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How (and why) you need to retrain your brain to be social again

The chief talent scientist at ManpowerGroup says we will probably return to a different world with different rules, in which adapting to a new system will matter more than going back to old habits.

How (and why) you need to retrain your brain to be social again
[Source photo: Sanja Radin/iStock]
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Many of us have spent so much time away from work colleagues—and staring at our screens—that it’s logical to wonder whether we need to somehow retrain or rewire our brains in order to relearn how to socialize with work colleagues again. After all, it is a lot harder to go on mute, turn off your camera, or summarize your thoughts through emoji when you are communicating in person. And when you can’t be distracted by your own image on a screen, you are actually forced to pay attention to others, even if your intention is just to understand how you are doing. Neuroscience suggests that we’ve become socially awkward during this past year and a half and that we need to start working on our social and emotional intelligence again.

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First, the good news. Our interpersonal skills are based on years of learning and conditioning, plus an even bigger chunk of personality and character traits, so while we may be a bit out of practice, you can think of the ability to be social and relate to others as riding a bicycle. Our social skills couldn’t be completely erased by a year of lockdown, and even when we are introverted and love working from home. So we should have no trouble reverting to our pre-pandemic levels of sociability. Granted, to some that is hardly a high bar.

Now onto the bad news. Many people were already quite frustrated having to commute, spend time on endless face-to-face meetings, and come to the office mostly because they were forced to as opposed to going in because it helped them do their work more productively. These employees, who are arguably part of the majority of workers who were not engaged at work prior to the pandemic, will have experienced a much better, more efficient, and convenient way of working in the last year and a half.

Since productivity levels will have remained unchanged or even gone up for these workers, it’s unsurprising that the prospect of returning to an office, even if not full time, is experienced as a drag by many. According to a recent EY report, around 52% of workers would quit their jobs if they are not granted more flexibility—and the right to pick where they work—after offices formally reopen. You can also expect these workers to be in-demand to other employers who will use flexibility as a talent acquisition tactic. Clearly, many people will pick employers that are more willing to adjust to their own preferences, and ditch those who are rigid or old fashioned when it comes to working arrangements. Hybrid work is the latest carrot dangled to prospective employees, and companies that find ways to make hybrid work, work, will gain a considerable advantage in the war for talent. 

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It is also clear that habits are always hard to change. And we have built new enduring habits since the pandemic began. For instance, people may be more reluctant to dress up today than they were pre-2020, and the already visible trend towards informality has been exacerbated during a year in which many workers (and most within the knowledge economy) combined casual shirts with no pants and no shoes. Zoom has confirmed that one does not need to be fully dressed in order to be productive, let alone wear formal attire. This doesn’t mean we’re unable to dress up again, or that a significant portion of the workforce will return to the office barefooted or in their underwear. However, it does expose old habits as antiquated and unnatural. We should remember that fashion is ephemeral by definition. Today’s formal is yesterday’s informal, and tomorrow’s normal is today’s abomination. There is a clear upside here, too. It’s an opportunity to refocus on substance over style and examine what people actually contribute and produce, rather than what they look like. 

Many of us have already returned to socializing instances with work colleagues, and we may have felt wooden and rusty on the first occasions. But let’s not forget that humans are social creatures by design and that our DNA is the residual product of thousands of years of socializing. If anything, a big challenge modern organizations face is to shut down this archaic influence in order to make us more open-minded, less prejudiced, and less reliant on our intuition.

When we go back to in-person meetings and business gatherings with clients and colleagues, we will reactivate opportunities for bias, politicking, and nepotism. Being in the right place at the right time and saying the right thing to the right people, will be an even bigger driver of our career success. This creates a premium for the politically inclined and the comfortable high-status workers who can afford to spend time playing the game because many people are simply unable or unwilling to be in the physical workplace.

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We have already seen worrying data showing that women and minorities are far less likely to return to the office, perhaps not just because they face extra burden with unpaid work at home, but also because they have less to benefit from being there. They also have more to lose from not being there. Narrow-minded and prejudiced bosses will surely welcome an opportunity to create a two-tiered system where those who are able to be where the action happens will get special treatment, while those who are absent are overlooked or undermined for big career opportunities. 

So, perhaps the bigger question is not how to retrain our brains, but how to understand the consequences of our behaviors, as well as the new grammar and dynamics of these novel working environments. After all, we will probably return to a different world with different rules, in which adapting to a new system will matter more than going back to old habits.

It’s been said that a crisis is a period where the old is not dead and the new is not ready to move on yet. Finding out where exactly you want to be, and what implications your position has, is more important than defaulting on old behaviors or stubbornly refusing to abandon your latest habits. The hope is that an evolution is possible and that this evolution somehow closes the gap between what people actually contribute, and what they are rewarded for. Anything else will bring back the same old problems to organizations, to everyone’s peril.

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In short, rather than relearning how to relate, what will be needed as we return to some level of in-person collaboration and spend more time at the office, is to fine-tune our emotional and social abilities so that we can rapidly make sense of the new rules and next chapter in the cultural evolution of our organization. This will likely include:

  1. Showing the necessary empathy to understand how our colleagues (and bosses) are feeling, how they coped (and are still coping) with this crisis, and how the crisis may have changed them. Even if people remain mostly the same after a certain age, extreme life circumstances can have profound effects on their way of thinking, feeling, and being. So, make an effort to learn and understand where your coworkers are so you can meet them where they are. Anything else will suggest insensitivity. 
  2. Helping others understand you better because things may have changed for you as well. What have you learned about yourself during this pandemic, about your preferred ways of working, your career interests, and how you perhaps reimagined your future? Any new learnings about yourself could be shared with your close colleagues so you can help them interact with you and you can work in an environment where you are understood.
  3. Recovering the humane ingredients of work. We spent the last year and a half trying to become hyper-productive machines, restructuring our lives for efficiency, and eliminating wasted time. Great, but what a sad life! Part of the reason people are interested in returning to the office, albeit in small doses, is that it provides great opportunities to lubricate our social bonds and connections with others. This comes mostly through informal activities unaccounted for by our KPIs but is critical to harnessing our culture and making work not just humane, but also human. Small talk, gossip, personal disclosures, and human-to-human rather than worker-to-worker connections have gone almost forgotten, but will be relished as they return to our everyday lives. 

If we have managed to remain productive while working remotely and from home, that’s because we had a great deal of invested social capital with others. The time has come to reinvest in it, or at least look after our investment. This can only happen if we play our part to rehumanize the workplace again.