“Don’t leave your homes!” the headlines read.
When given the choice to move freely about our lives — whether to work remotely, visit friends or eat at restaurants — feelings of trust, engagement and motivation heighten. But make staying at home an edict or requirement, and it’s a different story altogether.
Now that self-quarantines have turned into mandates, our sense of control over many aspects of life feels beyond reach. What felt routine and assumed is forbidden, causing our imaginations to run to the brink of myriad worst-case scenarios. This negativity bias has protected us over millennia, largely because humans haven’t been the strongest beasts in the kingdom. But we have figured out how to work together to survive and even prevail. Now, that’s exactly what businesses and managers — all of us — must do.
Building New Habits
Sarah, a millennial, lives alone and now is forced to work from home. She can no longer depend on her daily in-office rituals, many of which involved brief but important interactions with others. These routines unconsciously settled her into her day’s tasks — and kept her alert and engaged.
Her manager, Tony, a father of three, jockeys for quiet and focus amid the chaos of twitchy, confined teens and an equally stressed partner, while trying to keep a mind’s eye on his high-risk parents.
For the foreseeable future, Sarah and Tony (and all of us in between) may struggle to create and function in a new normal. But here’s the good news: We are all capable of developing new habits, one new neural pathway at a time. Conventional wisdom dictated that building new habits means breaking — or stopping — old ones, but the science of neuroplasticity has taught us different. “The brain is designed to remodel itself as a function of its use — that’s brain plasticity,” says Michael Merzenich, commonly known as the ‘father of neuroplasticity.”
Building a new habit requires three things: attention, focus and repetition. Pay attention to (notice) what you want to do differently, give it some mindshare (focus) and then repeat it. New York University professor Peter Gollwitzer’s research while at the University of Konstanz found that repeating an implementation intention (i.e., a desired goal) two to three times in the same week will jumpstart a new pathway.
Being Social While Working Remotely
Because no two brains are alike, each of us will find new ways to cope in the time of remote. We will create new habits (aka neural pathways) that will help our brains learn and thrive while quarantined. And quarantine does not have to mean isolation. Humans are first and foremost social animals. Robin Dunbar, the Oxford anthropologist, pioneered the notion that evolutionarily, human brain size directly correlates to group, or tribe, size. Humans have big brains in order to socialize. Even while working and learning remotely, we will find ways to connect, work and survive. We already have.
Some of our new habits will be deeply personal; others will result from revised and adapted work structures that replace in-office “watercooler” rituals. For Sarah, it might mean a quick morning check-in with a friend or colleagues via a virtual meeting platform; checking in with her mom on the phone (to make sure she’s abiding by quarantine rules); or even staring out the window, daydreaming about life after the quarantine. After all, because we like thinking about the future we do it three times as much as other types of thought, according to Marty Seligman, the “happiness guru” from the University of Pennsylvania.
Tony, on the other hand, might create new habits around a shared family schedule for work and play times, homeschooling projects, and mandatory outside time. (Sneaking a refrigerator raid might not count.) For the teams he manages, Tony might create new shared work habits by scheduling brief daily virtual team stand-ups and frequent individual video check-ins. He should communicate early and often, checking in on frustrations and clarifying revised expectations.
Tony should make sure that Sarah, and others on his team, have the freedom to make decisions about their working hours and even recommend midday walks or group online yoga classes to assuage the lost sense of control. David Rock, founder and CEO of the Neuroleadership Institute, says that autonomy is one of five major stress reducers (along with status, certainty, relatedness and fairness). “As long as people feel they can execute their own decisions without much oversight, stress remains under control,” he writes.
Sarah and Tony may also schedule virtual game nights and dinners with friends. Like them, we will all create new habits that, with repetition, will become the new normal for our brains on remote. If, and when, we refocus or return to the old normal, those pathways will reawaken, or revise, depending on the attention we give them.
Just as Christian Dior is retooling to create hand sanitizers and a car parts company is now creating hygienic masks, so we must all pivot, adjust and develop new ways forward. To borrow from Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh’s book “The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age,” battling this virus gives us a “tour of duty”: a common mission and purpose to flatten the curve and prevail over the threat. We may not be the strongest beasts in the kingdom, but we are in this together, the world over. And we are indomitable.