Blog Post

How HR leaders can use neuroscience to create a better return-to-work roadmap

Britt Andreatta, Ph.D.

CEO, 7th Mind, Inc.

As more vaccines are administered and restrictions start to lift, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of the pandemic in the United States. But at the same time, we are still very much in a grieving period. The global recovery landscape varies widely, and we’ve lost loved ones at record numbers — one in three Americans have lost someone to COVID-19 this past year.

Biology and neuroscience tell us that at our core, all humans are essentially wired to do three things: survive, belong and become our best selves. But after operating in survival mode while pivoting to online workplaces, employees are experiencing strained connections with colleagues and may have anxiety about returning to pre-pandemic engagement levels.

The impact of this year has, and still is, actively affecting us on a biological level. It’s up to HR/talent professionals to use this information to guide employees back to a psychologically safe work environment, where they feel they belong and thrive.

As employees move back into physical workplaces, talent professionals will also have to continue building on the skills they've been forced to develop this past year, like change resilience and innovation, if they are going to reconnect teams.

During my session at Cornerstone’s 2021 Learning Content Summit, I dove deep into the science behind belonging and offered strategies and skills leaders can use to rebuild connections.

How survival mode has kept employees from belonging

Survival is our innate need for food, water and shelter. Jobs give us a paycheck to buy our food, water and shelter.

In the workplace, survival normally translates to performance reviews or the ability to gain promotions. As COVID-19 spread globally, we were bombarded with images of people in hazmat suits, fumigating public areas, shuttered business doors and overflowing hospitals that sent signals to our brains with the message, “I am not safe.”

Our need for survival is closely linked to belonging: In primitive times, the likelihood of our survival decreased if we were ousted from our tribe. Today, neuroscientists have uncovered that experiencing exclusion lights up the same regions of the brain as physical pain.

After being told we need to stay six feet apart from people, we received subconscious messaging that told our brains we are dangerous to each other; it’s not safe to be near people we care about. As a result, employees are experiencing unprecedented isolation, which has led to feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety. The term COVID Anxiety Syndrome has been introduced to define this experience of having a hard time becoming less hypervigilant to our surroundings.

After 15 months of this, our anxiety can’t be unlearned overnight. It’s important to recognize many employees will be experiencing the effects of isolation and a lack of belonging as we transition back to in-person or hybrid work models. By building an intentional plan for returning to the office slowly, employers can create an environment of inclusion and belonging that prioritizes employees' mental wellbeing.

As we remerge, go slowly

A recent report from Voodle found that 54% of workers agree it is difficult to maintain authentic relationships while working remotely. This is because our bodies are missing biological data that we gather when we sit in each other's presence, so we have to work harder to communicate and read each other’s emotions and intentions through a flat screen — leading to zoom fatigue.

As we come back together, leaders will need to foster opportunities to share on a personal level and rebuild lost connections — which could look like company retreats or offsites — to build that bridge back from isolation to connection.

When you're setting a slow pace for returning to physical workplaces, try having employees return to work through half days or fewer days per week to let people build up slowly to in-person interaction.

Remember: Employees are not at the same energy levels as before 2020. Change fatigue is real, and you may see symptoms such as disengagement, exhaustion, absenteeism, confusion, conflict and cynicism showing up in your employees.

And for best results, go intentionally

After pivoting to remote work, we also lost informal, spontaneous conversations, like the opportunity to exchange ideas with coworkers in passing, and we may have even lost our ability to initiate those interactions. Leaning into “getting to know you” activities can help workers exercise those muscles and give them a chance to reconnect intentionally.

Employers will have to consider the impact of the psychological effects of isolation on employees' emotional states to develop successful hybrid and in-person models. Nurturing employees by reducing stress and building a bridge back from isolation with new habits come next.

For more on these strategies, watch my session — The Science of Rebuilding Connection and Trust, which is available until June 30, 2021.

Britt is a regular contributor to Cornerstone Content Anytime, with courses covering collaboration, teamwork and leadership. Here's a free preview of a course from Brit on nurturing leadership skills within organizations.

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