The virtual workspace isn’t going away. Here’s how WFH is affecting our brains and bodies — and how these changes could reshape the workforce as we know it.
From 9 to 5, Monday through Friday and often beyond, we are all dealing with the consequences of a single fact: The pandemic has changed the way we work. For good.
We’re talking to you, work-from-home hero. We see you sitting at your desk by the kitchen, in the old chair crammed with pillows to support your back. You can’t close the door to your “office” and your calendar is jam-packed with back-to-back video meetings. You’re going out later with your friends or family — but you’ll probably check your email a few times from your phone at the restaurant, just in case.
For many American workers, a day “at the office” is significantly different than it was even two years ago, and these new habits, workflows, tools and dynamics of your day are having an effect on you, whether you realize it or not. And now, scientists and researchers who’ve been studying the way we work during the pandemic and beyond are beginning to draw some conclusions on these effects and their long-term implications.
What does it say? Well, that your brain and body have been changed — significantly — by modern virtual work. Whether it’s brain fatigue from those back-to-back meetings or even the effects of a commute-less day, we’re exploring how virtual work affects workers’ brains and bodies. And ultimately, what the long-term effects are for employers and businesses.
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.
To begin, the participants partook in four 30-minute back-to-back meetings. Then, they had four 30-minute meetings with 10-minute breaks in between, during which they meditated using the Headspace app. What they found is perhaps unsurprising: taking breaks between meetings was associated with lower levels of beta waves, which are indicative of stress, while back-to-back meetings caused beta waves to build up — you know, that wave of stressed-out exhaustion we’ve all felt before after a string of virtual meetings. Stress levels spiked between each back-to-back meeting, when workers were scrambling to prepare for their next onslaught of check-ins, updates, and peer-to-peer discussion.
Furthermore, taking breaks between calls showed more frontal alpha asymmetry, which is associated with engagement and even the desire to share information with peers.
This study tells us what we already know: that back-to-back digital meetings are unsustainable - an additional survey published by Microsoft in 2021 showed that 54% of respondents felt overworked, and 39% felt outright exhausted.
It’s likely that scheduling walls of video meetings are increasing rates of burnout and actively playing a role in “The Big Quit.” To combat meeting exhaustion in the modern digitized workplace, it’s important that companies and employees implement standardized breaks into their days. Workers can, and should, consider these breaks an essential part of their day — not just a happenstance or occasional treat. This can be done using tools, with which most virtual conferencing software are equipped, that set scheduling defaults to shorten meetings, opening up “break” slots in between. Companies that want to retain their best talent should consider practices that encourage, or even standardize, worker breaks between meetings. Their employees’ brains will thank them
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.”
And it’s not just our musculoskeletal systems that suffer from a lack of work-from-home ergonomics. Staring at a screen from too close can do damage to eyes, 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 that the majority of participants reported weight gain, in part due to increased junk food intake and less time spent outdoors.
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 money for gym memberships or yoga also go a long way to help support employee health from home. And don’t forget those breaks, which should become a regular part of every office’s work schedule. The American Optometric Association, for instance, recommends following the 20-20-20 rule: take a 20-second break to view something that’s 20 feet away every 20 minutes.
You’re not the only one who’s gotten used to rolling out of bed and walking straight to the computer to start work - or worse, checking email on your phone before you even get out of bed. A lack of morning commute is a massive adjustment to an employee’s morning routine and risks destroying an important part of the workday.
While it’s absence may feel like an extraordinary blessing, the morning commute helps you wake up, gets the juices flowing, and gives you an opportunity to experience some of your day before becoming a worker bee. It’s your life, then it’s work.
But with work-from-home and pandemic restrictions, that’s no longer the case. “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 giving back workers the ability to ease into the workday and decompress at the end of it.
It’s likely that workers see no commute as a benefit to working from home - let’s be honest, traffic is the worst - but the commute has always lent a buffer between home and work life. Decreased healthy routines and habits, even if it’s just getting up and moving your body on the way to work, are most certainly a part of increased workplace burnout, which is soaring to astronomical rates. Employers should look for “virtual commute” tools to lend their employees — and workers should use them.
Many workers felt less connected to their colleagues during the pandemic. Work-from-home cut out many of the simple things work enabled us to do together: stand by the watercooler, pull up a chair for lunch, or grab coffee. That human connection is an important part of what makes us humans happy. And if you worked at an office before, you may have felt that a lack of colleague interaction affects your work. During a meeting, or maybe just while bumping into each other, you might have mentioned a work problem that your colleague could help you with. Slack and Zoom can’t make up for that.
The data backs this up. 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 work groups 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 watercooler talk makes for a stagnant, lonely, non-collaborative workplace.
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