiring.
- Providing good recordings of meetings, ideally both audio/visual recordings and minuted notes, so everyone has all of the information they need.
- Implementing Cloud-based digital solutions that support efficiency and concentration, such as single-sign-ons, and fewer notifications for reduced distraction. Automation also frees people from repetitive admin so that they can focus on more creative tasks that require ‘human’ input.
- Insisting on shorter online meetings and use break-out groups so that people are dealing with smaller numbers of faces at a time.
- Offering flexibility wherever possible, both around where people work - office or home, and when. Some people’s brains are more effective in the mornings, others later in the day, so being flexible means businesses are accessing optimum performance from each individual.
- Encouraging people to take breaks so that they can recharge their brains with a change of scenery or activity, whether that’s taking exercise outside or just going to the kitchen for a cuppa.
Luckily, the changes to our brains aren’t permanent. As people move back into office-based and hybrid working patterns, we can naturally start to experience less tiredness and more focus. Pandemic lockdowns created a particularly challenging experience for remote workers, and it’s remarkable how well everyone performed during this period once you examine the impact on our brains. It really is something to be celebrated and to be proud of. Now is the time to give ourselves a metaphorical, and actual, break – to allow ourselves to get back to more ‘normal’ ways of interacting with each other and understand why we have found the past 18 months so taxing.
Listen to Episode Two of the Working It Out Podcast: Is ‘Lockdown Brain Fog’ a Real Phenomenon? On our podcast area.