Remote work, and those too many dark sides for health

Remote work, and those too many dark sides for health

Erika Meins of ETH's Mobiliar Lab for Analytics discusses why returning to the office is good for performance and well-being

Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think
Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think

Erika Meins, political scientist and director of the Mobiliar Lab for Analytics at ETH Zurich, with the collaboration of psychologist and PhD student Jasmine Kerr, explains the scientific reasons behind why returning to the office is good for our performance and improves our well-being .

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Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think
Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think

Exhausted, lost and "emptied" after home working

Perhaps this has happened to you: you've had a hectic day at work, tackling countless issues all at once and juggling emails, chats and video calls with your colleagues.
But instead of feeling fulfilled after a busy day at the… virtual office, sometimes you just feel exhausted, lost and “drained”.
At the same time, digital technologies have been a blessing, allowing you to work and interact with any location in the world.
In many places, this has allowed people to continue to work seamlessly from home during the pandemic: despite physical distance, we have been able to work on documents at the same time as our colleagues or write on digital whiteboards at the same times during virtual workshops.
However, the pandemic has clearly shown us the limits of regular remote work.
In addition to physical exhaustion and emotional emptiness, many people experience a loss of sense of space and time.
Kitchens have become cafés, sofas serve as spaces for both work and play, and the lines between yesterday, today and tomorrow have become increasingly blurred.
There are several empirical explanations for why this happens.

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The sense of space and time can get lost in the home office (Photo Gian Klain)
The sense of space and time can get lost in the home office (Photo Gian Klain)

That “lost” sense of space and time

The sense of space and time can literally go astray with the home office.
First, there is now a good body of research and study on the phenomenon of video-induced burnout, known as “Zoom Fatigue”.
Virtual meetings require more cognitive effort, caused by micro-gaps in the video stream, loss of social elements, and uninterrupted periods of screen staring.
Our brains simply require more energy to process information in video conferencing, which leads us to physical exhaustion. This makes it even more important to take breaks during and between video meetings.

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Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think
Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think

Multitasking is really just an illusion

At the same time, distractions become more enticing.
Who hasn't answered emails or checked notifications on their phone during one of the countless virtual meetings held over the past two years? But multitasking is actually an illusion.
There is no possibility of working on several tasks at the same time: what is called multitasking is actually a series of micro interruptions.
Paradoxically, this reduces our ability to switch from one task to another and causes a significant reduction in our attention span and performance quality.
To counteract this, we may turn off notifications for email and other apps, and close programs that aren't usually in use.

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The human eye collects the light that comes from the environment, regulates its intensity through a diaphragm (the iris) and focuses it through an adjustable system of lenses to form an image on the retina: the latter is transformed into a series of electrical signals which, via the optic nerve, are sent to the brain for processing and interpretation
The human eye collects the light that comes from the environment, regulates its intensity through a diaphragm (the iris) and focuses it through an adjustable system of lenses to form an image on the retina: the latter is transformed into a series of electrical signals which, via the optic nerve, are sent to the brain for processing and interpretation

The pernicious lack of sensory stimulation

Cutting out the commute and other small daily actions like changing room for meetings adds up to an overall loss of visual and auditory stimuli and other sensory prods.
This lack of variable sensory input, coupled with the loss of physical movement, can contribute to a feeling of disorientation and impair our cognitive performance.
This may explain why days blend into each other when working from home and why we may have to struggle with ourselves to remember who said what in one of our countless virtual meetings.

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People together in the Metaverse thanks to their headsets
People together in the Metaverse thanks to their headsets

A different brain processing "for reality"

Recent neuroscience studies also show that our brains process information differently depending on whether objects are physical or virtual.
Different regions of the brain are activated depending on whether we focus on an object in physical reality or in virtual space.
However, science is not yet able to say what kind of actual impact this has on our performance and well-being.
It is clear, however, that these questions will only grow in importance, especially with the increasing use of immersive frontier technologies such as the Metaverse.

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Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think
Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think

From social connection to quality of life

Ultimately, the disappearance of personal interaction in the workplace can have a negative impact on our well-being, and digital contact can only compensate for this loss to a limited extent.
Social contact is essential for our mental and physical health, although the exact needs vary between individuals.
It has been shown that social contact between people and in person has a calming and regulating effect on the nervous system and helps reduce stress.
New studies also suggest that, of all the types of communication used during lockdown, face-to-face interaction has had the most positive and lasting effect on our well-being.
This is also true for feelings of social connectedness between co-workers: Face-to-face interaction stimulated these feelings the most, followed by video calls and phone conversations and, at the lower end of the spectrum, text messaging.

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Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think
Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think

A "hybrid" but responsible and humane world

This goes to show how important it is to get back to the office, at least part time, and focus on real world experiences like buying a book or newspaper and going out on a regular basis.
And if physical meetings with colleagues or clients don't take place for an extended period of time, it's better to invite them on a video call or pick up the phone rather than sending another email or chat message.
While the range of options for digital interaction present a great opportunity, it's vital that we remain aware of how we use them.
Whether we are an employee or an employer, we should aim to use digital tools thoughtfully, paving the way for a hybrid working world that is responsible and humane.

(Article also published in the February 23, 2022 edition of the newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung or NZZ)

Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think
Remote working or smart working or home working has more contraindications than you think