Getting to the Root: The Neuroscience Behind the Remote Work Debates

Oct 20, 2023

Remote Work Issues are a Symptom of a Bigger Issue

If you were trying to pull out a weed you wouldn't try to pull its leaves, would you? No! You’d dig deep and grab it at the root to pull it out and make sure it didn’t come back.

The debates around remote work are like pulling leaves.

They are picking around a much deeper-rooted challenge… the challenge of applying past practices and thinking that were really created for parts of a machine, process, or system to human beings.

But human beings are not the same and are so uniquely created with different neural pathways that even the scientists who study us struggle to make definitive conclusions about how our bodies and brains work.

In a machine, everything operates the same way in the same environment. You can choose what material and application is appropriate for that specific environment and know how it will work.

The machine will then typically operate consistently and won’t alter the environment in unpredictable or inconsistent ways. Meaning you can anticipate the effects and ultimately, find the perfect solution.

But people aren’t like this, people are uniquely affected by different environments, and any environment filled with human beings is constantly in as state of change and flux.

We quite literally can feel each other’s emotional frequencies and resonance. No, I don’t mean spiritually, I mean literally. We literally pick upon each other's internal experiences, and this can amplify their effect.

Here are few examples:

  • When we are near each other, our heart beats will sync up.
  • Our hearts emit a magnetic field outside our body.
  • Our voice frequencies are indicative of the emotions we are experiencing.
  • Our nervous systems will coregulate with those around us.
  • Our brain waves emit different frequencies based upon our mental states.
  • Our brain waves will synchronize when we interact with other people!

Most organizations are struggling with the remote work issue because they are focused on surface-level issues. The polarizing perspectives on working in a physical office collectively as compared to working remotely or a hybrid of the two are leading to conflict in organizations.

Here are a few of the topics leading to conflicting opinions:

  • The behaviors and actions of people.
  • How people perform in both locations.
  • How their behaviors and actions impact others and the business at large.
  • What is the best way to work to create results.

The real issue is way deeper. The real issue is the stuff we don’t easily see or often consider in these debates.

The root of the issue: The physiological wiring of a person’s neural pathways and how they then react to these decisions and experience the change in working location and practices.

Reacting to a Change in Work Location Policies

Humans are not machines, and our physiological neural pathways and wiring have created who we are and how we exist. A person’s emotions, feelings, and thoughts are based upon their ways of living and being.

They are determined based upon the 100 trillion neural connections that exist within the human body.  These ways of being become their most natural state.

Working remotely permanently altered many people’s “state of being” or the way they are wired to exist.

When people were forced (quickly) to work remotely and did so over an extended period of time, they created new neural pathways for how to work.

These neural pathways replaced the old ones that existed to serve them in a world of working pre-pandemic, pre-Zoom/Teams' calls, and pre-the overall experience of working from home.

Resistance to a return to office isn’t people being difficult or for convenience, rather their brains and bodies are saying, “No, I don’t want to change back. I’ve changed my way of being.”

Our brains are wired to use the least energy possible because they use so much energy to operate in the first place. Over 20% of our calories are given to our brain to meet its energy needs!

Which is why they use well-worn neural pathways to begin with. It’s less energy to use a path that’s already wired and working. Resistance to returning to the office is literally a physiological reaction.

Physiological reactions are not a conscious choice or decision by the person. Rather, their nervous system is reacting to this change by going into fight, flight, or freeze mode.

This might look like:

  • They may be actively arguing, angry, frustrated, and more disagreeable.
  • They may quit or begin looking for a new workplace or job.
  • They may acquiesce and begin quietly quitting, disengaging, & disassociating from their experience.

People then try to make sense of their physiological response which leads them to create narratives that help them to understand it. These narratives are the conflicts most workplaces are experiencing when there is resistance to the change in work location.

Experiencing the Change of Returning to an Office

Another challenge happens when people actually return to the office environment. As they return, they are now being exposed to the physiological frequencies of the people around them.

Having been removed from the environment (remember their neural pathways changed), they will be even more sensitive to those around them.

They will quite literally feel and experience internally others’ emotions, brain waves, and heart rates.

Given the stress we’ve experienced in the past few years, many people are operating at or over their capacity for stress. Based on tons of recent research and reports, people are more stressed, burned out, lonely, dealing with mental health issues and addiction than ever before.

Whether that stress stems from the workplace or the many challenges families are facing, the stress stays in the body. No matter where you go, your body goes with you!

Which means, everyone is bringing all those challenges and their physiological effects into the workplace. As they do so, the effects of these challenges are magnified.

Generally, people will co-regulate to the most coherent or incoherent nervous system in the room. Meaning, if someone has a highly dysregulated nervous system, they will impact everyone around them.

If someone is extremely stressed in a sympathetic state (fight/flight), they will begin stressing other people out and their state will impact those they are working with.

We know people’s peak or optimum performance can only occur when their bodies are in a balanced, coherent, and regulated state.

How easy do you think it is to stay in a coherent state in an office filled with people, many of whom are likely dysregulated?

Leaders may argue aren't seeing or experiencing this phenomenon. However, most leaders have their own private offices or separate space. Most people are in cubicles, warehouses, or factories where they are in constant contact with other people.

A Solution that gets to the Root

Understanding the root of their reaction and experience is essential to reframing the debate and conflict in order to create a better solution. 

Unfortunately, it’s highly unlikely that everyone has the same root issue. Instead, I’m betting everyone has a different challenge based on:

  • Their brains - thinking, feeling, & doing.
  • Their environments at home and work.
  • Their experiences.
  • Their current state of being.

To address the resistance and the experience, it will require an approach based in the neuroscience of human performance.

Instead of arguing over who is right, let’s look at the science and identify solutions to these conflicts that will actually create the results we want.

The solution requires creating awareness around these neurophysiological experiences people are having. With this awareness, people can then learn neurological fitness practices to better regulate their reactions.

Leaders can also offer more compassion and support as people adjust to these changes. We can train leaders on how to work with individuals to identify specific solutions to meet their unique challenges.

I highly doubt employers are bringing people back to the office because they want their businesses and the people in them to suffer poor results. But this will undoubtedly occur if they don’t address the underlying challenges people are experiencing.

What do you think? Has this been your experience returning to the office?

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