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The Neuroscience of Remote Work 

Mirror neurons may explain why relationship building is more difficult online.

Key points

  • Building relationships on remote teams is more challenging than building relationships in person.
  • The explanation may rest on mirror neurons, which are activated when a person performs certain actions and when they see others doing the same.
  • Online work platforms (e.g., Slack and Zoom) limit one's ability to observe others, and as a result, mute the effects of mirror neurons.
  • Mirror neurons may be irreplaceable; still, there are many things leaders can do to build authentic and sustainable relationships online.

With or without COVID-19, remote work is likely here to stay. As a result, we increasingly find ourselves collaborating with people we have never met in person. The sooner we understand why this isn't easy and build secondary skills to adjust, the more likely it is that we'll find an effective way to manage remote work's unique challenges.

The Challenge of Building Relationships Remotely

One of the greatest challenges of remote work is building and sustaining relationships, especially with new team members.

Even before the pandemic, there were troubling signs that remote work, despite its notable benefits, seems to put authentic and sustainable relationships at risk. One 2017 study found that over half of remote workers felt that colleagues did not treat them equally. In short, they felt seen as "doers" (bodies capable of completing tasks) but not necessarily as unique and complex individuals. Since the pandemic's start, numerous studies have confirmed these earlier findings.

In March 2021, Nancy Baym, a Senior Researcher at Microsoft, and colleagues published a summary article on remote work in the Harvard Business Review. Based on over 50 Microsoft studies carried out in 2020, the summary emphasized that some groups were struggling more than others to make strong connections at work, including younger and new employees. As Baym and colleagues emphasized, "The past year has made it harder for new employees to find their footing since they're not experiencing the onboarding, networking, and training that they might have expected in a normal year. These employees say their relationships with their direct teams and access to leadership are worse than those who have been with the company longer."

Not surprisingly, two years into the pandemic, there is a lot of advice about how to overcome the virtual divide of working exclusively on platforms such as Slack, Zoom, and Microsoft Teams. While some of this advice is useful, most of it overlooks an important fact: When we are in the presence of other people, our brains fire on different levels, making it easier to build and sustain authentic connections. It all starts with mirror neurons.

How Remote Work Compromises the Ability to Fire Up "Mirror Neurons"

Italian neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni discovered mirror neurons in the 1990s. In a nutshell, mirror neurons are activated when we perform certain actions (e.g., smiling) and see someone performing the same actions. Because they seem to collapse the line between doing and seeing, these neurons are believed to play a critical role in empathy and relationship building.

As Iacoboni told Scientific America in a 2008 interview, "Mirror neurons are the only brain cells we know of that seem specialized to code the actions of other people and also our own actions. They are obviously essential brain cells for social interactions. Without them, we would likely be blind to the actions, intentions, and emotions of other people." So, what happens when we eliminate face-to-face contact?

Interacting with others online doesn't necessarily eliminate the possibility of activating mirror neurons. Still, online interfaces do place certain limits on our interactions that curtail the activation of mirror neurons. Most notably, since mirror neurons are activated when observing others, any interface that reduces channels of information is bound to mute their positive effects.

We know, for example, that we tend to wince when we see someone else experiencing pain. The phenomenon is commonly known as "neural resonance," and mirror neurons are responsible. Some online communications (e.g., a Slack channel) are text-based and therefore eliminate the chance to observe coworkers closely whether they are smiling or wincing. But when it comes to mirror neurons, even interactive video-based channels can pose a challenge.

On platforms such as Zoom, observations are limited by the frame of the screen (e.g., we typically only see heads, not bodies) and the quality of the images (e.g., even on the fastest networks, buffering can be a problem). Another notable factor is that other critical communication cues may also be lost. For example, anyone who has attempted to give a presentation on Zoom can attest to the fact that doing so is much more difficult than giving the same presentation in person. The reason is simple. In person, we can hear our audience's reactions and respond accordingly. As a result, mirror neurons are being activated on both sides. When everyone's microphones are muted, the line between doing and seeing is reinforced, which mutes the effects of mirror neurons.

Hypothetically, then, remote work doesn't eliminate the impact of mirror neurons, but it does reduce their impact. In turn, this affects our ability to connect with team members and build authentic and empathetic connections.

Building Relationships Across the Digital Wall

Knowing that it doesn't just feel harder but is harder to connect with team members online, here are some strategies to help overcome the real impact of building relationships across the digital wall:

  • Acknowledge the difference: Be candid about the challenges of remote work and how it impacts relationships. It will create a space to exhale and initiate a conversation.
  • Celebrate "ups": Over the course of the pandemic, we've gotten better at acknowledging lows and highs, but don't forget to also acknowledge ups (i.e., sustainable and ongoing successes).
  • Adjust to interacting with less data: In person, we have access to an incredible amount of information about our team members. We can read their body language, observe their work habits, and even discover if they have a secret love for brightly colored socks. Remote work eliminates our access to this data and much more. To make up for the loss, make an effort to have more regular and meaningful conversations with team members, even if it means carving out extra time to hold more one-on-one meetings with team members.
  • Enhance your focus: When you are engaging with a team member online, do everything you can to focus. Tune out other distractions (e.g., close multiple open tabs on your screen and turn off your notifications), close off your camera (i.e., look only at your interlocutor and not at yourself), and explore alternative conversation spaces (e.g., shift away from your desk to a comfortable chair).

While there may be no substitute for mirror neurons, acknowledging how they are impacted by remote work and making small changes in how we approach relationship-building are critical interventions.