Manage your schedule, increase communication and mitigate biases to help your brain in the virtual world, says Sue France

Virtual working, remote working from anywhere (working from home, flexible working, hybrid working, an internet café etc.), is here to stay. 

Some Assistants were already working remotely before the pandemic, but when it happened, many executives and Assistants had to work from home whether they wanted to or not. Many organisations will change the way they work going forward, having found that people were able to quickly adapt (due to neuroplasticity of the brain) and still be very productive. Organisations saved on overhead costs, utility costs etc. People also had less commute, more time in bed and more time with the family, all of which give a reward feeling in the brain. There are, however, upsides and downsides to everything.

Social pain is the same as physical pain

Your brain cannot differentiate between social pain and real pain. As human beings one of our basic needs is connectivity. So, the pain you may feel when disconnected from other people is social pain. We thrive on relatedness to people and when this is taken away and we are isolated, the area in the brain that lights up is the same area of the brain that lights up when you have been physically hit. 

The same social pain area is lit up even when you have been left out of a meeting or left off an email thread you thought you should have received, or not been contacted for a while or even just simply been ignored. So, it is like going to work feeling unwell. We cannot function at our best like this. 

Some key points to note whilst working virtually are:

1. Take care of yourself first

We all know that we need to put our own aeroplane oxygen mask on first before we can help others. To make sure our brains are working at their optimal state we must ensure that we are eating healthily, getting enough sleep, exercising, practicing mindfulness to calm our minds, taking brain breaks to reboot our brains throughout the day and making sure we have a distinction between work and home life.   

2. Connectivity and relatedness are extremely important 

When people are working from home connectivity is even more important, not only for keeping up to date and understanding expectations, but socially as well. Some organisations help deepen social connections by encouraging (and financing) events such as home-schooling groups, virtual lunches with the organisation paying for delivered take-aways, virtual exercise/yoga/mindfulness, games nights with quizzes and treasure hunts, all by using video conferencing tools such as Zoom, Teams, Skype, and Cisco WebEx.

This is also an opportunity for Assistants to step up, be creative and organise some online social events. This will help raise your profile in the organisation. For example, you could create and present an online lesson to a virtual class on how to create an ergonomic home office space to help prevent repetitive strain injury, back ache, neck ache and headaches. From that you could schedule one to one ergonomic assessment virtual ‘visits’ and meet more people. You could also teach ergonomic exercises at your desk. You may want to create working from home policies and guides if you don’t already have them. This would give you a sense of satisfaction and a reward feeling in your brain whilst helping others. 

In virtual meetings, it is highly recommended that everyone puts their camera on to be seen and to see each other, which satisfies our connectivity needs. We can learn to use visual cues, like nods and thumbs up or down, to speed up communication but we cannot read the body language as well as we do in person, so you may need to be more expressive than you would usually. 

Another opportunity for an Assistant to shine is to suggest that their executive regularly check in with the employees working remotely, not only for business but just to see how they are doing, positioning the executive as an inclusive and better leader.

Having shared goals that a team can focus on together is a powerful way to develop and grow relatedness. Having feelings of relatedness reduces the threat system in the brain, which means you are better able to work productively.

3. Mitigate uncertainty


Uncertainty is treated as a threat to the brain, meaning you cannot think well; your brain works better when it has some certainty.  

Ways to mitigate uncertainty include:

Build a scheduled routine into your day

This will help you and your brain adapt and settle more easily into the day. For example, start and end at the same time every day to fit in with your home schedule. This may mean taking 2-3 hours in the day for your home chores/children and continuing to work in the evening. This may even be preferential when accommodating working virtually with different time zones. Plan for whatever suits you and schedule it and agree this with your organisation. Having control of your own work schedule gives a reward feeling in the brain, making you able to work better.

Agree on a regular update communication time

Fix a regular time with both your executives and your colleagues as necessary, so you have certainty of a catch-up conversation so you all know what is expected of each other (whether this is email, texting, messaging, phone, Zoom, Skype, etc).  You should be scheduling communicating more than you would when working in the office, as you don’t have those incidental times that you would get working in the office. 

4. Biases and working virtually

Working virtually can suit many people and some will prefer to continue working from home or use hybrid working once the pandemic is over. One of the reasons we did not work virtually more before the pandemic is because of biases. We all have biases, as they’re brain’s way to conserve energy, and there are more than 150 of them! 

The brain uses prediction to determine whether we need to spend time and energy responding to any situation. If we have experienced a situation before, the brain predicts that the same outcome will happen. 

We can all recognise biases in others but rarely recognise them in ourselves. 

Here are just a few of the biases you may experience:  

Expedience bias

We prefer to act quickly rather than take time. A downside of that need is the tendency to rush to judgment without fully considering all the facts.  One of the effects of expedience bias is the unconscious decision to begin scheduling back-to-back meetings from the moment we start our workday and throughout the day. However, most of us do our best work and have our best ideas in the morning after a good night’s sleep. This is when we can focus and be highly productive individually and when the ‘executive’ part of the brain – the pre-frontal cortex – can think best. Therefore, to maximise your performance, work on those difficult, daunting and innovative projects when you are naturally able to do so and schedule virtual team meetings for later in the day. 

Safety bias

Executives are likely to focus on potential losses more than expected gains, such as the fear of people not pulling their weight when working from home. In fact, research shows in most situations, people work harder, longer and more effectively when they work virtually. 

To be at your most productive, remember that the brain works best by doing chunks of work for 25 minutes at a time; then take a break to reboot your brain. These can be 3-minute mindfulness breaks, or you could put the washing on, play with your dog or cat or make refreshments.  Make sure you take time away from your work desk to eat lunch. Make it a habit to have shorter virtual meetings, especially as there is much talk of ‘Zoom fatigue’, and have breaks between virtual meetings, giving yourself time to refocus; this goes for your executive’s calendar too.

Distance bias

Another consequence of virtual work is that it becomes easier to unintentionally exclude people. Distance bias is where we value what is closer in time and space more than what is further away. We must make a conscious effort to connect more often. If you’re not actively including, you’re probably accidentally excluding, which is likely to happen when people are out of sight and out of mind. When you feel excluded you have the threat feeling in your brain, which stops you from working effectively.

Hostile attribution bias

When teams work remotely, every blunt-sounding email (due to short sentences, no please or thank you, no hi or bye – just an instruction) makes us think the sender is angry or ignorant. Detecting the emotion behind an email or direct message can be difficult, especially if your knowledge of the sender’s personality is formed remotely instead of in person or you don’t know them very well. 

Summary

If we mitigate our biases, correctly manage the when, who, and how of virtual meetings, organise our schedule to align with our brain’s performance, communicate well and often and are inclusive of others, socialise online with creative ideas and take care of ourselves, it means stress can be decreased, productivity can increase, and organisational costs can decrease. 

People will be happier having more control and autonomy over their work schedule with the potential of a great work-home balance. 

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Sue France FCIPD FInstAM INLPTA is passionate about the development of all Assistants having been one for over 30 years and was The UK Times Crème/DHL PA of the Year. She was the training manager at a global firm, responsible for the development of 600 ... (Read More)

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