Remote meetings and collaboration cause real, measurable mental fatigue and stress, according to a recent study from Microsoft. In ‘The future of work—the good, the challenging & the unknown,’ researchers combine data from a brainwaves study in Microsoft’s Human Factors Lab with the results of a recent Harris Poll survey of over 2,000 remote workers from 6 countries. 

Among their key findings:

  •  Remote collaboration is more mentally challenging than in-person collaboration.
  • As people return to more frequent in-person work as the pandemic eases it may feel more difficult than it did before COVID-19.
  • Brainwave markers associated with overwork and stress are significantly higher in video meetings than non-meeting work like writing emails.
  • Due to high levels of sustained concentration fatigue begins to set in 30-40 minutes into a meeting.
  • Looking at days filled with video meetings, stress begins to set in at about two hours into the day.

 “Brainwave patterns associated with stress and overwork were much higher when collaborating remotely than in person,” writes Jared Spataro, corporate vice president for Microsoft 365.

 How can you make remote collaboration more successful, keeping in mind that it’s more mentally taxing than co-working in person?

Avoid long, intensive online meetings.

Be sensitive to the fact that many employees are juggling caregiving, unusual schedules, increased stress around otherwise routine tasks such as grocery shopping, and more. Full-day training and hours-long meetings in which participants are expected to stay focused may be too much to handle during COVID-19-imposed remote work.

If the purpose is simply to share out information, make a video instead so employees can watch—and pause and restart, as needed—at a time that works best in their workday. Microsoft recommends that when you do need to hold meetings, they should be limited to no more than 30 minutes in duration or be punctuated with breaks.

Work in sprints and take regular breaks.

Try using the “Pomodoro” method—set a timer for 25 minutes in which all participants turn off their cameras and mics and get to work defined, achievable individuals goals. It could be, “Finish proofreading this report,” “Research two new methods of doing XYZ,” or any other objective relevant to the group project.

When the timer goes off, each person returns to the shared video space to have a 5-minute break together. Encourage meeting participants to get up and stretch or walk to the kitchen and grab a glass of water. Discuss what went well and help resolve any issues that came up for any of the participants. Set new goals for the next Pomodoro. Repeat these co-working sessions 3 or 4 times as you work together but independently and in sprints to complete your shared work.

Share the rules of engagement. 

Part of the stress of online meetings comes from the lack of verbal cues that help a person read the room or know whose turn it is to talk. 

How will your employees know if they’re losing the interest of the group by belaboring a point and going on too long? 

 If there is side-talk or the conversation is headed in an irrelevant direction, who has the authority to interject and ensure the meeting stays on track? 

 How can an employee indicate that they have something to share without being interruptive?

Establish these ground rules, share them, and stick to them throughout your online meetings and remote work sessions. It’s important to set those expectations so your employees aren’t stressing about etiquette and perfectly preventable misunderstandings around how they communicate online.

Consider offering home office supports for remote workers.

Yes, this could mean $$$. Microsoft found that only 35% of respondents in one study have a dedicated home office, yet only 5% of the people surveyed in their Harris Poll live alone.

Providing a laptop and virtual access to files may not be enough to support remote workers. What kind of environment are they trying to work in at home? There may not be space to convert a room into a home office, but an employer could fund the purchase of a desk and chair to at least provide an ergonomically correct workspace in a bedroom. It’s not ideal, but it may provide a quiet place to participate in meetings.

The thing is, there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution for the entire workforce. It’s important that you engage employees and ask what it is they need to be successful working remotely from home. Some might be getting along just fine. Others may need financial supports to make it work. Reach out and be ready to offer support on an as-needed basis.

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