As Employees Return, Counter Work-From-Home Fatigue

Many organizations are adopting a hybrid way of working, giving employees more autonomy and flexibility around where or how they work.

By Karen Plum

Earlier this year, President Joe Biden expected that every adult in the United States would be vaccinated by June. And, the speed of the vaccine roll-out convinced around 40% of the employers that had switched to home working at the start of the pandemic to begin planning to reopen their offices. So, while a return to some sort of normality feels like it’s getting closer, organizations will miss an opportunity if they simply aim to recreate a pre-pandemic way of working. As we navigate new models of work, the focus should stay on employees’ well-being, mental health, and cognitive performance. After a year of lockdowns and a heavy dose of uncertainty, many people have felt isolated and unmotivated. For some, these feelings have developed into burnout.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The Motivational Struggle

Our understanding of neuroscience, specifically how the brain processes change, can help explain the pandemic’s drain on employee motivation. Consuming new information and forming new habits consumes a lot of cognitive energy because the brain works on a prediction loop. It goes through a process of predictive coding which is constantly building mental models of the world from context and memory. So, when we encounter something new, the brain works overtime to analyze the risks. It’s easy to see how our brains have processed all the uncertainty over this past year and why so many people are struggling. Anxiety about our safety and the health of loved ones, job security, distance from friends and colleagues have all contributed to that cognitive load.

Success With Science

To boost cognition, research suggests numerous ways that we can address the challenges of working from home and improving our work ethic so that our brains perform as we would wish. At my company, Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), we have identified various factors that managers can focus on which can improve the performance of teams.

Getting to know the people you work with helps create social cohesion, a proven benefit to team performance, virtual and otherwise. Active conversations, both professional and personal, directly counter feelings of isolation while also bringing the essence of the workplace back to employees’ lives through feelings of connection.

Additionally, our daily habits have a significant influence on our cognitive performance. Lack of sleep, not enough exercise, poor hydration, and unbalanced nutrition can all contribute to a negative work experience. As with working in the office, working from home can come with many distractions, whether that’s children running around the house or the disruptions of being in an environment our subconscious associates with leisure. As a result, it’s important to be mindful of the effects of distractions on performance and to tackle these by finding what works best, such as finding the best part of the home to do different tasks, doing the most challenging tasks when we are at our sharpest, and turning off tech alerts when we need to focus. Having manager support in flexing working practices around other challenges is also critical — something that was perhaps more evident earlier in this pandemic year than it is now.

The Bigger Picture

When the pandemic first struck, people put their heads down and pushed their productivity further than usual, often working longer hours to show they could function from home and had their colleagues’ back. Some have dubbed this “panic productivity”. A year later, however, lots of that initial energy has dissipated. There are many reports of employees hitting walls and losing patience with the crisis.

Here at AWA, many of the businesses we support have already recognized it’s not about just getting through this pandemic; it’s about seeking a better way of operating that may open up more opportunities. Adapting is the key to survival in today’s current climate.

The consensus is that having experienced some success with home working, most organizations will adopt a hybrid way of working, giving employees more autonomy and flexibility around where or how they work. This change is likely to create another layer of uncertainty that adds to employees’ cognitive load if organizations do not manage the transition appropriately. Social cohesion will also be at risk if colleagues are working in different locations, at different times, and in varying degrees of separation from managers and one another. At the same time, organizations will need to consider some lingering effects of the pandemic. Lots of employees will have hygiene anxiety, while others will struggle reorienting to the noisier, distracting office environment.

That said, employees have demonstrated their ability to work remotely and through adversity these past few months. Managers need to actively empower their staff to maintain that engagement and give them a greater sense of meaning and control, leading to improved cognitive performance. They need to be supportive of creativity and create room for failure. The key is to promote communication, honesty, and trust. This will bring teams together, inspire them, and empower them to build a strong, inclusive, and innovative culture.

Times of high stress can be an incredible trigger for growth and transformation. There is an opportunity to harness the skills that workers have developed during this period. But this potential needs to be effectively directed, and that’s where managers have a vital role. As organizations emerge from the pandemic world, it will become clear which have invested time and resources into their people. Those who have taken adversity as a chance to grow will lead the way in building back.

It’s not easy working remotely under lockdown circumstances and throughout the world, people are facing the same challenges. Change will always have an effect on our cognitive energy. Yet maintaining strong working relationships with colleagues and developing positive habits around sleep, exercise, nutrition, and hydration can make all the difference.

Plum is director of research & development at Advanced Workplace Associates (AWA), a workplace management consultancy that helps businesses spanning all sectors examine and change their approach to work and the workplace. Based in the UK, she specializes in understanding how organizations work, helping workplace leaders clarify how they would wish to change things in the future to the benefit of the organization and the individuals that work within it, and helping them to make the changes to reflect that new world.

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