Remote work began as a Covid emergency measure but since the most immediate sacrifice was a twice daily commute nobody wanted anyway, it is here to stay. Slightly more than one in three US workers don’t have to go to the office at all anymore, and 58% can work from home at least one day per week, according to McKinsey & Company’s American Opportunity Survey. But just because there are few advocates for a return to the old status quo doesn’t mean remote work is without drawbacks, say communication expert and professor Dr. Diane Lennard and recognized psychiatrist Dr. Amy Mednick, authors of the new book Humanizing the Remote Experience through Leadership and Coaching: Strategies for Better Virtual Connections (Routledge; September 2, 2022). They remind us that the technical work arounds needed to support remote collaborative work are simply not the same as being present with other people.
Back-to-back Zoom calls and endless online work interactions are leaving people feeling disconnected from teammates and dreading their next online meetings. The authors point out that the human brain is simply not wired for flat, two-dimensional virtual settings. We’re built to connect in the real world, and when this need isn’t met, we inevitably become stressed, less focused, harder working, and burn out, perhaps without even realizing it.
We asked Diane Lennard and Amy Mednick about the problems with constant use of remote working tools and what can be done to humanize remote work.
Grit Daily: Are there inherent problems with remote work? If so, what are these problems?
Diane Lennard: Remote work has solved some human problems with more efficiency, access, and convenience. It also has created problems for us cognitively, socially, and emotionally. In our book, Humanizing the Remote Experience through Leadership and Coaching, Dr. Amy Mednick and I discuss five main challenges of working remotely: sustaining attention, understanding others, feeling a sense of belonging, controlling stress, and preventing burnout.
Sustaining attention: The human brain can attend to a finite number of things in the inner and outer world at any one time. Deciding what to pay attention to is a complex interplay of four selective attention processes — prioritizing what is relevant, ignoring what is not, switching from one focus of attention to another, and sustaining attention on one subject for a specific amount of time. Many people face attention challenges simply by being confined to a digital window.
Understanding others: The human brain is constantly processing incoming sensory information. It is wired to be able to understand other people. As social beings, we rely on verbal and nonverbal signals to convey messages and understand one another. Missed signals (such as eye contact, visible gestures and other body language) and distorted signals (such as poor video quality) in a flat, 2-dimensional remote environment can make it challenging to understand the complexity of our interactions with others.
Feeling a sense of belonging: Humans have an evolutionary need to belong to a community. Building social bonds and trust among group members is essential because it provides a sense of safety and comfort with others. When you are not working with others in the same physical space, it can be harder to build bonds and trusting relationships. An unsettled or discontent feeling can arise from the absence of an established place within a remote group or team.
Controlling stress: When the need for safety and comfort is not met in the remote environment, some people feel constantly on guard. A heightened state of physical alertness makes trying to work or focus highly demanding. When the need for understanding others is not met in virtual interactions, the brain has to do a lot more work to make predictions about people’s behavior. This causes mental fatigue. When the innate human need to belong to a group is not met, there can be a feeling of not being fully seen or heard. Over time, the fatigue and frustration that accumulate from failing to meet these basic human needs can take a heavy toll. Undergoing prolonged and excessive stress can cause some people to feel overwhelmed and unable to cope.
Preventing burnout: The unique demands of remote work can leave a person more vulnerable to a state of chronic stress that leads to the condition of burnout. Everyone experiencing burnout will have some combination of its three symptoms: exhaustion, detachment, and feelings of inefficacy. Burnout can happen in any work context but can be reached more quickly when working remotely.
Grit Daily: Zoom calls seem more tiring and mentally taxing than I remember in-person work conversations and meetings. Is that just my imagination, or is there a real reason for it?
Amy Mednick: No it’s not just your imagination, Zoom fatigue is real! What you’re feeling is the effect of asking your brain to work all day in a mode for which it is just not designed. As Diane mentioned, the human brain needs to use a lot of shortcuts and time savers when it comes to trying to understand other people and social situations. This evolved because otherwise it would be too energy intensive to navigate through the social world. Unfortunately these shortcuts tend to fall flat on Zoom. Cues we would typically use to make sense of things – body language, eye contact, sounds, position in a room, and so on – are either not available to the eye, or are distorted (think of a huge, looming face in the center of a screen). Also, those little things that went away with in-person work – the walk to the subway, running into someone at the water cooler, the small side-chats before a meeting – did serve a purpose and their absence is going to add up. Put it all together and you have a situation where you’re asking your brain to do a whole lot more, while giving it less information and less respite. That’s mentally taxing.
Grit Daily: Your book is about “humanizing” remote work. What are some of the techniques you advise?
Diane Lennard: We have identified easy-to-implement strategies supported by scientific research to humanize the remote experience.
Let’s start at the most basic, essential level with a focus on wellness. This refers to the presence of health in multiple aspects of your life, including: physical health (being free of or in control of illness, symptoms or pain); emotional health (using strengths and emotional responses to increase self-esteem, communicate effectively, and understand others); cognitive health (using your brain for thinking and learning); occupational health (gaining personal satisfaction through your work); social health (having satisfying relationships and contributing to others); and spiritual health (finding meaning in your life and maintaining a healthy outlook). The more you are fueled by these six types of health, the more energy you will have to face the inherent difficulties of remote work.
One of my favorite ways to relax (and stop “worrying” about stressors in my life) is to read fiction. Other people choose to write in their journals. Two additional mind-based techniques proven by researchers to lower stress levels and induce relaxation are naming your emotions and reframing situations. By naming emotions that are experienced in your body, you make them verbal. The naming process links the emotion in your body with a conscious experience in your rational brain—a feeling you can understand and talk about. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel refers to this process as “name it to tame it.” Reframing is a cognitive activity that involves changing how you view a particular situation or experience by looking at it from a different perspective. Changing your thoughts about something after looking at it through a different lens can change the way you feel about it.
It’s also really important to build social connections. Humans are social creatures. We are hard-wired to fulfill our roles as social creatures. Our brains allow us to function at our highest levels when our primary need for connecting with others is met. Belonging to a group enables people to feel contented and productive. Social connection can be achieved on a more regular basis by taking a human-centered approach to remote work. Meaningful, fulfilling social interactions are what satisfy the hunger for human connection.
Some suggested strategies to strengthen connections: get to know each other’s interests, preferences, skills and strengths; show empathy for others; create psychological safety; respect people’s time; communicate concisely and precisely; acknowledge good work; and provide productive feedback to support others.
An effective way to prevent the profound exhaustion that can lead to burnout is to have a deliberate and consistent transition out of work activity at the end of each day. Create and implement an end-of-workday ritual. Do the same set of actions for the ritual but make sure you perform them at the end of each workday. (The actions can be as simple as writing a to-do list, closing all the browser tabs, or cleaning out your inbox.) The ritual sends a signal to the brain to mentally disengage from work and begin to reenergize.
Research suggests that practicing small acts of kindness toward others can decrease feelings of disengagement and prevent detachment. There is a tendency to turn inward and focus on yourself when you feel alienated. Instead, by turning outward and focusing on others in small but meaningful ways, people can regain a feeling of connectedness. You can practice small acts of kindness by acknowledging another person and letting them know you appreciate them or complimenting team members on successfully completing a project. Complimenting, praising, or recognizing others increases your feelings of optimism, self-worth, and engagement.
Learning new skills during time off from work is one way to prevent feelings of inefficacy. Using time away from work to take on a new challenge can give you a sense of personal accomplishment and renewed feelings of efficacy. When you bring your attention back to work, you feel reenergized and ready to engage with the next challenge. You can also actively work with your hands to produce a tangible result. This can provide a sense of accomplishment from achieving a goal and counteracts feelings of inefficacy at work.
Grit Daily: For many years there has been a discussion about work-life balance and “managing” work related stress (which implicitly concedes that imbalance and stress just come with the job). Now there is a lot of discussion about the harms or relative shortcomings of remote work, which before the pandemic was often talked about as the solution for stress and finding balance. Should we just accept that having a job takes a toll, and the best we can do is sand off the roughest edges? At some point, doesn’t it just come down to suck it up?
Amy Mednick: Having a job can take a toll, but I don’t think it would be safe to ever concede that a job simply has to come at the expense of one’s mental health. I agree that we have an opportunity with remote work to help people get to that elusive goal of reducing stress and finding balance, and we discuss many ways to do that in our book. Because here’s the thing about stress: working under chronic stress doesn’t make for a good work product. The stress response exists to protect us by ensuring our chance of surviving a perceived threat. It’s like the burst of energy that a runner uses for a brief sprint: it can provide a brief period of increased focus, clarity, and energy, and can be helpful at focusing efforts on resolving a problem and getting things done. But it was never intended for long term use, just like no one can sprint long distances. Sprinters cross the finish line and then take some time to recover from the intense use of their muscles and lungs. In everyday life we rarely take that time to let the stress response resolve once we’ve tackled the initial problem. Instead we often let the stress response wear on and on as cortisol and adrenaline course through our veins. But after that initial helpful burst, it stops being productive. Prolonged, unresolved stress starts to be harmful to your overall health, resulting in worsened mental focus on top of other physical problems.
So to “suck it up” would not be to put the problems aside and just get the work done. The problems are going to infringe on and impede the work, because we aren’t robots. The work will actually be better if we don’t just sand off the edges, suck it up, and try to do it anyway. If we address the problems, the stress and the lack of balance, we’ll end up with a far higher quality of work along with happier workers.
Grit Daily: Are there any points you want to make that I have not brought up with my questions?
Amy Mednick: We acknowledge that remote work is here to stay, in some form, and that it brings with it some tremendous benefits. Our point is that if it must be done, let’s keep it humanized. We present concrete, actionable ways to appreciate the convenience and efficiency of remote work while still maintaining our human needs for connection.