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Working from home: overcoming its challenges with Behavioral Science

In the last year, our lives changed drastically and the workplace as we used to know it turned into our living room, kitchen and bedroom because of several lockdowns caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Although working from home has a lot of benefits, such as wearing pyjamas all day, waking up 5 minutes before our meetings and working directly from our couch, people face many challenges that have a negative impact on productivity and motivation to work.

Improving motivation and engagement

One of the main challenges that we have been facing throughout the pandemic is to keep physical distance from people that we were used to spending time with, such as during coffee or lunch breaks. Lacking social interactions on a daily basis has a negative impact on feelings of belonging to a social group and being part of a community. Therefore, it is important that companies apply strategies and insights from behavioural science to create a sense of community among their employees.

A simple way to do so is by focusing on employee’s experiences and shared identity. Virtual coffee or lunch breaks must be encouraged to keep people in touch with the colleagues they were used to spend their time with. Conversations about experiences and how everyone is dealing with difficulties should happen frequently to make people understand that their feelings and concerns are also shared by others.

Working from home might also make us feel that every day are the same, with the same routine and environment. To break this monotony, every employee could be assigned to a new role for a week: a happiness commissioner. This person would simply talk with everyone about anything they would like to talk about, promoting social interactions and sharing personal experiences.

Furthermore, it is also important to consider the power of feedback. As feedback increases engagement, employees should receive feedback specific to a task they performed and also how it could have been done more efficiently. It should also be giving as closer to the task as possible (Gupping, 2020).

Dealing with zoom fatigue

Since we’ve been working from home and relying only on virtual communications, you have probably felt drained after a few meetings over video calls. This sensation has been referred to as “zoom fatigue”: a feeling of exhaustion that video conferencing makes us feel. Even though being in a meeting requires paying attention and being focused, many aspects of visual communication in real life are lost over video calls, making it even harder and more demanding to concentrate. A lot of body language is lost because people are usually framed in their videos only over the shoulder. As a consequence, people have to be really focused on words.

Besides that, the only way we have to show that we are paying attention is to constantly look at the camera. This makes people aware of themselves through the small window that shows how they look and what they are doing. Since we’re not used to looking at ourselves during social interactions, we become highly aware of everything we do, from every expression to every wrinkle, worrying how others might interpret it. This constant awareness of our appearance overwhelms the brain with a lot of stimuli, hindering concentration and attention. This has an impact on decision-making processes because of the spotlight effect: people’s tendency to believe that they are being observed and noticed by others (Gilovich & Savitsky, 1999). Most adults feel more self-conscious on camera than in real life and research shows that people spend half of the time of a video call looking at themselves. Thus, this cognitive bias contributes to zoom fatigue, decreasing the performance of employees. Being aware of the spotlight effects might help reduce its negative impact because we become aware that probably everyone is feeling the same way and worrying about themselves. Also, one simple tip is to hide the window that shows our reflection during the video call. Most video conferencing platforms provide this option so make sure you use it to improve your engagement and attention span.

Another simple thing to do that might seem obvious but we usually forget is to take breaks. Taking a break between meetings, ideally away from screens, helps to recharge and refocus for the next one. Whenever possible, switch from video calls to meetings over the phone. It seems like meetings over video calls has become the default option and we feel obligated to always use that option. However, this can be invasive, intimate and draining so try to incorporate other ways to talk to people rather than video calls.

Contextual cues

As individuals, we are very influenced by the context of a specific situation, leading us to have many aspects and context-dependent roles. During the lockdown, our life was restricted to living indoors making us more vulnerable to experience negative feelings. To overcome this situation is essential to keep a routine that will help to have a sense of control and will bring a purpose to our day, providing some familiarity. Also, setting different places in the house to do different things adds a sense of variety and helps the brain to associate a specific task to a specific place, improving concentration and productivity. Using a desk in the living room to work, having lunch only at the kitchen’s table and talking to friends in the bedroom work as contextual cues that help the brain learn where to perform each task.

A lot of companies are considering keeping the option to work from home, even when the pandemic ends. This might impact levels of productivity and engagement of employees so research in this area is needed to provide companies with the best solutions to help keep their employees interested and motivated. Insights from behavioural science can improve the current situation by helping people face the challenges of this new reality.


Mariana Marques

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