Energy, space and time: three key concepts to work remotely

“The key concept of the pandemic is the cognitive load,” says Ailin Tomio. “We have to take care of our energy recovery,” says Sofía Geyer. Two occupational and behavioral specialists discuss the effects of remote work and provide some recommendations for mental health care.

The pandemic accelerated digital transformation processes. The technology sector grew by leaps and bounds and opened a world scenario with new challenges. The digital limits were pushed, the spaces – both home and office – were merged and in the middle of this process – which has been going on for over a year – people find themselves juggling tasks that accumulate and overlap, in an area that always stays the same. Remote work is part of the new organizational logic of the work environment and if there is something certain about this new reality, it is that it’s here to stay. But unless it is properly organized, neither our bodies nor our minds will perform correctly. The question is, then, why do so many people feel exhausted and how can we solve it? Ailin Tomio, a specialist in behavioral sciences and innovation, and Sofía Geyer, an occupational therapist specialized in creativity and innovation, offer answers.

Does remote work affect us?

“Home office, which was previously merely an option for many companies, became an obligation with the pandemic. The advantage? We discovered that there are different ways to measure performance, that employees can be trusted and that in-person activities are not always a condition for productivity, it is often the opposite. However, the limits of time and space shifted and that generated problems in our habits, affecting our physical and mental health. Above all, because it occurred in a context of generalized uncertainty in the world on top of cultural problems ”, says Ailin Tomio.

Sofía Geyer refers to the boundaries – now blurred – between work and family life with the concept of “work-life balance” and explains: “Our house became our workplace and other tasks were added, such as educating and taking care of our children, who before the pandemic went to school while their parents worked. In other words, we suffer from an overload of occupations that affects our emotional well-being and that, in turn, influences our work performance”. This “imbalance” is greater in women, because they are the ones who mostly perform this unpaid domestic and care work, according to results from time use surveys, in those countries where they are carried out (results usually show that women spend twice as much time or more on house and care work than men).

Both agree, on the other hand, that those who work in front of a computer from home suffer from anxiety and mental fatigue. This is due, they say, to the excess of screens and a sedentary lifestyle, which is another consequence of the pandemic. “A lot of this cognitive exhaustion has to do with the way we are working: in many cases, face-to-face work is replicated in a virtual format and time and energy expenditure are not optimized. Furthermore, we interact in a constant overlap: we listen to what is happening behind us, we look at the screen, we perceive what is happening on the other side. We struggle to work in various dimensions,” says Geyer.

“With the entry of virtuality into all areas of our life and the work overload, people seek to do more than one thing at a time: while in a Zoom call, we work on something else, answering messages or emails and thinking about what we have to do next. But attention cannot be divided. There is no true multitasking, our attention alternates and that fatigues us and lowers our performance. At the end of the day, the amount of energy spent is very large and there is also a risk of doing something wrong”, adds Tomio, and assures that all this load is even greater for IT teams, because their work increased at the same time as the sector grew at an incomparable rate.

How to avoid a mental blackout?

Given the current scenario, it is possible that cases of burnout, stress or chronic work fatigue that can occur with job demotivation or with mental and physical exhaustion, may increase in remote workers. In order to avoid this, says Sofía Geyer, it is important to learn a concept: energy recovery. “The body is not prepared to respond to threats for more than three months. You cannot run a car with a tank on reserve for a long time, you have to refill it. The same thing happens with the body: you have to learn to rest and regain energy,” she explains. That is why -she concludes- it is important to detect what gives us energy and what takes it away  in order to maintain our well-being and good work performance.

Along these lines, Ailin Tomio assures that “the key concept of the pandemic is cognitive load” and that “organizing is very important so we don’t waste cognitive resources”. To make it possible, she gives five recommendations:

  1. Separate our environments. “The body knows what to do because of the context. It is important to create different environments for each task, so that the workspace is not the same as the rest area, for example. Many people work in bed and then sleep badly, because they expect the brain to understand that it must sleep in the place where it works ”.
  2. Organize tasks: one at a time. “Avoiding multitasking reduces energy expenditure and increases productivity.”
  3. Optimize time. “We are working after hours and that does not mean doing better. Performance does not improve with more hours of work. We work best when we are rested and that should not be forgotten. Therefore, it is important to optimize our time. Do one task at a time, maintaining a high concentration for 20 to 30 minutes and resting for 10 ”.
  4. You deserve to rest. “Flexible schedules can be used to work in the time in which one is most productive and then, it is over. It is important that we leave space for leisure and rest, because our brain performs better after them”.

Equal distribution of tasks at home. “It is already difficult for this distribution to take place without a woman organizing the division of tasks: who buys toilet paper, who will cook, making sure that someone helps the kids with their homework, etc.; all this management is yet another job. There’s a reason bosses exist. The cognitive load is our working memory resources, it is invisible and it is higher in women. We have to break that concept”.

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