January 31, 2022
John Dujay

‘We don’t get all the cognitive stimulation and the social cues that our brain needs when we’re on a virtual meeting’

For all the talk of moving to a hybrid model, where employees work both from home and the office, one big question remains: How is this affecting their brain health?

Will it improve or degrade performance? And how can employers mitigate negative effects and seek to maximize positive ones?

From a brain-science perspective, there’s a lot of negatives, which is going to require some thoughtful planning as many organizations transition into a hybrid future, says Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science, a cognitive training company in San Francisco, Calif.

“A lot of us, particularly if we have some degree of extraversion, like to see people for eight hours in an office [but] why can’t we see people for eight hours on Zoom? The answer is for the brain, being in a virtual meeting is such a different perspective.”

One of the biggest issues is the nature of in-person meetings and how they are perceived by people, according to Mahncke, who has a PhD in neuroscience.

“We don’t get all the cognitive stimulation and the social cues that our brain needs when we’re on a virtual meeting. Being around a desk, I can look at someone, I turn my head, I literally shift my body; my whole brain reorients to pay attention to that person. I know when to do that because I get this complex sensory set of cues. And, of course, you lose most of that in a Zoom meeting.”

When the meetings are held entirely on video platforms, half the people are probably working on their email in their Zoom meeting, he says, “completely, cognitively disengaged in multitasking so [there are] tons of cons from a brain-health perspective about remote work.”

For some, the shift to working from home full-time is a godsend, especially when it comes to productivity, says Mahncke.

“As much as an extrovert might like coming to work and engaging and all that social stimulation, lots of people have jobs where they actually don’t want their coworker to lean over with a cup of coffee and ask him how the Mets did last night, they’re just trying to get their work done. A lot of people are saying, ‘This wasn’t a disaster that I can focus on my work for eight hours while I am at home. And it certainly wasn’t a disaster that I save two hours of commuting time.’ So with hybrid work, how can we capture as many of those pros work from a brain-health perspective and avoid as many of those cons as possible?”

Not everybody wants to work from home according to another expert, and some are craving a return to the workplace.

Planning and loosening the reins

To best optimize when and where the best work can be accomplished, weekly planning will have to be undertaken by HR, says Mahncke.

“We’re going to have to be a little bit more thoughtful and say, ‘Tuesday, we’re getting together to define our team sales goals for the next quarter,’ and then Wednesday, people should be wherever they feel like they need to be to be most productive. If we can start to think about this from a brain-health and a workplace-productivity perspective on a per-person, on a per-team basis, [it’s about] where do people need to have the highest cognitive performance and to have the most workplace productivity?”

Those employers that mandate certain days of the week when everybody must be in the office, with no regard for how teams do their best work, will be left behind in the talent race, he says.

“From an organization perspective, the hard work we have to do is to delegate that authority to team leaders and have them look on a monthly or quarterly basis: ‘I have a software team and I want everyone to be in the office one day a week’ and maybe ‘I have a sales team and they need to be in the office four days a week for the next three weeks.’”

Those leaders who crave seeing everybody in the office have to work on “loosening control,” says Mahncke.

“In most cases, the company runs the way the CEO likes his or her own life to run and most CEOs are extroverts. They’re people that want to be in the office five days a week and so then the CEO is saying that their software team: ‘You folks are going to be in the office five days a week’ and that’s going to be unproductive. CEOs and upper management need to figure out how to loosen the reins and the right way to let individual teams figure out what do they need to be most productive.”

The potential for inequities to develop between remote and in-person workers is a top concern for many executives, found one survey.