Have we established muscle memory around remote working and what impact does this have on us as individuals?

A number of us have been working remotely for the past 18 months. We often hear statements around how work has ‘shifted’. With that phrase comes the expectation that we’ve had plenty of time to adapt to this ‘new normal’ and should be working effectively and efficiently at this stage. Haven’t we all become used to this way of working?

There is a perception that remote working is now an established norm, but it isn’t. Our working environment is still in constant flux. It is still shifting. It will still be shifting for a few years yet – until we become more certain around how to manage this epidemic. Even then, it will take another 5-10 years before we establish and start entrenching specific workplace norms in line with variations of hybrid working practices.

When it comes to our everyday functioning and adapting, the processing part of our brain has limited ability to process conscious, intentional activities. Every time something changes in our environment and how we do things, we have to adapt and readapt. Think about when you start a new role or take up a new hobby, we have to really think about what we are doing until it becomes a habit. Then we do a lot of it without thinking. It becomes automated behaviour.

However, things have been in constant shift and flux since March 2020. Our children are at home schooling. They are at school. It’s term time and lateral flow tests. They’re on summer holiday. Do they need masks or don’t they? Do I have enough tests in the house or do I need more? Am I going into the office this week or working from home? Do we still need to keep 2 meters apart? Why are they (not) wearing a mask? Should I elbow bump, or can I shake hands with them? Is that meeting in Zoom, Teams or Google Meet? Where was that link? What day am I in the office this week again? My programme doesn’t seem to be working, where did I write down how to fix it? What’s the name of that new IT person again?

We continuously absorb sensory information through all 5 of our senses. Our working-memory has to work hard to filter out a lot of that information, while simultaneously processing our thoughts, actions and behaviour. We cope best when we are able to automate a large portion of the behaviour we do every day. From making hot drinks, to driving our car, to finding our way to the office/home, to most of life’s ‘little things’ that we don’t give much daily thought to. If these things shift, we have to consciously think through how to perform and execute them effectively. This takes up substantial cognitive effort and can lead to cognitive exhaustion if we aren’t able to automate much of our daily behaviour.

Although we have indeed already built up some normative practices around remote working, each shift that we have to do requires us to extend higher levels of cognitive effort that takes ‘processing power’ that otherwise could be used to fulfil ‘deeper work’. To get into the flow that allows us to be productive, acquire any new skills or think deeply about our work, we need to have a lot of our day-to-day behaviour shifted into automatic functioning. This is the reason we develop habits and routines, it is also why we allocate spaces in our house (or our desk) for specific objects. It means they are easier to find, and we don’t need substantial cognitive effort to locate them.

We get stressed when things are different, or we have to think consciously about a particular process. Just think about how stressed you can get when you can’t find something you are looking for (especially if they aren’t in their normal place). Every time we ask people to shift how they do things, increases their levels of non-automatic behaviour and raises stress levels. It is cognitively exhausting to be regularly stressed in this way and when the majority of our behaviour isn’t given time to become automated.

So, all of this shifting, shifting and shifting that is constantly happening around our ways of working, and the continuous need to adapt to workplace norms, means we have to think so much harder about things that should otherwise be automated behaviour. It leaves us with less cognitive energy and capacity to focus on our ‘real work’ and to think deeply about the problems and issues we have to resolve. These extra cognitive thinking efforts and additional stress from shifting workplace norms, reduces our ability to be vigilant and spot errors in our work and fraudulent emails. Things we would otherwise have spotted, because we have the cognitive thinking-space to do so, we are a lot less vigilant about.

This is one of the reasons why we are generally experiencing higher levels of cyber scams and those who may otherwise be super-vigilant, are less able to do so. It’s not just that our home-based online security is at lower levels than we’d have in the workplace. It’s that our general cognitive ability to spot and correctly respond to phishing emails and scams is substantially compromised by how much harder we are having to think and adapt to our daily workplace and homebased shifting demands.  

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