Brain health in the hybrid workplace model

'We don't get all the cognitive stimulation and the social cues that our brain needs when we’re on a virtual meeting'

Brain health in the hybrid workplace model

For all the talk of moving to a hybrid model, where employees work both from home and the office, one big question remains: how is this affecting their brain health?

Will it improve or degrade performance? And how can employers mitigate negative effects and seek to maximize positive ones?

From a brain-science perspective, there are a lot of negatives, which will require thoughtful planning as many organizations transition into a hybrid future, says Henry Mahncke, CEO of Posit Science, a cognitive training company in San Francisco, California.

“A lot of us, particularly if we have some degree of extraversion, like to see people for eight hours in an office [but] why can’t we see people for eight hours on Zoom? The answer is for the brain, being in a virtual meeting is such a different perspective.”

Can working from home actually improve your own mental health?

One of the biggest issues is the nature of in-person meetings and how they are perceived by people, according to Mahncke, who has a PhD in neuroscience.

“We don’t get all the cognitive stimulation and the social cues that our brain needs when we’re on a virtual meeting. Being around a desk, I can look at someone, I turn my head, I literally shift my body; my whole brain reorients to pay attention to that person. I know when to do that because I get this complex sensory set of cues. And, of course, you lose most of that in a Zoom meeting.”

Zoom fog

When the meetings are held entirely on video platforms, half the people are probably working on their email in their Zoom meeting, he says, “completely, cognitively disengaged in multitasking so [there are] tons of cons from a brain-health perspective about remote work.”

For some, the shift to working from home full time is a godsend, especially when it comes to productivity, says Mahncke.

“As much as an extrovert might like coming to work and engaging and all that social stimulation, lots of people have jobs where they actually don’t want their co-worker to lean over with a cup of coffee and ask him how the Mets did last night, they’re just trying to get their work done. A lot of people are saying, ‘This wasn’t a disaster that I can focus on my work for eight hours while I am at home. And it certainly wasn’t a disaster that I save two hours of commuting time’. So with hybrid work, how can we capture as many of those pros from a brain-health perspective and avoid as many of those cons as possible?”