Has the pandemic rewired our brain and its relationship to work?

Neuroscience has proven that significant experiences such as parenthood, chronic pain or stress can change the way our brain fires, even our everyday behaviors change our brain.  “Of course, nearly everything changes the brain. Musical training reshapes parts of the brain. Learning the convoluted streets of London swells a mapmaking structure in the brains of cabbies. Even getting a good night’s sleep changes the brain. Every aspect of our environment can influence brain and behaviors.” Has the great remote work experiment achieved the same?

This recent piece in Workplace Insight got me thinking about how this applies now, post pandemic to the world of work and workplace.  In 2022, it is now the case for many office workers that too much has changed to just go back.  It seems very likely that a big part of what has changed is our brains.  It is not just working from home.  It is the homeschooling, the isolation, the anxiety and the difference of our lives before Covid and during Covid, its how all these things and more added up together.  I’m not a neuroscientist but I’m pretty sure it’s not just a changing of priorities or a reassessment, a great rethink or a great resignation.  A more fundamental shift has occurred – inside our heads – perhaps without us even being aware of it. 

Many of us were already changing even before the pandemic.  One of the things having the greatest impact today on our neuro wiring today is the smart phone.  Smart phones and our access to  endless information is changing the brains of adults in ways we don’t really yet understand yet –  from how we use our memory, to our attention span and even to how we perceive direction and understand maps.  Neuroscientists are finding many ways our brain changes as it interacts with technology, from smart phones and social media to virtual reality. 

If the brains of adults are changing, what about kids or even young adults in their twenties who have grown up with all this technology?   Even without having experienced a pandemic, their brains were likely to be very different to those of baby boomers when they started working in an office for the first time.  We can no longer relate office life in 2022 to ‘how things used to be’.  Even before the era of remote working, humans had already started to change.  And the speed of change is faster than ever before in our history.

Potentially the bigger challenge to how we think and relate to work is not about where we work but our relationship to our colleagues and the organisations we work for.  Over recent decades the idea of company loyalty and the value of a permanent role had already disappeared. Over the course of the pandemic the connection to organisations and the social bonds of work further disintegrated.

“Part of the problem is that the collegial, purpose-driven office that senior leaders idealize feels like a myth to many young workers. Since long before Covid-19, most offices weren’t delivering the mentoring, collaboration and social fabric that makes in-person work feel worthwhile. Indeed, many of the offices I visited in recent years were desolate, open plan landscapes dotted with individuals staring at screens, headphones on.” I’m sure many of us can relate to this statement, although in this article quoted, the author is trying to convince young people to go back to the office. 

If neuroscience is changing our relationship to work could a better understanding of neuroscience help us to better understand the way we work together and help solve these new challenges?  This 2017 article says we can.  Based on a decade of research, Paul J Zak (who is a neuroscientist), suggests that building trust is a key aspect of leadership and building teams and there is evidence that this then leads to  business success.   The essence of workplace culture is based upon social norms and the strength of our relationships. (Bruce Daisley has some great blogs, podcasts and videos on workplace culture for lots more depth)

Remote relationships change and challenge the way we build trust.  Some people would question is it even possible to build trust remotely? It’s not impossible but often it is likely to be a lot harder than in person.  Although again, this might be starting to change for those brought up with connecting technologies.

Recent research from Lendlease and Leesman  “found younger generations really pushed back against the notion you can’t make meaningful connections online, or those connections could only happen in person.  For this generation, that’s simply not true,” she said. “That’s not their lived experience. And in fact, they called out the awkward experience of making connections in real life.”

It’s possible that many of those sitting with their headphones on, might still have been interacting with people – they might have been emailing, chatting or using social media, communicating with colleagues inside the organisation or networks and friends outside.  They might not have been feeling any lack of in person interaction while sitting at the desk.  They might not have even needed or wanted that.  But in 2022 they know that this form of interaction can be done from home, a cafe or the beach – there is no social expectation to turn up, to be present anymore (or not everywhere anyway).

The reality is though that most of us don’t want all our work connections to be online and that some time spent together helps build relationships and trust. Neuroscience also posits that the brain reacts differently to someone we have met in real life to someone who we have only seen in a video screen (I first heard of this concept in a presentation from Fiona Kerr, Neurotech Institute). And I’m sure many people agree it’s harder to recognise someone in person that you only met online on zoom that in a real life meeting. If this is the case, then it doesn’t mean remote work isn’t possible some of the time but it adds another layer of information as to why we need to come together sometimes.  While our brains may have changed at one level, there remains much more ancient wiring that connects us together as a social species.

When we don’t all work in the same physical place every day, we need to start to be more intentional about the times when we do interact in person. We need both our processes and our physical workplaces to support this intentional coming together and no longer just be a sea of cubicles or benches for production. Work has changed – and so have we.

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Credits: Thanks to David Matos @davidmatos for making this photo available freely on Unsplash

Part time, hybrid or asynchronous – Building a culture of “Sometimes There”

Image

Over the last 2 years of this new world of work, I’ve noticed that part time work is becoming much more easily accepted – its no longer so strange to ‘not be in the office that day’ or even ‘not working at that time’.  As we have changed our ways of working due to COVID, more and more people are in the position of working this way – its now becoming more of a cultural norm.


In Australia, it has long been the law that if you have school age children or younger an employer must allow you to work part time ‘unless there are reasonable business grounds’ (this is in fact our legal definition of flexible working). The reality of this meant many companies technically permitted part time but individual managers, might not make it easy or comfortable. It was also common for this to be accompanied by little opportunities for pay rises and career progression . So it’s wasn’t surprising many part time workers ended up feeling like second class citizens.   Finding an employer and team that genuinely supported and believed in part time was a difficult proposition.  Promises made at a corporate level or at interviews didn’t always translate to reality.


Particularly when employers are finding it hard to get great employees, employers and managers might sell their company culture as being genuinely friendly and positive to part time employees when it’s only surface deep. The same is now happening with remote and hybrid work. Whilst some employers feel the power is with the employees they will “allow” hybrid (or part time or remote). For anyone looking for a company or team that genuinely believes in different ways of working – the fact they use the word ‘allow’ demonstrates straight away their true beliefs on the subject! 


While part time work is now better accepted and easier to fit within the framework of a hybrid work culture, these challenges still remain, the difference is that now a larger group of employees are potentially being exposed to this attitude – will remote, hybrid or asynchronous work hurt peoples careers? Many organisations and teams are still struggling to build cultures and processes that support all these ways of working, and at the same time support employees who want to work part time too.  A culture that supports these kinds of working should also easily translate to a culture that supports dispersed working over multiple geographic locations (something almost every larger or multi office company has longed to achieve) as well as asynchronous work (allowing working at different times – creating more flexibility and the ability for team members in multiple time zones to work together) Perhaps even more boldly in the future – could these cultures also support the idea of everyone working 4 days a week with the same pay for reduced hours?


What all of these kinds of working have in common is that not everyone is there is one place all the time (or at the same time). There are a couple of different challenges with all of these kinds of working.


One is the most obvious difficulties that everyone talks about is the challenge of mixed presence or hybrid video meetings.  Just 10 years ago the idea that we could all communicate and meet via video this easily was possible but still incredible, using expensive meeting room based VC was still considered somewhat wow.  But now people complain that hybrid meetings are not good enough.  Technically this is still some way off from being solved.  For now though the best solution is quite simple.  All participants to have their own laptop/device cameras, and reduce reverberation by using a single microphone and choosing your room carefully.  Otherwise – you are better to choose an all remote meeting.  Its surprising to me to see how many people don’t seem to get this basic right and still try to cram 6 people into a room with one camera, a crappy laptop mic and poor acoustics.  Then wonder why the people on the hybrid end are getting frustrated by not being able to hear and everyone is having a poor meeting experience.  Get this right and for many kinds of meetings, hybrid works. 


That is not to say that we should be spending our day on teams or zoom.  There are many kinds of meeting that benefit from being in person.  From meeting new people, to performance discussions to networking – meetings or events that require an emotional connection and are not just about facts are better conducted in person.  But if possible, they are better conducted with everyone in person – not some people in one place and other people as faces on a screen.  If essential these things can be done online (as we provided during lockdowns) but these are the kinds of interactions people want to come to a workplace for – regardless of if its 3 days per week, 1 or 4 times per year.  People don’t want to come to the office to spend all the time sending emails or on Zoom/Teams.  I think most of us accept that some of our office time on these things is inevitable but not whole days.


Regardless of if meetings are online or in person, the biggest challenge to the part time, hybrid or asynchronous worker is a lack of planning.  Not just planning for meetings and on site physical presence but planning around who does what and when.  If there is an assumption that everyone is always available and you can grab them anytime for input, meetings or even team social events then those that work part time have historically often been left out – both from gaining relevant information and building connections.  Ad hoc is the enemy of sometimes there. Ad hoc can be good for friendships, for networking, for social media. Ad hoc and the serendipitous can be great for business relationships too. But as hoc shouldn’t be the cornerstone of how you deliver in your business. It’s not how to get a project done.  Relying on ad hoc literally means you are relying on chance to get work done well.  Everyone benefits when there is some level of planning and expectations are clearly set.


Planning is not just about booking meetings and all these ways of working shouldn’t mean more meetings but can in fact mean less.  By planning work in different ways, you should need less meetings.  Often a meeting isn’t the best way to allocate or check someones work.  Meetings are best used for questions and interactions not listing tasks and deadlines or reading documents in front of someone else.  Working collaboratively in documents using comments and tracking, using tools like Trello or Monday, or specialised collaborative software like Revizto or BIMtrack allow for people to allocate, comment and work together as a team regardless of if they are in the same place or working at the same time.  Not all of this has to be about typing or writing either, tools like Loom allow for creating screen recordings and videos to share with colleagues.  Yes, sometimes there will be some things won’t get solved as quickly as they would in a phone call or a meeting, but then a short meeting can resolve the important or misunderstood issues.  Overall the time saved for everyone and people can spend more of their time focussed on getting work done.


Planning isn’t just about being organised.  Its also about respecting the time of the people you work with and trusting that they will get it done.  If you work in this way – you don’t need to be constantly ‘checking in’.  Planning doesn’t mean that something can’t ever happen by chance, that you can’t have an ad hoc coffee with a colleague, it just means that its not the primary basis of how work gets done. Serendipitous, cross team encounters and overhead knowledge are one of the biggest challenges to overcome, and perhaps another subject for a blog post on their own sometime – although interestingly enough this old one from 2013 actually still covers most of it!


Often the complaint that “it’s easier” in person (sitting alongside this is always how we have done it) means it’s easier for the manager. It doesn’t mean it easier for the organisation or in fact that it’s either  the most  efficient or effective way to get things done.


Personally I think of all the emerging description for all of these different mixes of working which don’t involve 9-5 at the office, I’d choose ‘liberated work’ a terminology and concept from John Preece from Hub Australia originally in this article , with a further paper that can be downloaded here as well as frequently discussed in his Linkedin Posts.  The concept of liberated work is all about choice and true flexibility not just of place but also time.  At its heart success at liberated work relies on mutual trust, respect and consideration.  It doesn’t matter if you work part time, hybrid or asynchronous – these all require the same ingredients to succeed.  Some companies have always worked with these kind of ideals. Others will never get there. What will be interesting to see is how this plays out now that more flexible work options are the wish of many employees and not just a small minority. Will these new ways of working end up like activity based work did, with many companies claiming they offer a version of ‘hybrid’ but doing it poorly because they don’t truly believe in it?

Ceilidh Higgins

Image Jon Tyson via Unsplash

What if instead of ‘learning by osmosis’ we tried sharing with intention?

Before 2020 if you googled ‘learning by osmosis’ you would mostly find memes of cats and students asleep atop a pile of books, alongside articles telling you this was no way to study.

Then came lockdown, and all of a sudden the idea of ‘learning by osmosis’ was everywhere and all of a sudden I realised I now had a name to put to the problem I had been seeing with many many graduates of 2-5 years experience. No-one was actually teaching them anything and they were just expected to be learning because they sat there working in an office.  Similar to the people who believe that a positive workplace culture comes from just sitting in an office together, there seems to be a lot of people who believe that learning happens just by being together.


So is leaning by osmosis really the best way to expect professionals to learn? Do graduates actually get exposed to training and life lessons through overhead phone calls and incidental conversations? Do many people even have phone conversations anymore? Or is it just like culture, in that you might find you get better outcomes if there is some intentionality behind how you teach, coach and mentor.  Maybe more learning happens by inviting them to sit in on client meetings and spending time explaining the concepts behind what we are asking them to do?  Maybe even investing time in regular group training (which can also easily be recorded for future use).  All of these things can happen both in real life and virtually too.


It’s not just about learning for graduates but other ways we communicate and share information in the workplace too. The pandemic has highlighted the function of the office as a place where frequently all kinds of project and organisational knowledge is shared on an ad-hoc basis between whoever happens to be physically around at the time.  Long before Covid and remote work, larger companies have been aware of the need to create ways to record and share knowledge beyond smaller groups and individual teams who might speak to each other on a day to day to basis – to share across different disciplines and geographically dispersed locations. Anyone who has worked if a dispersed team has probably noticed this and perhaps thought about how to change it. I believe it’s one of the biggest reasons why dispersed and hybrid teams are often so difficult to setup and manage.


Do you want to rely on the right person happening to overhear the right phone call to learn or know something? Its a pretty chancy way of communicating even without the fact that people taking taking phone calls in the open office has been on the decline since before Covid (unfortunately though still to many people think its okay to do a Teams in an open office). More business is today conducted via email and scheduled meetings. Frequently one on one phone calls just create confusion when multiple parties are expected to be on top of the issues and part of the decision making. Copying everyone into an email or scheduling a meeting became the solution to ensuring no-one was inadvertently left out. While endless meetings are not ideal, sometimes it’s better than circles of calls (and messages) trying to keep everyone in the loop. Even when phone calls do occur, with mobile phones now the default number to call, frequently they are taken while on the go, or in a meeting / focus room so as to not force your colleagues to have to listen in.


An informal and ad-hoc approach to sharing information also can create disadvantages for many in the workplace. The people who are part time, work shifted hours, work on site some days or happen to have the day off. Even someone who was in a meeting or at lunch.  Whenever we communicate based upon whoever happens to be physically present at the time, we are potentially creating inequalities of information (which can even become a form of bullying).  A more intentional approach to sharing information, whatever level people are at helps avoid this bias.


Intentional teaching and sharing also helps address different modes of learning or language barriers.  By writing down or recording what we are communicating, we allow people to review and learn at their own pace and to check back in later.  Written forms of communication particularly where shared amongst the group – such as chat, planner platforms or shared documents are invaluable for dispersed and hybrid teams. As long as people use them! Make these methods the starting point for all your team interactions and very quickly most people will see the benefits. Not everyone finds writing the easiest way to communicate though – video and screen recording is now so accessible sometimes this can be an awesome way of communicating and learning. (Thanks to my recent grad who demonstrated that to me one day recording her software troubles on video to share with me).


For individuals and teams who work closely together and need to communicate frequently, scheduling time together regularly and in advance is an easy start. Both group time and one on one time are necessary depending on the structure of your teams. It doesn’t have to be weekly, maybe for some people it’s monthly.  Rather than focus valuable time together on who is doing what (which is easily written down and doesn’t always need discussion), consider discussing project issues and problems as a group so everyone can learn from one another.   


Sharing knowledge with intention means people are going to learn what they need to know and do it faster than if you rely upon  chance.  It has been a long time since I’ve spent a lot of face to face time with my team (long before covid), but I’ve always spent a lot of time teaching and coaching with intention.  One of the graduates I worked with told me she learned more from me on 3 months than she had in her previous 3 years of work.  I probably saw her 2 days a week. Throughout my career, I have experienced different models of distributed and remote work which have frequently meant I didn’t work in the same physical location as people who I could learn from, people I needed to share information with or teach – either inside or outside my organisation. Being open to learning, sharing and collaborating remotely opened up many more opportunities than it would have reduced or constrained my learning.


If the workplace is not for learning by osmosis, what is it for?  One of the things that is much harder (its not impossible) to either learn or do virtually is to network and build ties within an origination outside of your own team.  There is a lot of research starting to come out on the importance of weak ties and this is one of the challenges that remote and even hybrid work will need to overcome. Its not learning stuff that matters but connecting with people. In this way workplaces, real life conferences or networking events all serve the same function. You create connections that can help you later. You don’t need to learn everything yourself, but to know the right people to help you.

Ceilidh Higgins
Image via Marco Chilese on Unsplash

The Future of Work is a ClickBait Headline

I’m a big fan of flexible working and felt positive that the highly successful experiment of months of working from home was finally going to change the world of work. But perhaps not surprisingly, change isn’t always as easy as proving something can be done.

The evidence from any significant reputable source is pretty clear. Overall working from home has been a success. We are more productive and happier. For me, one of the major reputable sources of scale is Leesman, which has surveyed over 150,000 people working from home and reports an overall satisfaction level higher than the office. There are also some people who do still want to work from the office all the time too. Study after study reports that more workers are more satisfied and more productive working from home but, and this is important, most people still want to spend some time each week working in an office.

So I was quite surprised last month to come across this article headlined “The evidence is in: working from home is a failed experiment”. Huh? Really? At least The Guardian labelled it as an opinion piece. Just like the articles of the past that complained about the open and noise and claimed to show “evidence” of the failure of open plan, this article is going to make all the non believers feel better. The author reassures readers not to worry about being “old school” – at heart everyone else feels just like you and is just to nervous to admit it. To prove it – apparently two thirds of worker are craving time with colleagues. I would point out though “More time” doesn’t mean full time. If you actually click thru to read the referenced Microsoft study – under the first heading Flexible work is here to stay “Employees want the best of both worlds: over 70 percent of workers want flexible remote work options to continue, while over 65 percent are craving more in-person time with their teams. ” That’s not saying working from home is a failed experiment!!!

Even the author admits pretty quickly the headline is wrong “But this point of view is shared by more than a few clients of mine. Mostly, they fit a similar demographic: older, set in their ways, long time in business, family-owned companies. It’s obvious that most companies will need to offer work from home options in the future.” Again that fits with other research which suggests men in middle management struggle the most in seeing benefits working from home or working from home themselves. (Workplace beyond 2020 research by HASSELL, a small sample size but certainly something which is being anecdotally recognised and this gender bias could be a great topic to see more research into)

So a few grumpy middle aged men don’t want to have their staff work from home. But generally the world accepts this is going to be the future? That’s evidence of a failed experiment? This is pretty lazy journalism. Do we need to continue? But this is so much fun let’s do some fact checking on the rest of the “proof”. 

Issues of being stressed, anxious and over worked are not necessarily about working from home but more likely related to other aspects of the pandemic – working from home whilst in lockdown and homeschooling children does not compare to working from home by choice a few days a week.  This last year has not been the norm that working from home could become.  Feelings of too many meetings and too many emails existed long before the pandemic.  The idea of creating ‘meeting free’ Fridays (or any other block of time) makes sense regardless of if you work from home or from an office and if your meetings are in Zoom or in person.  This is clearly acknowledged in the article about LinkedIn giving its staff a week off to cope with burnout – its not about working from home, its about the overall stress of living thru a panedemic.  If you read through to the end of the article, LinkedIn are in fact planning a hybrid working future – with all staff able to work from home up to 50% of the time.  Again, what is the ‘failed experiment’?

As seems to be frequently the case big finance makes an appearance. JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs are determined to get back to the old normal! Does anyone really want to reflect Goldman Sachs culture?  If you missed it, the company was recently in the news after some graduate employees created a powerpoint criticising ‘inhumane working conditions’ and demanding a better work culture and work life balance.  I honestly laughed out loud that the author choses this company as one you would want to aspire to.

It’s clear to me that this author doesn’t get the employee side  “there’s this illusion of more independence, flexibility and control over one’s life”.  It is only an illusion if you are working for the wrong boss.   If more people are happier and more companies are making money, I’m not quite sure why its a problem to change the status quo?  What exactly is the point of keeping the old normal of commuting to an office 5 days a week?  From the perspective this article seems to be aimed at – the small business owner – it is really a business decision you are making.  Do you want happy engaged satisfied employees who are more productive?  Do you want to be able to draw from the largest talent pools – both in terms of locations and workstyles? Or is it more important to you to have all your staff in front of you? 

If you own the business – it is still your choice.  Although it is possible, in the future it won’t be – flexibility and options to work from home could well become legal rights for workers.  But as someone who has experience part time working within cultures where its only allowed because it had to be – if I was looking for a forward thinking flexible culture, I know I wouldn’t be choosing the company who were working more flexibly because they had to but the one who valued it.

According to the author of this article, study after study proves it all – it seems Leesman with its database of  over 150,000 responses must have got it wrong.  Instead lets rely on a survey of 2000 Americans, which again proves that working thru home in isolation during a pandemic is stressful, not that remote working is a failed experiment.  The other study refers to data from a 2017 study, which also isn’t a true reflection of what the future could hold.  Before the pandemic, working from home was not normalised in the way it is now.  Whilst some companies worked that way, it was the exception rather than the rule and those working remotely were isolated from those physically present.  The idea that we could achieve an equality of experience between the two and create a truly hybrid working culture was certainly not mainstream.

Whilst in many countries, remote working is still a requirement, here in Australia (and hopefully soon many more able to follow) it’s optional – offices have been gradually opening up again over some months and the “new normal” is now here.  This  kind of headline attracts the people who fit this demographic “older and set in their ways” –  who might be feeling  a bit defensive right now.  I’m really interested to try and understand these opinions.  I think its important to recognise that there are 2 groups here – some are employers and some are employees. The way I see it, for employees, this new normal  becomes another factor to take into account when choosing a new job, or if we stay in the old one.  For some people flexibility and the choice to work from home will be important, and for others it won’t be.

For employers, who are running the company, you can make your own choice so why is this discussion seeming to be such a defensive one? Perhaps again, it is not so much about the realities of working from home and remote teams, but about the stress of running a business during a pandemic and anxiety over lack of control and a lack of knowledge of just how to manage this new world of work. It is also true that many of the studies are focused on the outcome for employees and small businesses are less likely to have been as aware of research and understanding of employee satisfaction and engagement and also want to see the evidence of how this new way of working relates to their industry and their business. This research from Bastion Insights and Pitcher and Partners (although a small Australian sample size) is a really great starting point for comparing and understanding the viewpoints of employers as well as employees.

Finally, lets talk about innovation. The author claims “The model has proven to create more disruption, less productivity and diminished innovation.”  The one point I won’t dispute is the potential impacts of working from home on long term innovation.  However again, we have to consider than extended lock downs with no face to face contact, doesn’t reflect the more realistic new normal of hybrid working where teams connect in person on a more regular basis.  At this point, we don’t really have the data to know what the long term impacts on innovation might be – however I notice that most of the companies which had all / heavily remote cultures pre pandemic were tech companies – so maybe this is all the proof you need…

But either way I’d question if a company run by someone who proudly claimed to be “old school” was innovating anyway.

The biggest point is – it’s not either work from home or work from the office – the benefits are going to come from being able to offer a mix of both. And if you are an employer and you don’t think it works, you don’t have to do it – but maybe it is worth researching a little bit more widely and setting up your own experiment of hybrid – and you can see what might be possible. There is certainly plenty to read out there!

Ceilidh Higgins

PS. I know I haven’t mentioned learning by osmosis – I think that could be the topic of a whole blog itself!

Image: Windows on Unsplash