Is remote working damaging our ability to learn?

While working from home for prolonged periods has taken its toll on how willing and able we are to learn, the good news is the effects are reversible

Neuroscience appears to show the loneliness and social isolation experienced by people of all ages during lockdown is having a negative effect on our ability to learn. 

A number of studies have found such isolation results in areas of the brain – the pre-frontal cortex, hippocampus and amygdala – shrinking. This scenario leads to a decline in cognitive function, which includes impaired learning and memory. An inability to concentrate is another common symptom. 

But there are also other important dynamics that occur when people work from home for prolonged periods, although the impact may vary based on each individual’s lifestyle, health and even personality. 

According to Natalia Ramsden, director of cognitive optimisation consultancy SOFOS Associates, while remote working may be convenient, it robs us of a “dynamic workplace where we are stimulated and challenged”, which is important in creating an optimum environment for our brains to learn.

“Our synaptic connections grow through repetition, but it’s new experiences that create new connections,” she explains. “For many, the office is a rich source of stimulation for their brains; challenges and cognitive stretch occur through work content, but also through difficult conversations, interactions with others and even the physical environment itself.”

This deficit is not helped by secondary considerations, such as high stress levels, poor sleep, less exercise and unhealthy eating. Moreover, because the boundaries between home and work life have blurred, many people find it difficult to switch off or unwind, which is vital if the brain is to “solidify new learning and transfer things from working to long-term memory”, says Ramsden.

Promoting brain health and function

Another challenge, according to Dr Guy Champniss, head of behavioural science at engagement consultancy The Creative Engagement Group (TCEG), is we may simply be either less inclined or less able to learn due to the impact of remote working on what he calls “cognitive load”, which is the amount of information working memory can hold at any one time. When this load is high, as in a remote working scenario, we simply have less “cognitive bandwidth” for learning.

“Remote working is taxing as it removes all the usual social, non-verbal and visual cues we typically use to navigate situations and understand conversations,” he says. “This means we have to lean in more to compensate for their lack, so the cognitive load is high and that makes us tired.”

Moreover, because any optional activity comes with its own cost-benefit analysis of whether it is worth doing or not, we may simply feel learning takes too much effort.

So what can employers do to overcome, or at least mitigate, the worst impacts of this situation and ensure their employees’ ability to learn is optimised? 

The most important thing, says Ramsden, is to “promote brain health and function”, otherwise known as neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to make new connections, which enables it to change and adapt more easily to different experiences, because doing so enhances cognitive performance.

“Everything we do and don’t do influences neuroplasticity,” she says. “What we eat, how active we are, how well we sleep, undertaking brain-specific exercises: all of it makes a difference”.

To improve employee wellbeing and performance, Ramsden recommends encouraging five key brain-boosting activities. The first involves staying hydrated as drinking eight to ten cups of water a day can boost brain performance by almost 30 per cent.

The second is ensuring a good night’s sleep as it detoxifies the system and solidifies learning. Next is breaking routine by trying something new or mentally challenging to build new neural connections, for example brushing your teeth with your left hand if you are right handed or vice versa.

The fourth entails eating foods known to boost cognitive function, such as oily fish and berries, while the final one involves managing stress. “Rather than being wired all the time, you want the brain to fluctuate up and down as it needs to or it’ll just run out of steam,” Ramsden explains. 

Simple options for those who find activities like mindfulness meditation testing, says Cari Guittard, professor of global management at Hult International Business School in San Francisco, is performing a restorative yoga posture (viparita karani) that involves lying on the floor with your legs up against the wall for ten minutes. 

Another approach is to write in a stream of consciousness around a given prompt for ten minutes each day to increase blood flow to the brain and focus attention. Also useful to provide instant clarity and focus are the box breathing techniques used by US Navy Seals. 

Relearning how to learn

Reassuringly, however, a four-week trial undertaken by TCEG with pharmaceutical firm AstraZeneca in 2020 to stimulate a richer learning culture appears to provide evidence that “we’re far more malleable and adaptable” in learning terms than we might think, says Champniss.

Because a learning culture is based on people’s ability to be “curious, collaborative and brave”, during the experiment, an unspecified number of employees received “nuggets” of content each day to draw attention to such behaviours, “boosts” to show their benefits and “nudges” to encourage them to do whatever was being signposted. 

Metrics, which included behavioural measures such as interacting with websites or apps and self-reporting via surveys and learning logs, revealed the time participants spent on learning increased by 78 per cent. They were also more able to spot learning opportunities during their day, more willing to apply what they had learnt to their work and felt more confident about their contribution and personal impact.

“It’s a two-way street; even if we’ve lost our learning mojo during lockdown, the study shows we’re remarkably malleable in being able to relearn how to learn. Core behaviours aren’t set in stone; we can all adapt, often to our own surprise,” Champniss concludes.