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A Neuroscience Perspective on Returning to the Office or Working from Home

May 9, 2022

We often tend to think of things as zero-sum games or artificial binaries. In reality, it is rare to find an absolute where something is always X but never Y. This stays true for employees across the country who continue to adjust to what we know as “the new normal” and are weighing their options of continuing to work from home versus returning to the traditional office environment.

In fact, many employees are becoming reluctant to return, and from a neurological perspective that is no surprise. It takes about 18 months to create real neuroplastic change or form a habit, and after two years of dealing with COVID-19, which is where we are. Working from home is a deep-rooted skill for employees now, just like working in the office was.

It is important for employers to recognize that the same shock and challenge that the workforce faced when going remote will be repeated when returning to the office becomes the norm. This puts many business owners and operators in a difficult place. Is it time to encourage your team to return to the office or stay remote?

As mentioned, nothing is black and white, and it’s too simple to say that one way is superior to the other. To make an informed decision for your business, you need to consider the benefits that each side presents to get the most return and mitigate as much of the downside as possible.

Benefits of Returning to the Office

Fosters Collaboration – A study published by the Harvard Business Journal states that the time spent by managers and employees collaborating has increased by more than 50% over the past two decades. While that collaboration has led to business success, it’s important to note that much of it is organic, created through face-to-face interactions and overhearing conversations, not just scheduled meetings.

Sets Better Boundaries – People often use their commute time to prepare for or wind down from the day, enabling them to create stronger boundaries between inside and outside of the office. This practice takes some discipline and can be extremely helpful for improving work-life balance. While it’s easy to check a work email from home in your spare time after work, it can lead to lower happiness scores and even increased burnout.

Provides Variety – Humans love new and different things. Our brains crave novelty because it gives us a hit of dopamine and forces us to be more attentive. Changing scenery and new conversations with colleagues can encourage creativity and bring new ideas to the table.

Finds Better Structure – Variety hosts its own benefits to employees. It’s best when still balanced with finding structure in life. When working from the office, we typically dress a certain way, leave at a certain time or pack/plan our meals. Practicing everyday routines like these creates a more structured environment where we can better tune out the stress or distractions that we may leave at home.

Creates Stronger Connections – There are three types of connections we make with others: the first two being intimate and close friends/family and the third, equally important circle, which is often where our work colleagues live. It’s common for people who are friends with their coworkers to be more engaged and enjoy their jobs.

In-person time together strengthens these bonds even more through enthalpy. When you are within 10 feet of each other your neurobiology influences each other. We are more impacted by mirror neurons through facial regions when we can see each other eye to eye.

Benefits of Offering Remote Work

Offers Flexibility/Control – Working from home allows us the flexibility to map out our days in a way where we can run an errand, exercise or even work from our backyards. You can go as far to work in the room where the sun is rising in the morning and another as it sets to maximize your vitamin D intake. You can really control your environment, which is a powerful self-soothing mechanism, during a time when so much is unknown.

Promotes Healthier Well-Being – Research by Stanford University professor Nicholas Bloom shows remote workers were 13% more productive than on-premises counterparts. They were sick less, took less time off and had lower attrition rates.

We also have physical distance, and that can be translated into emotional distance. For instance, if I have a tough conversation with a challenging co-worker, I am also able to go and pet my dog versus having to continue to run into them in the hallway, which allows my cortisol levels to reduce and move on to the next meeting.

Promotes Asynchronous Work – While 50% of our work is collaborative, this means the other half isn’t. This asynchronous work can be done well and without interruption, particularly if you post in your messaging apps and block out your calendar. Working remotely gives you the liberty that no one will be posting outside your office waiting to ask if you have a minute. This allows us to be more present, focused and have the stage set to get into flow.

Provides Comfort – While working from our own homes, we can wear what we want, make our special morning drink (I like to hand whisk matcha in a matcha bowl), have the colors and space around us we’ve designed, and have the tangible items on our desk that bring us joy. The combinations of how we can feel more ourselves in our space are endless and allow us to bring more of our unique talents and strengths to the workplace.

Gives an Authentic Look at Our Colleagues – As the environment has changed, we have decided to orient ourselves differently. We’re no longer having the water-cooler conversations, but instead we are finding ways to get to know our colleagues by getting a look into their homes and noticing when their environment changes and/or a child or pet pops in. We are more authentically showing and in different ways, and it is forcing us to find ways to engage and learn about one another that in an in-person environment we may have taken for granted.

What is important is not where you do the work, rather, how you think about the place in which you will work. Much of the challenge when the workforce transitioned to a remote environment a few years ago was our own perceptions of how it wouldn’t work. At the same time, this is true for choosing to return to the traditional office environment. Our perspective and the intentional preparation around our physical surroundings matter more than the environment itself.

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Natalie M. McVeigh

Natalie McVeigh is a Managing Director in the Center for Individual and Organizational Performance and the Center for Family Business Excellence Group within the Private Client Services Group and has more than 10 years of experience as a consultant and coach.

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