What working from home does to your brain

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You’d be forgiven for thinking that working from home puts you in a far better frame of mind for complicated mental tasks - wenjin chen/ Digital Vision Vectors
You’d be forgiven for thinking that working from home puts you in a far better frame of mind for complicated mental tasks - wenjin chen/ Digital Vision Vectors

Over the past few months, we’ve been creeping back to the office, navigating packed commutes to our desks and in-person meetings. The rise of the omicron variant might have us wondering if we will be asked to work from home again but, according to new research, our bosses may well want to keep us within sight.

A paper published this week in the Journal of the Royal Economic Society suggests we are doing our best work while actually in the office. Researchers at the Rotterdam School of Management in Netherlands examined 215,000 moves made by a group of world-class chess players, some of whom were playing digitally and others at in-person tournaments. They found that the quality of moves made by those competing at home was significantly worse than those who were in a “real life” environment.

“Our results show a clear decrease in overall performance in the remote setting,” says Dutch academic Dr Dainis Zegners, who studied the moves using artificial intelligence. “This was particularly pronounced at the beginning of the time period when players had to adapt to the new setting.”

“Chess is, in many ways, is similar to the work of the knowledge society's office workplaces,” says Zegners. “The game is strategic, analytical and takes place under time pressure. Cognitive skills used in chess are also used for complicated tasks and strategic decision making such as drafting a legal contract, preparing a tender document or managerial decisions – the kind of tasks that require clear and precise thinking.”

Zegners went on to suggest that the initial drop in cognitive performance and the adaptation time “might be even more pronounced for most other workers”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that working from home puts you in a far better frame of mind for complicated mental tasks – no office gossip, no ringing phones, no interruptions for group tea rounds. So why is this so?

Cary Cooper is professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester. “Even before the lockdowns, we had the technology to move to remote working and there were very good reasons why we didn’t,” he says. “The chess-playing analogy can easily be exported to more general professions. Face-to-face with one another, the players will be looking at non-verbal clues: whether the person’s eye is twitching, or their body language is otherwise unsure.”

There is no way one can pick up on these clues remotely, he says. “Similarly, in an office, you’ll be able to pick up on more subtle clues about your performance and modify yourself accordingly.” Cooper points to other “softer” benefits that lead to clearer thinking: better communication, information sharing and collaboration.

The Rotterdam research isn’t the first to suggest the benefits of in-office working. A study in September this year of 3,000 workers reported that travelling to and from the office each day had a positive impact on mental health.

Forty-five per cent of people in the study said they felt more productive in the office, compared with 29 per cent at home, as they could share ideas with colleagues without having to schedule a call. A similar proportion said they were more distracted by household chores, deliveries and longer lunches when working from home.

Neuroscientists at University College London, who analysed the results of the survey, said physically going to the office boosts wellbeing as it allows employees to separate work and home life.

“The commute delineates boundaries between home and work life and can be used to switch one off and transition to the other, which can have a positive impact on cognitive performance, wellbeing and productivity,” said lead author Joseph Devlin, professor of brain sciences at UCL. “Just going to work generates more diverse experiences than working from home, especially through interactions with other people.”

Even before the pandemic, researchers were aware that loneliness significantly affects cognitive ability. A 2015 study from Cambridge University found that greater loneliness was associated with lower cognitive function. In the past two years, the message has only become more powerful. New research in November 2021 from the University of Exeter and King’s College London studied 6,000 over-50s about their brain health during the lockdown period. Those who suffered from the highest levels of anxiety and depression fared the poorest in cognitive tests and mentally aged the equivalent of six years.

James Goodwin is director of the Brain Health Network and the author of Supercharge Your Brain: How to Maintain a Healthy Brain Throughout Your Life. “If you’d wanted to devise a plan to damage the nation’s brain health, then you would have come up with social isolation,” he says.

“We have long known the devastating effects of prolonged social isolation on both our general and brain health,” says Goodwin. “Loneliness ages us as badly as 15 cigarettes a day, or drinking a bottle of gin, according to a study at Berkeley University. Research over a 12-year period to 2010 from the Harvard Adult Development Study showed that the thinking skills of those who described themselves as ‘lonely’ declined by 20 per cent more than those who were not. Being socially isolated is pernicious, and has been robustly proven to hasten dementia and long-term cognitive decline.”

Cooper, who last year co-authored a book named Flexible Work: Designing our Healthier Future Lives, believes the best solution is hybrid working – a mixture of in-office days and working from home. “All the studies from the CIPD (the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) say the same,” he says. “Research has shown that giving an employee some autonomy – knowing than their manager trusts them – leads to less sickness absence and more overall productivity. There’s no doubt that this hybrid working is the way forward.”

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