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New neuroscience research debunks argument that remote employees can’t form strong connections with colleagues

A common refrain from CEOs who staunchly prefer in-person work is that employees cannot form the same connections or work experiences in a remote setting.

While Zoom fatigue is very real and remote workers are more prone to loneliness, recent research from the consulting firm Slalom’s HabLab and researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton Neuroscience Initiative finds that small tweaks in a virtual setting can boost employee engagement and productivity.

Slalom and Wharton researchers conducted various experiments while measuring the brain activity of more than 650 HabLab employees who participated in the research.

In one experiment, volunteer employees wore brain-monitoring headsets on days when they had at least three back-to-back meetings, each lasting 30 minutes or longer, and on days when they had the option to schedule at least a 10-minute break in between.

Employees’ brain activity showed signals associated with lower stress and creative thinking after taking 10-minute breaks.

“In back-to-back meetings, our brains get really tired, and the social brain network starts to slow down,” says Natalie Richardson, director of Slalom’s HabLab. “Our social skills are not as good, and the innovative and creative part of our brain starts to slow down. In order to get those parts of the brain up and moving again, we have to disconnect.”

During these breaks, employees disconnected from work entirely and partook in activities like going for a walk. In other words, sometimes it’s good to tell workers to touch grass.

Another experiment measured whether our brains treat work friendships the same as real-life friendships. Emulating a similar Dartmouth study finding that friends were more likely to exhibit similar brain activity than those who weren’t friends, HabLab employees were instructed to watch several videos while wearing headsets.

Employees who rated each other as close colleagues exhibited similar brain activity and felt similarly about the workplace. Of note, work friends in the study displayed similar brain activity both in person and virtually.

“We proved through our research that you can create virtual friendships that are just as strong in the brain as in-person friendships,” says Richardson. “I think that’s really encouraging for a lot of us who are part of virtual teams or virtual workplaces.”

But managers and leaders still have to put in the legwork to foster relationships digitally, such as carving out time before or after meetings to encourage small talk. Given the broader loneliness epidemic plaguing the U.S., employers have an opportunity to help workers fill that void.

“It encourages organizations to invest in connection and invest in employees getting the chance to connect. It’s not a moot point because they can’t be together in person,” says Richardson.

Paige McGlauflin
[email protected]

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