The Neuroscience of Work in a Remote Environment

We cannot deny that COVID has transformed work permanently. A lifetime of change has been forced upon every individual, and every organization, within the span of two years. Digital transformation is no longer just a buzz word; it is a requirement for survival! Everyone of us is trying to adapt and embrace the change, but what about the long-term effects? What are the best strategies to cope and thrive in this new environment?

I had an opportunity to sit down and talk with Dr. Noel Amaladoss, a leading psychiatrist and assistant professor of Behavioral Neurosciences at McMaster University in Canada. He specializes in conditions such as ADHD, anxiety, and the intersection of mental health and technology; giving him a unique perspective about this topic.

The objective of this article is to help you understand the impact of remote work on stress and how it contributes to attention deficit disorders. It will also outline some simple strategies, that can help both leaders and employees of organizations, to mitigate these factors. In addition, I want to educate you on the ways emerging technologies can be harnessed to dramatically improved engagement in a remote meeting environment.


The New Normal

Here is some hard data to consider. Within the span of two years, remote work has transformed every type of business in the world. Before COVID, only 5% of employees worked from home for an average of three days a week. A very small segment of the population was truly remote full-time. As of April 2020, 37% of the workforce is fully remote. More and more organizations are allowing employees to move to a permanent remote full-time job. A recent survey of US workers revealed that 54% would leave their current job for a remote work option.

However, there are a lot of drawbacks to this approach. Anxiety and stress, as well as feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness are also on the rise. Another recent survey revealed that 46% of workers in the UK experienced loneliness while working from home.

Pandemic Versus Syndemic

There is a term that epidemiologists use to describe the current situation. It is not just a pandemic, but it is a syndemic. A syndemic is a confluence of pandemics that disrupt the fabric of everyday life. As an example, the COVID syndemic is not just the viral pandemic but it is also a pandemic of job losses, mental health issues and other socio-economic factors.

Within the span of two years, not only have we witnessed millions of people losing their lives, four out of ten people in the United States have reported significant loss of income and job losses. In addition, there is a mental health pandemic where tens of millions of people are struggling with anxiety, stress, insomnia and even depression.

One of the most profound impacts of this syndemic is related to loneliness. Either due to our lockdown separation from family and friends or due to detachment from remote workers, this loneliness impacts every business and employee.


Challenges with WFH

Yes, there are many benefits that can be attributed to remote work. But a lot of us are forgetting the challenges. Lack of boundaries, inability to focus, the procrastination and the anxiety of missing something or standing out for the next promotion. Physics says that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Meaning there are a lot of reactions that we are not considering.

Remote work is based on our ability to video conference. Due to the pandemic, most video conferencing platforms saw a dramatic rise in utilization with an increase of over 250% from the previous year alone.

Many different papers have been published on the effect of screens and our ability to learn and focus. Research has shown that digital screens are inherently more distracting. When we compare how our brains learn from reading a book or an e-book, the research shows that our brains process information differently.

“The possibility that digital environments are inherently more distracting with scrolling and other aspects of the digital experiences taking away cues and critical cognitive processing capacity from the task of comprehending the material.”

This means that how we interact and learn using digital data is different and less effective than the old way of doing things. We have a harder time focusing and we must spend more effort to concentrate and not get distracted.

There are solutions to this issue. The correct combination of technologies can dramatically help improve focus and foster engagement that results in better retention of information. The table below shows the statistical measure of the effect of various remote work technologies on long term learning and retention of information. The effect size is simply the effectiveness of a specific technique or combination of technologies. The higher the effect size, the greater the impact.

In general, effect sizes greater than 0.5 are considered very effective and lower numbers are not effective.


There are two things that jump out from the table above. One is the variance. Depending on the type of technology used, the spread is very large, from -0.02 to 0.78. The other is how ineffective tools like email, chat and passive video conferences really are. Passive video conference calls have a negative effect size, suggesting that people are unlearning! But there is hope as video conferences paired with shared experiences can be very powerful tools. Which can be very effective at fostering engagement and long-term retention of data.


Understanding Executive Function

To really understand learning, we really must dive into executive function and how our brain processes information. Our brain breaks down information and processes it on many different levels. Here is a high-level flow chart that describes this process.


For our brain to prioritize a meeting and decide to index new information into long-term memory several things must happen. Recognizing this process, as remote presenters, is crucial. Otherwise, we are just wasting time in endless virtual meetings where everyone forgets what we just said!

First, we must help our audiences focus and pay attention. They need to shift their attention to the information being presented. Next, we need to convince their brains to expend effort so processing of information can occur. Emotion is critical to help reinforce the importance of the information being presented.

Getting our audiences to not only focus but expend effort and emotionally connect with our presentations during an online sales meeting can be a tough challenge!


Our Remote Meetings Are Like Cocktail Parties

You might not realize it, but it is not just presenters that are under stress during remote meetings, but our audiences are also under stress. In the book, “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”, author Nicholas Carr argues that a chronic state of distraction follows us from meeting to meeting. We have created an environment with low engagement that fosters multitasking and a lack of attention for the topic at hand. Our online meeting time is crowding out the time better spent in prolonged, focused concentration about a specific topic.

All this multitasking and lack of attention creates the “cocktail party effect”. We all get together and mingle but really don’t get much depth out of our interactions. We might meet someone ten times in different cocktail parties but struggle to remember their names or what they do. We have a difficult time creating meaningful engagements if we are always just attending cocktail parties. That is not how long-term relationships are forged.

None of us have ever been taught how to present and convey information effectively in a remote meeting environment. We tend to cram a lot of data into a slide deck and monotonously present this in a manner that lacks any type of visual stimulus. This stresses the ability of our audience to focus and retain information and bores them into multitasking and focusing on other tasks.

When our audiences multitask, their efficiency can drop by 40% according to leading researchers. In addition, it can take an average of 15 minutes for them to re-orient to the primary task after being distracted. Not everyone can handle distractions as well as others.


Mitigation Strategies

There are several ways we can break free from this cycle and engage our audiences. These simple tricks will help you stand out as a presenter and help your audiences remember what you said.


Take breaks between meetings

Even a five-minute break can dramatically improve your cognitive ability to focus and pay attention. According to Microsoft human factors lab, taking a short time-out between video calls can be very effective against stress build up.

If you as a host take a break, you will be able to engage your audiences more effectively. If your participants take a short break, they will be more receptive and open to being engaged.


Be Situationally Aware

As a presenter you need to help your audiences build awareness. You must brin context to the information being presented and show why it is important for them to pay attention. This also means that you must be able to read their body language and understand how they are reacting to your content and be ready to pivot quickly to maintain engagement.


Understand the Importance of the Narrative

Our cognitive functions are optimized to learn a small number of items at a time. Most of us struggle to maintain the resolution of information when bombarded with a lot of disconnected information. Best practices suggest that you, as a presenter, need to leverage the concept of chunking to break down your presentation into small chucks and associate these chunks through a narrative. Using narrative can dramatically improve focus and help with the retention of information. Research has shown that you should limit the number of chunks to 4 +/- 1. This means that most of us resonate to 3-5 pieces of new information in each meeting.


Remote Meeting Technology Strategies

There are a lot of tools out there that can help make it easier for you to create a memorable meeting experience that fosters engagement and makes your audience feel more connected with you. Reactiv SUITE is designed with the principles of neuroscience and can dramatically help your presentation to stand out in the remote meeting world of #zoomfatigue.


Your Deck is a Visual Aid

We realized that people want to feel like they are talking to other people. Our remote audiences don’t get as disconnected or disengaged when they feel like there is a real person on the other side of the video conference call. Most video conferencing apps do a horrible job of prioritizing us as presenters. They allow the slide deck to fully take over and minimize our executive presence; we just become a tiny thumbnail somewhere on the screen.

Reactiv SUITE is designed to elevate your remote executive presence as you are more important that your content. Easily pin your camera, resize your image with respect to your content and make sure that you stand out.


Help Your Audience Focus

Managing situational awareness can be as simple as drawing attention to a specific concept by circling it or highlighting it. You need to create a constant stream of visual stimulus that allows your audience to maintain focus. The simple act of writing down a question on a whiteboard or mark down a comment into a document, can help your audience members stay alert and foster further engagement.


Conversations Are Non-Linear

Would you rather have a conversation or present? Conversations allow our remote participants to feel part of the meeting and allow them to be more focused and engaged. But if you have a linear slide deck that is rigid, how can you foster conversation? By its very definition conversations are non-linear and unpredictable. This means that you must be able to pivot and show anything that you want. A video? A client testimonial? A dashboard or a report? Reactiv SUITE allows you to quickly bring up any type of information and quickly draw attention to various facts and figures.


Make People Feel Like They Are in the Same Room

At the end of the day, people want to connect with other people, and they want to be part of a conversation. Every remote meeting platform does the exact opposite. If you can increase the interaction and engagement in your next remote meeting, you will see dramatic improvements. Try out Reactiv SUITE for free and see how it can transform your remote interactions.

If your present, teach or coach..

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