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From Pause to Refresh - Prospering in the Digital Workplace

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As part of Finsbury’s Workforce Return programme, this webinar explored the neurological and behavioural impact of online working.

As little as three months ago, the world was seemingly on pause. Now it’s clear entire systems and processes underpinning the workplace are undergoing profound change.

To unpick the behavioural and neurological impact of COVID-19 on remote workforces, Louisa Moreton, Head of Finsbury’s UK Employee Communication and Change Practice, and SocialChorus hosted an online discussion with Lucas Millar, neuroscientist and lecturer at UC Berkeley, and Owain Service, former Deputy Director of the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office and a consultant with Finsbury. The full discussion can be found here, with highlights below.

What should business leaders be worrying about and thinking about when it comes to their newly online workforce?

Lucas: Trust. For humans, trust is paramount, like any other pack animal species. Oxytocin is the main neurochemical for building trust. This is often developed through touch, eye contact, or sharing personal information, which cannot happen easily in a digital environment. And the best way to build trust on a team is to promote psychological safety. We need to do an even better job at promoting a culture where people feel comfortable being wrong, with suggesting crazy ideas, and knowing that when they are given critical feedback, it’s not personal, it’s not an attack on their identity.

Owain: This goes beyond trust between individuals. Even in whole economies: studies consistently show strong correlations between levels of trust amongst a population, and GDP. Because trust lowers transaction costs; and encourages people to take risks. The same is true at the level of the firm, which you can think of as an institution built to encourage trust between individuals. And which lowers the psychological distance between individuals.

How do you maintain culture when everyone, or the majority, is working online?

Owain: Encourage a sense of belonging. Psychology literature suggests that a powerful way of encouraging belonging is to encourage positive, reciprocal interactions between members of a team or company. The most important thing in this area is to create reciprocity between individuals in relation to the goals an organisation has. One way in which this can be done right now is to get people to co-design how we would like to work post-Covid to create a shared sense of culture.

Lucas: There two types of meetings now – formal and virtual happy hours. Everything in the middle is gone. We need to move on from this and build every opportunity possible to get people working in the same room again and remove the typical hierarchal meeting dynamic – such as joint working sessions in real time. With so much physical distance, we have to take extreme measures to facilitate trust and intersperse the human experience we’re missing from the office. Talk about your kids, what your hobbies are – get more personal on calls. For new joiners, think about having a centralised place with a profile of everyone in the company.

How can we balance productivity and efficiency with good mental health practices? What behaviours help and hinder?

Lucas: We’ve gone from clear physical working boundaries to a world in which our brains are completely confused. If you’ve found it difficult to adjust to working from your kitchen table it’s ok – your brain is actually confused that it’s not at respite. While working remotely, you have to become the architect of new associations that serve you rather than ones you have no choice over.

Owain: Choice architecture is the notion that it’s difficult to change the approach or mindset of an individual to a task, but it’s easy to change the environment in which these decisions are taken. Apply simple rules of thumb to facilitate simple decision making. Doing this alongside a more strategic holistic approach could mean we fundamentally rework the world we work in. One of the most obvious ways is think about default settings in systems and processes you have in place, such as the 60-minute calendarisation of our lives. Never have a 60 minute meeting – force yourself to put breaks between meetings. And if you are having a meeting designed to generate new ideas, get people to generate ideas alone and then use a shorter meeting time to decide how to work with and move on the better ideas.

Lucas: Many companies need to do calendar cleanses. Really assess what’s in there and what should change. Do we really need 10 people on this recurring meeting? Does it really need to be an hour long? Turn off notifications and encourage people to intentionally check messages every two hours instead of real-time.

What is Zoom fatigue and how can people avoid it?

Lucas: Zoom fatigue is real. It’s more draining being on Zoom and trying to decode people on video than in person. It’s cognitively intensive and difficult. Choose a single person speaker view if you can or go audio only, especially if you have poor video quality. Studies have shown that delays negatively shape our views of people. Even delays of 1.2 seconds cause perception the person is less friendly or focused. If you can, take some calls outside or better yet, while you’re walking. Being outdoors is a highly effective cognitive reset. If you’re really struggling to process what’s being said close your eyes - the part of your brain responsible for vision takes up a huge amount of energy. The most powerful change by far? Turn off your self-view! This is completely unnatural and drains so much unnecessary cognitive energy. Imagine presenting during an in-person meeting, while also staring at yourself in a massive mirror in the same room. It’s a ridiculous visual, but most of us commit this exact mistake every day.

What practical actions can people take today to improve online working?

  • Switch off self-view whenever you are on a video, it’s unnatural to be in front of a mirror and it’s mentally exhausting. Encourage everyone on the call to do the same

  • If you’ve moved to video as the default, move some of your catch-up meetings back to phone/ audio. With people you already know well, this can be more effective and less draining

  • Reduce 60-minute meetings to 50 minutes or less to give breaks in the day and always plan meetings in advance to ensure they’re a good use of time

  • Find ways to grow culture as well as effectively deliver work, from a social chat at the start of a call, to in-person events (that may have to be outside the office)

  • Finally, start the conversation about what your new world of work looks like and focus on physical office space that is about people and culture more than delivery and day-to-day work

    Lucas Millar is a human performance researcher and lecturer at UC Berkeley.

    Owain Service is former Deputy Director of the Behavioural Insights Team at the Cabinet Office (UK) and Finsbury consultant.

    For more information, please contact Louisa Moreton, Head of Finsbury’s UK Employee Communication and Change Practice at