The Brain’s Journey To The New Normal Post-Coronavirus

How will the pandemic impact the way we think, work and interact?

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How will the pandemic impact the way we think, work and interact?


The Brain’s Journey To The New Normal Post-Coronavirus

How will the pandemic impact the way we think, work and interact?

Share this article

COVID-19 forced most businesses into radical forms of agile working. With next to no warning, it came without a systematic change programme, training, or consultation. But, as many crises, positives can be taken from this scenario.

It has demonstrated that individuals, organisations and governments can turn on a dime if they need to. That attribute must be kept in the mind’s eye as we enter the next undetermined phase of 2020 and the coronavirus.

How exactly has this transition been possible without a change programme or proper planning? The answer to this question lies in neuroscience.

The brain’s primary purpose is to keep us physically and socially safe. It’s hardwired to aid self-preservation—anything unsafe harms our ability to transmit our genes to future generations.

From the day we are born, our brains identify what’s safe and what’s dangerous. Despite the need to challenge ourselves, we cling on to these instincts for life.

Looking back, the world before COVID-19 seems relatively simple. You’d wake up early, commute to work, join your colleagues in the office and share the same experiences. This existence brought social status, purpose and income.

Arguably, everything you need to live a content and purposeful life. This repetitive behaviour is programmed, forming deep habits.

This process helps to explain why some individuals are sceptical of change. It also sheds light on why organisations that seek to implement changes in behaviour across an entire workforce, often come into conflict with the collective’s desire to continue with the status quo.

What’s new?

The pandemic is a once-in-a-lifetime event. It has threatened the brain’s safety. When change like this happens so quickly, survival instincts kick-in. The new safe is working from home and, just as workers ingrained habits and patterns of thinking in the world before Coronavirus, they will develop new habits during this period.

People with little or no experience of working from home have had to become experts in remote working overnight. They’ve learned how to use collaboration tools like Zoom and Microsoft Teams. They’ve had to think about the environments of their video calls.

They’ve had to think more consciously about how to work and communicate with colleagues and plan their own time. They’ve also had to broker new arrangements with family members or housemates to create a more harmonious workday.

However, parents with children whose virtual school work takes up bandwidth and city dwellers who have very little home space will have found this more challenging.

Back to the office?

Preparations are already underway to make offices safe as they get set to welcome back workers. New social distancing measures and more frequent cleaning programs are the order of the day to dispel any ‘back to work’ anxieties. But these steps may only go halfway to appeasing employees.

The daily commute will still be fraught with the risk of infection and social distancing will be impossible to maintain. Intent on keeping them safe, people’s brains will question the need to risk their safety after working from home effectively.

Health concerns aside, employees are developing new habits and patterns of thinking that are forming new neural connections in the brain.

The new normal includes waking up having a coffee and opening the laptop, it features noon walks, the participation in video calls, sharing screens, and not wasting hours of the day on crowded public transit.

Over time these new habits and thought patterns will become as hardwired as the old practices were, which will cause further resistance to a return to the old normal. Many people will struggle to embrace the old normal automatically because they are likely to be in tune with a new mental model of the world.

Leadership’s dilemma

Even before the pandemic, the popularity in remote working was increasing. According to the Office of National Statistics, the number of UK workers who had moved into remote-working had increased by nearly a quarter of a million over a decade.

Furthermore, data for Poplus revealed remote working makes staff happier, with 55 percent of commuters in the UK reporting increased stress levels due to their commute. The pandemic is simply accelerating the inevitable.

Despite the challenges, this period in history will have shown forward-thinking leaders that home-working can play a significant role in their future workplace strategy. While it won’t suit everyone or every business function, it may serve as a starting point in the thought process.

CEO’s must determine why they need an office at all. Workers will be questioning it, so they must have the answers.

The benefits of switching to a home working model can reduce fixed office costs and energy-sapping commutes, create more time for work and socialising, cut carbon emissions and provide greater access to a skills pool unconstrained by geography.

However, forensic thinking is required to get to the nub of what offices offer organisations and how much they are prepared to invest in face-to-face office interaction now that we know the possibilities of working virtually.

Andrew Mawson is founder of AWA.

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The Brain’s Journey To The New Normal Post-Coronavirus

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