The Behavioral Science of Adjusting to Remote Work

You’ve probably noticed by now that things are a little bit… hectic. All across the world, people are making adjustments to their daily lives, including where and how they work, in response to the coronavirus. This is behavioral change on a massive scale, and behavioral science can offer insights into how to effectively manage your thoughts, feelings and behaviors to make your adjustments as smooth as possible. 

Remote Controls

For some, working remotely is nothing new. Technology enabling remote work has exploded in recent years, and we will all be relying on those innovations heavily in the weeks to come. But there’s a lot more to the experience of remote work than whether or not your video conference connection is solid. One of the biggest adjustments that many will face is the sudden lack of social connection. Aside from parenting and sleeping, there are few singular tasks that we spend as much of our time on as work, and as social creatures, people tend to use work as a source of social connectivity. Indeed, there’s ample evidence that better social connections at work lead to more engagement, less turnover, and higher productivity. 

So without the ease of chatting with coworkers at the proverbial water cooler, it is important to make time to connect with others. Video conferencing can be used to see friendly faces and connect over a cup of coffee just like you can do at the office. Teams and managers can schedule regular check-in calls and make a point to ask how everyone is doing personally beyond their to do list. And instant messaging apps like Slack, Skype and Microsoft Teams can be used to stay in contact and make us feel connected even if we’re physically isolated. 

Another big adjustment for many will be the newfound autonomy around work-life balance that comes with remote work. Without a commute, many people will suddenly find themselves with an extra hour or more each day. In the morning, it can be tempting to sit back, relax, and scroll through social media or turn on the news with that time. While that isn’t itself a bad thing, it’s important to not overdo it and end up relaxing right into your work schedule. 

One of the best ways to avoid this is to keep your normal morning routine. For example, if you normally wake up at 6:30, walk the dog, put on a pot of coffee, shower, and get dressed, the only thing that should change is getting dressed into comfortable sweatpants instead of a suit (but keep a professional shirt nearby for impromptu video conferences!). 

And the end of the day is no different – if you normally leave work at 5:00 pm, do you best to disconnect at your normal time. Overwork and burnout can be high among those who have trouble differentiating between their work time and their personal time when both happen in the same place. 

There’s also a lot of trust that is necessarily built in to remote work arrangements. In the office, it is easy to demonstrate that you’re working. When you’re at home without anyone around, that suddenly becomes more difficult. Working with your manager to come up with a communication plan around what you’re working on can help provide transparency to the arrangement and make everyone more comfortable. 

But there’s a balance here to be struck. If managers are checking via email, phone, or chat every 60 minutes to ask what an employee is doing, that can feel like micromanaging and hurt employees’ perceptions of trust and autonomy over their jobs. This can have a detrimental effect on the employee’s productivity and the social relationship between the employee and manager. In the other direction, it is important for employees to provide progress feedback on projects and goals so that managers feel informed and assured that everything is working as normal as possible.  

What Is Normal Now?

“As normal as possible,” however, may be trickier than it seems. Even under the best of circumstances, changing from in-office to remote work involves a ramp up period as workers adjust. There are several important considerations that become even more critical as we manage expectations and keep our productivity up. 

First are some potential effects our on performance. It is easy to end up multitasking when working from home. It may seem easy to fold laundry while answering email, but research has shown that humans are notoriously bad at multitasking. In short, all activities suffer if they’re not given the proper focus. While some of this may be unavoidable, such as childcare while schools and day cares are shut down, other things like chores and day time television can and should be managed.  

As remote work arrangements get started, you may also find yourself forgetting to do things that you normally have as part of this routine. You may also find it more difficult to recall information that you are sure you know like the back of your own hand. There are many things that are likely contributing to this, but one you may not realize is that memory is often context-dependent. We remember things better when we’re in the location (and emotional state) where they normally occur. Remove yourself from your office desk, and suddenly the daily check-in gets lost in the shuffle. Take time to focus on what your daily office routine is and write down all of those little tasks, even if they seem impossible to forget. Making a checklist of them will help you transfer that routine to your new environment. 

Deep Breaths

Finally, the current events are inarguably stressful, and stress takes up a LOT of energy. Behavioral scientists have shown many times that our mental resources are finite, just like the strength in our muscle, and stress can eat away at those resources in many ways, making us feel mentally, physically and emotionally drained. Ambiguity around how to best approach the new work set-up can make it more difficult to make decisions effectively; research has shown that people will choose an option with a more certain outcome, even if there’s a better option that has an unknown chance of working. 

There’s also the emotional labor that many of us are doing. Even if we don’t realize it, “putting on a happy face” is actually taxing on us (ask anyone who has worked in fast food or retail); if we’re doing this “surface acting” to reassure kids that everything is fine, or even trying to convince ourselves that everything is fine, that takes energy out of that finite pot of resources, leaving a little bit less for work. With these and other considerations taking up our energy, it becomes harder and harder to make rational decisions.

Under ideal circumstances, people rely heavily on how they feel about something rather than what they think about something when making a choice. Known as the Affect Heuristic, this becomes more common when our cognitive resources are low, leading us to rely on our emotional System 1 thinking that is faster and easier than our more rational but deliberate and tiring System 2 thinking. All of this means that it’s more important now than ever to take our time, focus on what we’re doing and think through our decisions to make sure that we’re not succumbing to being overloaded mentally and emotionally. 

There are many other behavioral science insights at play right now, such as the availability heuristic making us miscalculate the odds that something will occur or attentional bias making it difficult to focus when there is a large amount of information out there all around the same coronavirus topics. As such, it is important for each of us to keep in mind that we’re all in this together, with everyone experiencing similar stress, anxiety and adjustment. Making sure that we’re focusing on work when we need to be, resting and relaxing when we’re off the clock, and communicating frequently and openly with each other will ensure that we all get through this and come out as stronger businesses, professionals and people on the other side. 

If you’d like more information on working from home like a behavioral scientist, check out this recent blog post.