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The COVID-19 crisis has changed teleworking. What should you be aware of looking toward the future?
Though teleworking began as a relatively niche activity, the COVID-19 crisis has changed this. Even in just the first wave of lockdowns, teleworking expanded from 16% of employees to 37% by April 2020. This included many countries that reached high levels of their full teleworking potential: 70% in France and 90% in Sweden.1
But how has this shift affected people? Is teleworking here to stay? There are key uncertainties—organizational, technological, and policy. There are also important human and brain-based factors to believe that the changes will be more profound, potentially undermining identity, disrupting social networks and communication, and reducing some types of creativity. This requires new social and emotional skills and flexible approaches to teleworking.
What people do becomes an intrinsic part of their identity and conditions the choices that they make. This was already observed by Epictetus when he said, “The individual reference looks to the occupation and will of each person. The lyre player is to act like a lyre player, the carpenter as a carpenter, the philosopher as a philosopher, the orator as an orator.”2 Neuroscience research suggests teleworking and distance learning have a significant impact on many identity and cognitive processes, including social and professional identity, leadership, intuition, mentoring, and creativity. This can erode corporate cultures and school communities.3
Humans evolved as social animals, and virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain. During in-person conversation, the brain focuses not just on words, but on a number of nonverbal cues (eg, hand gestures and other body language, minute facial gestures). Perceiving these is natural to most of us, but a video call impairs these abilities. The brain becomes “overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find.”4 This can have implications, particularly for hiring remotely and accessing emotional intelligence. Bacharach (1999) introduced the concept of “team reasoning,” which argues that people engaged together in a common task get utility from the collective result of their efforts, but for this to work, they must be together.5 It is not obvious that one can develop that spirit at a distance.
Psychological resilience is also key to absorbing and adapting to social and economic shocks. Brain health disorders account for more than $3 trillion of lost productivity every year.6 Brain health disorders have a global reach, impacting every human either directly or indirectly. In COVID-19 and similar pandemics, due to social and physical distancing, unemployment and underemployment, stress, and other factors, there have been significant increases in issues such as depression, anxiety, social isolation, substance abuse, loneliness, and cognitive decline in older adults.7-9 In addition, as observed after the SARS pandemic, it is expected that COVID-19 survivors may endure long-term cognitive and psychiatric consequences, including suicide, posttraumatic stress disorders, and depression.10
Teleworking works well for some and not others. While digital natives may do better with the technology of teleworking and operating platforms, older workers may struggle. The social environment and mental health implications differ—some people have more stress and less social interaction. Almost 90% of employers have noted concomitant declines in employee behavioral health and productivity during the pandemic.11 This suggests that a flexible approach to teleworking is needed.
Another way of framing the teleworking issue is to consider what it does for our brain capital. The New Approaches to Economic Challenges (NAEC) Initiative is working with the PRODEO Institute and various actors on a Neuroscience-informed Policy Initiative to develop the concept of Brain Capital, which considers brain skills and brain health as an indispensable part of the knowledge economy. The concept offers an approach for thinking about the economy and how it works in new ways. The initiative is laying some of the groundwork, looking at relevant metrics, and building up a network of interested actors in the medical field, neuroscience, philanthropy, and business. It is examining the application of ideas from neuroscience and medicine to economic and social policy, including topics such as productivity, gender equality, mental health, education, and others.
Teleworking usually involves jobs that demand cognitive, emotional, and social—not manual—skills. With increased automation, the global economy increasingly places a premium on cerebral, brain-based skills, such as self-control, emotional intelligence, creativity, compassion, altruism, systems thinking, collective intelligence, and cognitive flexibility. Does teleworking help or hinder brain health? Again, it is a case of teleworking affecting people in different ways. Some may feel anxiety about the social isolation and inability to turn off and maintain work-life balance—others may excel and be more productive for certain types of activities. Brain capital offers new ways of gauging the impact of teleworking and important scientific and behavioral aspects, which should be considered and even prioritized by policymakers.
Ms Smith is an Atlantic Fellow for Equity in Brain Health at the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) (at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) and Trinity College Dublin), a Thiel Fellow at Stanford University, and a steering committee member for the OECD-PRODEO Institute Neuroscience-inspired Policy Initiative (NIPI), which is supported by the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute (MMHPI). Dr Eyre is co-lead of OECD-PRODEO Institute NIPI, strategic advisor to the HEKA Fund (Newfund Capital and Fondation FondaMental), steering committee member for the Brain Health Nexus at Cohen Veterans Bioscience, and holds adjuncts roles with IMPACT at Deakin University, GBHI, and Baylor College of Medicine. Dr Hynes is head of the OECD New Approaches to Economic Challenges Unit, senior advisor to the OECD Secretary General.
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2. Epictetus. The Discourses of Epictetus. Everyman Paperbacks; 1995.
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11. Coe E, Enomoto K, Gupta A, Lewis R. National employer survey reveals behavioral health in a COVID-19 era as a major concern. McKinsey & Company. June 9, 2020. Accessed December 8, 2021. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/healthcare-systems-and-services/our-insights/national-employer-survey-reveals-behavioral-health-in-a-covid-19-era-as-a-major-concern#