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

1 thought on “Has the pandemic rewired our brain and its relationship to work?

  1. Thanks for the thoughtful post on this Ceilidh. The links are really helpful.

    Boomer designer and teleworking pioneer here.

    Ultimately human interaction is not easy. It takes effort. Yes we are all different. We all perceive differently and we all process differently. That is what it means to be human. I am shy. I would prefer to not interact with other humans. But I have been around long enough to know that my life is better for having forced myself to interact.

    The Metaverse will solve all of these fussy human interaction issues anyway.
    I will be watching from the beach.

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