7 min. read

Managing the cognitive and emotional aspects of working remotely

Reduce physical & operational distances to prepare for remote working to improve performance, motivation, & collaboration. Here’s the cognitive science approach to the mental processes of work from home.

We’ve taken care of all the things that we need to work from home – an adequate internet connection, a secluded space, calendars, meeting organizers, digital whiteboards, etc. – but a feeling of discomfort lingers on. Why?

We can walk out from a four hour face-to-face meeting with fantastic outcomes and a feeling of accomplishment, but when we attempt a four-hour video conference, it goes south real quick. Why?

The answers might lie in understanding the factors that guide cognition and emotions, especially when dramatic shifts occur in our primary, otherwise well-organized behaviors like work, for example.

Literature around remote-working usually revolves around three kinds of distances that have to be reckoned with –

  • Physical (place and time),
  • Operational (team sizes, bandwidth, skill levels) and
  • Affinity (softer, more behavioral factors like trust, values, co-operation, and reciprocity).

Organizations mostly tackle reducing physical and operational distances to ‘prepare’ for remote working; this is not nearly enough to guarantee performance, motivation and collaboration.

Reducing affinity distance is crucial to getting a handle on the above factors. Let’s look towards Cognitive Science to give us a handle on the working of some of our higher-order mental processes in the remote-working context.

Remote communication is a cognitive depletion abyss

Uncertainty – the price to pay for flexibility What companies could do
There are clear boundaries and expectations defined when we head into work every day – work begins when we step into our workplaces and ends when we walk out. Processes have been laid out, and norms already exist; we know what to expect – business hours, attire, meeting cadence, breaks, lunch, informal chats. With remote working, however, these norms are either vague or non-existent and are mostly left to the individual’s discretion. A quick walk across to a colleagues desk is replaced by decisions in the digital space – ‘should I call her, what if she’s busy?’, ‘should I write first, or schedule a calendar invite?’. This uncertainty, then, becomes the price we pay for flexibility, not to mention the significant strain it places on our cognitive resources. Set Defaults to manage uncertainty. Set expectations for work from home by creating defaults to manage all areas of uncertainty – a work from home dress code, working hours, lunch hours, when participants in a meeting are expected to turn on the video, when it’s okay to directly reach-out and call colleagues and when meetings ought to be set-up, whether it’s okay to take video meetings from different parts of the house, and so on. Open communication about factors like these will significantly ease the cognitive strain on employees.
Diffused attention What companies could do
Let’s talk about attention. Focusing on a call is hard enough, with the brain working overtime to complete any gaps and fill in missing emotional cues. To make things worse, the limited attention that is left is distributed between people and tasks at home – the brain prioritizing immediate and more proximal demands over remote ones (which, unfortunately, include the people on the other side of our digital meetings).
  • Acknowledge that people are working from home, with everyone at home.
  • As a general principle, it is better at this time to dial down communication, rather than dial it up – e.g. sending meeting invites over different channels of communication, because we want to ensure recipients see it.
  • Acknowledge, and work with the limited attention capacity – set default meeting times to 25 minutes rather than the regular hour.
  • Managers could ensure that there are participants at digital meetings, who track attention and interest levels and call for breaks when these levels wane.
  • Emails and notifications add to cognitive load. Institute a repository where employees could pull information when needed, rather than push all information (company news blasts, happenings, etc.) to employees during this time.
Intent mis-perception and breakdown in trust What companies could do
Lack of shared physical space and emotional cues mean that we are continuously tracking the intent of people we are digitally interacting with (‘she just put herself on mute, wonder what she’s doing?’, ‘why is his video not on?’). These moments of negative intent-perception and judgement, can immediately distract, and over time, lead to a breakdown of trust, which is extremely harmful for collaboration. Encourage Consistency & Honesty

  • Choose consistent modes of working – video on/off, mute on/off (when others are speaking).
  • Encourage honesty about distractions and deviations to expectations that have been set – excusing oneself before going off video, or walking around during a call.
  • Embed rituals to build collaboration and wipe the intent slate clean before meetings start – humor and informal chit-chat help.
Future interactions and belief updation What companies could do
A shared physical space (workspace, meeting room) is an equalizer, as opposed to a video call, for instance, which affords access to participants’ unique physical environments. As a result, a significant portion of our cognitive resources are deployed into belief updating (‘that looks like a nice clock behind him – must have been expensive, wonder where he got it’). The cognitive costs associated with belief updating are unavoidable – these are automatic processes, with resources being continually marshaled towards them. These beliefs also shape future interactions with colleagues and are not easily modified once they have been cemented. Ensure Stability

While it’s okay to be flexible about where in the house one can work and take meetings from, guidelines about these spaces could be established – a relatively neutral, non-stimuli-rich environment is ideal.

Negative outcome expectations and being ‘always on’ What companies could do
Another aspect of working remotely entails mentally calculating outcome probabilities (probabilities of certain events occurring, and the possible outcomes of those events) – ‘what if I’m at lunch and my boss calls – he’ll think I’m shirking work’, ‘what if I’m on a break and I miss something important.’ Expecting negative outcome probabilities could lead to coping mechanisms like being ‘always on’, leading to distortion of the already blurred lines between home and work.

Additionally, the commute home, which gives us time to wind down and switch modes, is also missing – exacerbating the ‘always on’ feeling.

Bracketing – work and not work

  • Companies should establish brackets for when work starts and ends – create artificial rituals around starting and ending work as real ones don’t exist. Communicate that when it’s not within the work brackets, it’s okay to say no.
  • Employees could mark out certain parts of the day so that meetings do not get scheduled
    • blocking times on the calendar for lunch, exercise and breaks with family is important.
  • Everyone working from home will mean an obvious increase in the number of meetings, and therefore, it’s also important to block-off time for actual work – a ‘no-meetings’ slot on the calendar
  • It’s important to switch-off for 2 mins on the hour, every hour, and reset – get a glass of water to drink, breathe a few times deeply, stare into space – basically, do nothing.

In a nutshell, working remotely really puts our limited resources to the test. Coping cognitively and emotionally is key to ensuring positive outcomes with the extended working from the home scenario that most of us across the globe are likely to face in the coming months.