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Working From Home Has Changed Your Brain and Body. Here’s How.

The virtual workspace isn’t going away. Here’s how WFH is affecting us — and how these changes could reshape the workforce as we know it.

These days, we’re all processing the consequences of an indisputable fact: the pandemic has forever changed the way we work.

For many American workers, a day “at the office” is very different than it was two years ago. New habits, workflows, tools, and dynamics are effecting us, whether we realize it or not. Now, scientists and researchers who’ve studied our pandemic work patterns are beginning to draw some conclusions about these effects and their long-term implications.

Non-Stop Video Meetings = Brain Fatigue

What happens to your brain when you take non-stop video call meetings? To find out, Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab asked 14 participants to take part in video meetings while wearing EEG caps.

First, participants partook in four 30-minute back-to-back meetings, then in four 30-minute meetings with 10-minute breaks in between, during which they meditated using the Headspace app. The findings revealed that breaks between meetings was associated with lower levels of beta waves—indicators of stress—while stress levels spiked between back-to-back meetings, when workers scrambled to prepare for the next onslaught of check-ins, updates, and peer-to-peer discussion.

Taking breaks between calls also resulted in more frontal alpha asymmetry, which is associated with engagement and the desire to share information with peers

Longterm Effects

The study underscores what we already know: back-to-back digital meetings are unsustainable. An additional 2021 survey published by Microsoft revealed that 54% of respondents felt overworked, while 39% felt outright exhausted. Arguably, nonstop video meetings are increasing burnout rates and contributing to “TheBig Quit.”

To combat meeting exhaustion in the digitized workplace and retain critical talent, companies and employees should incorporate breaks between meetings as standard—and essential—practice.Most virtual conferencing software are equipped with tools that set scheduling defaults to shorten meetings, opening up “break” slots in between.

WFH = Sore Bodies

A recent survey from researchers in Naples, Italy found that 41% of work-from-home employees were experiencing lower back pain, along with a host of other musculoskeletal issues. “The home environment seems to be not adequate in the mobile worker population,” they wrote, “with an increased risk for mental health and musculoskeletal problems, particularly affecting the spine.”

It’s not just our musculoskeletal systems that suffer from a lack of work-from-home ergonomics. Staring at a screen can damage vision, and sitting for extended periods of time is known to cause blood clots in the legs. Another study by the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine found the majority of participants reported weight gain, in part due to increased junk food intake and less time spent outdoors.

Longterm Effects

Without distinct action, modern work-from-home conditions risk crippling workers worldwide. Offices should consider incorporating WFH benefits that offer employees ergonomic workspace options like standing desks and office chairs. Benefits like stipends for gym memberships or fitness classes also go a long way to help support employee health from home. And don’t forget those breaks: the American Optometric Association, for instance, recommends following the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, take a 20-second break to view something that’s 20 feet away.

Less Commuting = Readjusted Morning Routines

We’ve gotten used to rolling out of bed and beelining to the computer, or checking email on our phones before we even get out of bed. A lack of morning commute is a massive adjustment to a morning routine, and risks destroying an important part of the workday.

While it’s absence may feel like a huge blessing, the morning commute helps you wake up and offers an opportunity to reflect on your day before literally getting to work.

But not anymore. “We’re in this mode where the boundaries between work and home are dissolved and it’s all one big soup, which can lead to a constant state of part working, part taking care of personal life, part taking care of ourselves,” Charles Morris, a human resources director at Microsoft, recently said. Microsoft and other companies have created tools for a “virtual commute” that add tasks like “reflect”and suggestions for Headspace-guided meditation, in the hopes of again giving workers the ability to ease into the workday and decompress at the end of it.

Longterm Effects

The daily commute has always been a buffer between home and work life. Loss of it--along with other healthy routines and habits—are most certainly contributing to soaring rates of workplace burnout. A solution: employers should consider implementing “virtual commute” tools for staff—and workers should use them.

Less Interaction with Colleagues = Less Connection

Many workers have felt less connected to their colleagues during the pandemic, as work-from-home mandates meant the end of rituals like grabbing coffee together and chatting around the proverbial water cooler. Simply put, human connection contributes to happiness, and data shows that a lack of it in the workplace is impacting us for the worse.

A Microsoft study of its own employees during lockdown concluded that “the shift to remote work caused the formal business groups and informal communities within Microsoft to become less interconnected and more siloed.” Remote work caused collaboration across workgroups to decline. Furthermore, the study found mandated remote work caused work groups to focus inward, increasing connections only within their groups.Organizational structure suffered and became “less dynamic,” and employees added fewer new collaborators and shed fewer old ones. In short: no water cooler talk makes for a stagnant, lonely, non-collaborative workplace.

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