Is remote working damaging our adaptability to change? Anyone who has studied neuroscience will quickly tell you that multiple studies have shown that loneliness and social isolation can harm our ability to learn and adapt.

In humans, our cognitive function becomes impaired when some brain regions shrink – namely, the pre-fontal cortex and hippocampus. If left unchecked, long term impacts to cognitive function, including learning and memory, can result. We can also experience this as difficulty concentrating.

Think back: what was work like when you first started? What did you expect from work, and what did your employer expect of you? What tools and equipment did you have to do your job? How did you and your team communicate with each other?

Casting our mind back even 12 months shows some of the differences in answer to these questions. Going back 10 or 20 years likely increases this to an almost absurd level. The pace of change around us is (and perhaps has been for some time) right at the edges of what we can adsorb, and the results of not keeping up with this can make or break organisations. 

Part of helping people accept and actively support change requires those leading it to understand how our brains perceive change. Two key points to always bear in mind when thinking about this is that our brains are not designed for the modern workplace, and they do not like change. 

People generally feel most comfortable with a level of predictability in the world around them, and any change can throw this off for us. Adapting along with that takes cognitive effort – something we’re resourced to use only sparingly when we have little choice. And our ability to support this is routed in the brain functions that can become degraded through long-term isolation. 

For many organisations, the collective brainpower of their people is how they exist. Individuals and teams and how they interact and move through change can make the difference between success and failure, innovation and stagnation. Managing this and working with people to create the conditions for them to perform during stress means working with arousal.

The graph above is taken from the work of Yerkes-Dodson and is called the Inverted U of performance. In this, we can see that we reach peak performance when we are stimulated to the right level – meaning that when leading to implementing change, we need to manage this for the people involved to support them in performing at their best during the process. 

Now, consider this for a moment longer. 18-months ago (pre-pandemic), the level of arousal we could tolerate was further to the right. The accumulated stresses and strains of the last 12-months mean that many of us have lost some of the social connectivity we drew on to support us, in addition to having our surge capacity depleted over the same period. When looked at together, these impacts result in reducing our ability to absorb and adapt to change. 

Is remote working is damaging our adaptability to change? Probably, so what can we do about this?

The need for change is not going to go anywhere. In fact, in many organisations, it is now higher than it ever has been. That means that we need to find a way to support our brains through the process if we’re to bring people along with shifts in direction. 

1. Focus on achievable, short-term goals

If people are struggling, break things down for them. Strop talking about large-scale change over months or years and start talking about next week. Achieving a goal activates dopamine and gives us a little pleasure rush, helping us stay positive and focussed. Make sure that the path towards the change you are looking to achieve is littered with opportunities for those involved to feel this. 

2. Remind people of everything they have already achieved

We tend to focus on the hilltop in front of us during any project or programme of work. This orienting on all the things that haven’t been done yet can sap anyone’s willpower. This is compounded if someone is struggling with loneliness, isolation or an unpredictable situation. Asking people to tell you about times when they have overcome similar things in the past helps build the belief that they can deal with what is in front of them. This sounds too simple to work, but trust me – it does.

3. Be generous with praise and recognition

Rewarding people when they exhibit behaviour they should repeat is common sense. But we need to be careful how we use reward in this way, ensuring we attach it to the right things (i.e. when it is genuinely earned and not asked for as part of a craving for validation). Again, the impact here is on our dopamine levels, and something to bear in mind is that unexpected rewards generate even more dopamine, so they are even better. 

4. A little kindness, compassion or humour can go a long way

A small act of kindness or compassion is not only contagious – studies show that those receiving them are more likely to do the same for others and act to create a sense of safety. Feeling safe is central to lowering our arousal level when it gets too high, and creating this environment through a change you are making will go a long way to creating the conditions for people to come along with you.

5. Provide information

During uncertainty, our brain’s goal is survival, and one of the ways we do this is in assessing data to make predictions. Making sure that you communicate clearly, consistently and openly right through any change you are looking to create will add hugely to the ability of those involved to make sense of what they are being asked to do and come along with that.

So, in conclusion, is remote working is damaging our adaptability to change? Probably, but there are things we can do about it.

To read more about this, why not download my e-book on successfully leading change 

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