Remote working strains the brain more than old methods: Microsoft Study

By Rahul Vaimal, Associate Editor
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Software giant Microsoft has released several decisive outcomes from a recent study it had conducted on Remote working and its influence on the human brain. 

As part of its Work Trend Index, Microsoft combined insights from Microsoft’s own customer usage patterns, The Harris Poll survey conducted among 2000 remote workers across six countries and conclusions from over 30 research papers from Microsoft by using varied tools and methodologies not limited to surveys, interviews, diary studies, focus groups, and studies of the human brain.

The population reflected in the study consisted of information workers at small, medium and large enterprises and was not inclusive of the entire workforce.

Brain science suggests that remote work fatigue is real

Microsoft’s Human Factors Labs which studies how humans interact with technology ran an analysis on remote work experience which began Pre-COVID as part of an ongoing work in Microsoft to understand how the brain responds to collaborating remotely through computer screens compared to in person.

They asked 13 teams of two to complete similar tasks together – once in-person and once remotely. Research subjects were made to wear an EEG device that observed changes in brainwaves.

The study revealed that remote collaboration is more mentally challenging than in-person collaboration with brainwave patterns associated with stress and overwork showing higher activity when collaborating remotely than in-person.

Chemistry created during remote working doesn’t traverse to the physical work environment

The study also came up with something very unexpected as the pair that worked remotely found it difficult to work together in person after the experience. Somehow the social connection and work strategies build when working in-person transfers to a remote setting, but the opposite is untrue.

This study provided two valuable learnings;

  • In a world that fast-evolving into remote working, people are find ing remote collaboration more mentally challenging.
  • While returning to the conventional way of work is also going to be difficult than it did before COVID-19.

Video Meetings generated more fatigue 

A second study conducted by the team exhibited that brainwave markers associated with overwork and stress were higher in video meetings than non-meeting work like writing emails due to high levels of sustained concentration fatigue begins to set in 30-40 minutes into a meeting.

Studies revealed that in days filled with video meetings, stress begins to arise in at about two hours into the day. The research suggests several factors lead to this sense of meeting fatigue such as;

  • Having to focus continuously on the screen to extract relevant information and stay engaged
  • Reduced non-verbal cues that help you read the room or know whose turn it is to talk and
  • Screen sharing with very little view of the people you are interacting with.

Microsoft’s recommendations to ease the fatigue 

  • Take regular breaks every two hours to let your brain recharge
  • Limit meetings to 30 minutes
  • Break up long meetings with small breaks when possible.