How Leaders Can Harness Brain Biology for Greater Work-from-Home Efficiency for Their Teams

Over the past several months a lot has been written about the challenges of working from home (WFH) due to COVID-19. We offered our own advice and tips for managing remotely in a previous blog post. Even pre-COVID, however, there were challenges to be addressed in the modern workplace. 

In 2019, the World Health Organization added “burnout” to its International Classification of Diseases. High-pressure, hyperconnected environments were already placing pressure on workers worldwide. ExecOnline’s own data shows leaders feel burnout is a significant and growing concern this year as people face economic and job security uncertainty, distributed workplaces and disruptions to standard routines that have moved into the even more complex dynamic of the home.

During the first wave of the pandemic this spring, organizations focused first on enabling employees with the right technology and equipment to function in a WFH environment. As we enter the second wave of the pandemic, leaders are finding they have to adjust from their interim mindset to a more long-term WFH approach that is healthy, fulfilling and sustainable so that employees can thrive.

ExecOnline is highly experienced in enabling leaders to navigate this new landscape with needed virtual empathy, and we appreciate the opportunity to augment our approach by viewing WFH challenges through an additional lens–science. At our 2020 ExecConnect event we enjoyed a presentation by UC Berkeley professor Dr. Sahar Yousef, a cognitive neuroscientist who provided a biological understanding of not only how the brain works but how it works best. 

Dr. Yousef highlighted three key factors to consider when trying to improve our WFH environments:

1. Human beings seek to gain reward and avoid pain. Dopamine is the brain chemical commonly associated with pleasure, but it also plays a role in how we focus and plan. It’s important not to get so wrapped up in the joy of little wins that we lose big-picture priorities.

Takeaway Tips: Divide your tasks in two. Most Important Tasks (MITs) are the “slow” dopamine tasks that take more time but feed your organizational goals and long-term success. Least Important Tasks (LITs) are the “quick” dopamine hits like clearing out your inbox. Accomplishing 1-3 MITs a day lets you mentally sign off to rejuvenate for the next day.

2. Human beings are constantly scanning the environment for threats. The occipital cortex and temporal cortex take up approximately 40% of your brain and process visual and auditory cues in the background. The more cues, the more brain drain. 

Takeaway Tips: Create visual and auditory barriers to help isolate you from distraction. And avoid the biggest offender–the smartphone. In a study where subjects were given an array of cognitive assessments, they scored significantly lower when their smartphone was in the room with them, even when it was turned off

3. Human beings are born with chronotypes. Our internal clocks mean AM-shifted chronotypes wake up full of energy that decreases over the course of the day and PM-shifted chronotypes wake up weary but gain energy over the course of the day. The majority of people are bi-phasic, with two main energy peaks and one major trough in the middle of the day.

Takeaway Tips:  Your chronotype should guide your sleep schedule, when to block time on your calendar to be most productive, schedule meetings, etc. Understanding chronotypes across your team can maximize productivity in meetings, brainstorming and strategy sessions.

As a leader it’s important to not only share information like this to help your virtual workplace run more smoothly, but to demonstrate these principles yourself. The extension of everyday stressors as the pandemic continues can negatively impact productivity, decision making and motivation.

Armed with a better understanding of your cognitive associations, you and your team can ensure you’re all operating at your personal best. And, armed with the training to empathize and quickly adjust to new challenges, you as a leader can better promote the overall wellbeing of your team and, ultimately, your organization.

Interested in Learning More?
  • Explore the many ways ExecOnline supports leaders in navigating these new virtual times of uncertainty here.

Dr. Yousef is one of the instructors in ExecOnline’s Women in Leadership programs. Women are not only disproportionately represented in leadership roles but are disproportionately impacted by WFH responsibilities. Learn more about our programs for empowering female leaders here.

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