What’s remote work doing to our brains?


Learning and creativity often take a hit under remote work conditions. What’s happening in your brain when this occurs and what can you do about it?

When employees come together to brainstorm, it’s common to enter a state of ‘burstiness’ – they’re rapidly bouncing concepts around, building on each others’ ideas and getting closer to finding an innovative solution.

That creative spark is often extinguished in remote work environments.

It’s an experience that’s all too familiar for Joel Pearson, a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of New South Wales.

He recalls what happened when he and his team at Future Minds Lab, an experimental start-up that operates within the School of Psychology at UNSW, began taking part in virtual brainstorming during Sydney’s lockdown last year.

“It felt like we had a clock ticking down in front of us. It was really hard to throw casual ideas around in the same way we could in the room with someone,” says Pearson.

“When you’re in the room with someone, the most interesting and creative things will often come from left field. Or right at the end of a meeting, someone will throw something out there, and another person will chime in and say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. What if we tried that?’”

Dr Fiona Kerr, founder and CEO of the NeuroTech Institute, explains that creativity flourishes in the presence of others through the process of brainwave synchronisation.

“Our brains fire a lot when we’re together, especially when we’re creating. The higher the level of inter-brain synchronisation between people, the higher the level of intra-brain synchronisation in each individual’s brain, which is how much different areas in the brain collaborate and connect, and the speed with which they do that,” says Kerr.

Interactive networks

People thrive in the company of others.

Being together enables us to learn from, and build off, each other’s ideas.

“When you’re in a creative zone, you have multiple parts of the brain operating at once,” says Kerr. “The salience network, the default mode network and the central executive network are all interacting, and when they’re all firing, they block out a lot of external stimuli and you can focus very deeply.”

“When we ask, ‘Where do people get their insights?’, very few people say, ‘In the office.’ They get them when they’re walking the dog, or having a shower, or washing the dishes… Working from home has increased the opportunity to create those conditions.” – Lynda Edwards, Lead Consultant, The NeuroLeadership Institute.

In-person interactions also allow complementary ideas to sit side by side.

“There’s a saying about wisdom being the ability to hold different thoughts in your head at the same time,” says Kerr. “Creative ideation is when you are starting to either disconnect networks and reconnect them, or to build new networks out of what you already have.”

Your proximity to other people also helps to send creative sparks flying.

“There are about 2000 chemo signals [chemical signals the body gives off] that we absorb when we’re physically with another person, and this influences how we process information, and how we encode and rebuild ideas,” says Kerr.

Stimulating environments are often key in sparking rich electrochemical activity.

This collaborative stage is often where creative ideas are born, before you start to encode and make patterns with the data.

Insights in solitude

Creativity is as much a group activity as it is an individual exercise in contemplation.

“After collaborating in direct proximity, the brain needs time to let the ideas settle, make connections and put scaffolding in place. For that, we tend to like being on our own,” says Kerr.

This provides strong scientific support for the value of a hybrid model. Neurons start firing when employees are ideating together before they’re given space to dissect the information when working from home. 

An effective creative process will involve a few rounds of swapping between the group phase in a live situation to allow for the neurophysiological impacts that only happen with proximity, and the individual phase, normally with two to three phases of each stage, says Kerr.

The NeuroLeadership Institute, a research body bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to create evidence-based leadership advice, has identified several design principles that contribute to the ‘conditions of insight’.

These are: being in a quiet space, internally focused, in a positive state and not directly focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve.

The institute’s Lead Consultant, Lynda Edwards, says those conditions are more likely to occur outside of the office.

“Employees who have access to a home office with a decent-sized desk and a good setup will have ideal opportunities to create. The physical setting can promote the conditions in our brains to increase the [likelihood of having an] Aha! moment,” says Edwards.

“If you want to put existing information together in new and exciting ways, you need to have a quieter brain. When we ask, ‘Where do people get their insights?’, very few people say, ‘In the office.’ They get them when they’re walking the dog, or having a shower, or washing the dishes… Working from home has increased the opportunity to create those conditions. It’s had a really positive impact on creativity.”

Distant learning

Rote learning new information may be easier in a quieter space when you’re not distracted by the hustle and bustle of a lively office, but for more creative learning that requires extrapolation, a physical workspace is far superior, says Kerr. 

Face-to-face encounters that involve a high degree of eye contact better embed learning, a recent experiment revealed.

“Researchers put electrical caps on students in a classroom and looked at how the kids connected with each other,” says Kerr.

“Half of the children had to look each other in the eyes for two minutes before they went back into the classroom and the other half didn’t. Even though they were all sharing space, the ones that actively looked at someone else had more activated brain areas, and were more engaged and proactive in coming up with ideas.”

Though you might engage in eye contact over a screen, it’s a more impoverished type of interaction compared to in-person, says Kerr.

“There are parts of your brain, especially socio-emotional areas, that don’t ever turn on over a screen. You’re not getting chemo signalling, and the majority of electrochemical connection around inter-brain synchronisation doesn’t happen, especially if you have not met in person.

“We have hundreds of areas in our brain that are looking for micro-behaviours – all these signs we normally get when we are face to face with someone. They often can’t be coded over screens, but our brains are still looking for them. That’s partly what is driving video call fatigue.”

Learning is also enhanced when there’s an “emotional tag”, says Kerr. 

Unsurprisingly, an emotional connection is far more likely to form when we meet someone in a face-to-face setting.

“The more hooks you can put onto a piece of information you lodge in your brain, the easier it is to find again and bring it back into conscious memory.” –
Dr Fiona Kerr, Founder and CEO, the NeuroTech Institute

Kerr recently conducted an experiment investigating how complex decision-making differs in a group versus individual scenario. 

In the study, individuals were either: on their own and had to learn how to apply new knowledge; working on the task on their own, but with another person close to them in the room; or they first collaborated with another person on an initial task, before completing the complex problem.

“The people who collaborated with another person face to face before completing the individual problem learned faster, and applied the knowledge more quickly and consistently throughout the exercise.”

Whether online or in-person, teaching the information to someone else is also going to enhance memory retention, and embed the memory more strongly.

“It’s not just a matter of getting information into our brains,” says Pearson. “If you revisit the information within 24 hours, and then again within a week or two, long-term retention will be far greater.

Edwards advises providing opportunities for social connection through learning.

“When you see that person or team again, it helps to bring back the learning content. We know it goes into the hippocampus, the memory centre of the brain, a lot more strongly if we have that social setting”.


Build a high-performing team in the office or virtually with AHRI’s short course on Creating high performance teams.
Book in for the next course on 17 March.


Enhancing remote work

Though remote work can impede learning and creativity in many ways, it can also present opportunities that might not be readily available in the workplace.

Employees could benefit from hearing a high-level conversation between two senior leaders in a virtual fireside chat, which they likely wouldn’t have had access to pre-pandemic. Or they might have greater access to international networks.

In an effort to boost creativity, Pearson and his team have been trialling an ‘immersive environments’ feature in Zoom, which allows a participant to place people in different rooms.

“You spatially have the layout of a room and of being together, so you can look left and right to people. We’re slowly moving in the direction of having real and immersive interactions,” he says.

Work might also be designed so that big-picture thinking can occur in collaborative spaces, leaving us to designate solo tasks that require deep thought for a work day at home.

If you are ideating with others online, consider whether a video link or phone call is the best option, says Kerr.

Your brain will often think more creatively when presented with the latter option. 

She compares the difference between a video and phone call with watching a movie versus reading a book.

“When you read a book, you’re having to make those pictures in your own head and your brain is very active in building this world. It’s a creative process, and that’s why it’s often more calming.

“When you are trying to be creative over a telephone, it’s often easier because your brain is able to imagine a scenario. It’s not concentrating on a screen. It’s taking information and building creative pictures.”

Implementing these strategies can help employees to manage remote work more effectively. With more advanced planning, it’s possible to create an environment for creativity and learning to flourish, and to reap more benefits from remote work.

This article first appeared in the February 2022 edition of HRM magazine.

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What’s remote work doing to our brains?


Learning and creativity often take a hit under remote work conditions. What’s happening in your brain when this occurs and what can you do about it?

When employees come together to brainstorm, it’s common to enter a state of ‘burstiness’ – they’re rapidly bouncing concepts around, building on each others’ ideas and getting closer to finding an innovative solution.

That creative spark is often extinguished in remote work environments.

It’s an experience that’s all too familiar for Joel Pearson, a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of New South Wales.

He recalls what happened when he and his team at Future Minds Lab, an experimental start-up that operates within the School of Psychology at UNSW, began taking part in virtual brainstorming during Sydney’s lockdown last year.

“It felt like we had a clock ticking down in front of us. It was really hard to throw casual ideas around in the same way we could in the room with someone,” says Pearson.

“When you’re in the room with someone, the most interesting and creative things will often come from left field. Or right at the end of a meeting, someone will throw something out there, and another person will chime in and say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. What if we tried that?’”

Dr Fiona Kerr, founder and CEO of the NeuroTech Institute, explains that creativity flourishes in the presence of others through the process of brainwave synchronisation.

“Our brains fire a lot when we’re together, especially when we’re creating. The higher the level of inter-brain synchronisation between people, the higher the level of intra-brain synchronisation in each individual’s brain, which is how much different areas in the brain collaborate and connect, and the speed with which they do that,” says Kerr.

Interactive networks

People thrive in the company of others.

Being together enables us to learn from, and build off, each other’s ideas.

“When you’re in a creative zone, you have multiple parts of the brain operating at once,” says Kerr. “The salience network, the default mode network and the central executive network are all interacting, and when they’re all firing, they block out a lot of external stimuli and you can focus very deeply.”

“When we ask, ‘Where do people get their insights?’, very few people say, ‘In the office.’ They get them when they’re walking the dog, or having a shower, or washing the dishes… Working from home has increased the opportunity to create those conditions.” – Lynda Edwards, Lead Consultant, The NeuroLeadership Institute.

In-person interactions also allow complementary ideas to sit side by side.

“There’s a saying about wisdom being the ability to hold different thoughts in your head at the same time,” says Kerr. “Creative ideation is when you are starting to either disconnect networks and reconnect them, or to build new networks out of what you already have.”

Your proximity to other people also helps to send creative sparks flying.

“There are about 2000 chemo signals [chemical signals the body gives off] that we absorb when we’re physically with another person, and this influences how we process information, and how we encode and rebuild ideas,” says Kerr.

Stimulating environments are often key in sparking rich electrochemical activity.

This collaborative stage is often where creative ideas are born, before you start to encode and make patterns with the data.

Insights in solitude

Creativity is as much a group activity as it is an individual exercise in contemplation.

“After collaborating in direct proximity, the brain needs time to let the ideas settle, make connections and put scaffolding in place. For that, we tend to like being on our own,” says Kerr.

This provides strong scientific support for the value of a hybrid model. Neurons start firing when employees are ideating together before they’re given space to dissect the information when working from home. 

An effective creative process will involve a few rounds of swapping between the group phase in a live situation to allow for the neurophysiological impacts that only happen with proximity, and the individual phase, normally with two to three phases of each stage, says Kerr.

The NeuroLeadership Institute, a research body bringing neuroscientists and leadership experts together to create evidence-based leadership advice, has identified several design principles that contribute to the ‘conditions of insight’.

These are: being in a quiet space, internally focused, in a positive state and not directly focusing on the problem you’re trying to solve.

The institute’s Lead Consultant, Lynda Edwards, says those conditions are more likely to occur outside of the office.

“Employees who have access to a home office with a decent-sized desk and a good setup will have ideal opportunities to create. The physical setting can promote the conditions in our brains to increase the [likelihood of having an] Aha! moment,” says Edwards.

“If you want to put existing information together in new and exciting ways, you need to have a quieter brain. When we ask, ‘Where do people get their insights?’, very few people say, ‘In the office.’ They get them when they’re walking the dog, or having a shower, or washing the dishes… Working from home has increased the opportunity to create those conditions. It’s had a really positive impact on creativity.”

Distant learning

Rote learning new information may be easier in a quieter space when you’re not distracted by the hustle and bustle of a lively office, but for more creative learning that requires extrapolation, a physical workspace is far superior, says Kerr. 

Face-to-face encounters that involve a high degree of eye contact better embed learning, a recent experiment revealed.

“Researchers put electrical caps on students in a classroom and looked at how the kids connected with each other,” says Kerr.

“Half of the children had to look each other in the eyes for two minutes before they went back into the classroom and the other half didn’t. Even though they were all sharing space, the ones that actively looked at someone else had more activated brain areas, and were more engaged and proactive in coming up with ideas.”

Though you might engage in eye contact over a screen, it’s a more impoverished type of interaction compared to in-person, says Kerr.

“There are parts of your brain, especially socio-emotional areas, that don’t ever turn on over a screen. You’re not getting chemo signalling, and the majority of electrochemical connection around inter-brain synchronisation doesn’t happen, especially if you have not met in person.

“We have hundreds of areas in our brain that are looking for micro-behaviours – all these signs we normally get when we are face to face with someone. They often can’t be coded over screens, but our brains are still looking for them. That’s partly what is driving video call fatigue.”

Learning is also enhanced when there’s an “emotional tag”, says Kerr. 

Unsurprisingly, an emotional connection is far more likely to form when we meet someone in a face-to-face setting.

“The more hooks you can put onto a piece of information you lodge in your brain, the easier it is to find again and bring it back into conscious memory.” –
Dr Fiona Kerr, Founder and CEO, the NeuroTech Institute

Kerr recently conducted an experiment investigating how complex decision-making differs in a group versus individual scenario. 

In the study, individuals were either: on their own and had to learn how to apply new knowledge; working on the task on their own, but with another person close to them in the room; or they first collaborated with another person on an initial task, before completing the complex problem.

“The people who collaborated with another person face to face before completing the individual problem learned faster, and applied the knowledge more quickly and consistently throughout the exercise.”

Whether online or in-person, teaching the information to someone else is also going to enhance memory retention, and embed the memory more strongly.

“It’s not just a matter of getting information into our brains,” says Pearson. “If you revisit the information within 24 hours, and then again within a week or two, long-term retention will be far greater.

Edwards advises providing opportunities for social connection through learning.

“When you see that person or team again, it helps to bring back the learning content. We know it goes into the hippocampus, the memory centre of the brain, a lot more strongly if we have that social setting”.


Build a high-performing team in the office or virtually with AHRI’s short course on Creating high performance teams.
Book in for the next course on 17 March.


Enhancing remote work

Though remote work can impede learning and creativity in many ways, it can also present opportunities that might not be readily available in the workplace.

Employees could benefit from hearing a high-level conversation between two senior leaders in a virtual fireside chat, which they likely wouldn’t have had access to pre-pandemic. Or they might have greater access to international networks.

In an effort to boost creativity, Pearson and his team have been trialling an ‘immersive environments’ feature in Zoom, which allows a participant to place people in different rooms.

“You spatially have the layout of a room and of being together, so you can look left and right to people. We’re slowly moving in the direction of having real and immersive interactions,” he says.

Work might also be designed so that big-picture thinking can occur in collaborative spaces, leaving us to designate solo tasks that require deep thought for a work day at home.

If you are ideating with others online, consider whether a video link or phone call is the best option, says Kerr.

Your brain will often think more creatively when presented with the latter option. 

She compares the difference between a video and phone call with watching a movie versus reading a book.

“When you read a book, you’re having to make those pictures in your own head and your brain is very active in building this world. It’s a creative process, and that’s why it’s often more calming.

“When you are trying to be creative over a telephone, it’s often easier because your brain is able to imagine a scenario. It’s not concentrating on a screen. It’s taking information and building creative pictures.”

Implementing these strategies can help employees to manage remote work more effectively. With more advanced planning, it’s possible to create an environment for creativity and learning to flourish, and to reap more benefits from remote work.

This article first appeared in the February 2022 edition of HRM magazine.

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