February 7, 2022

Living and Learning During a Pandemic: Our Take on Raconteur’s ‘Digital Learning’ Report

Melissa Malec

Raconteur’s ‘Digital Learning’ report was published last week, and we wrote an article in response to the wealth of data it presents. This week we’re responding to the first section of the report, which asks, ‘Is remote work damaging our ability to learn?’.  

The answer is provided in the first paragraph: remote work damages our ability to learn. The rest of the report uncovers why this is the case and leans into the insights of 2 experts, Natalia Ramsden, director of cognitive optimisation consultancy SOFOS Associates, and Dr Guy Champniss, head of behavioural science at engagement consultancy, The Creative Engagement Group (CEG).

These are what the experts see as contributing to a less than optimal learning environment:

  • Cognitive overload leading to either less inclination or less ability to learn
  • Missing out on mental stimulation from office environments
  • Stress and work from home habits impeding our brain function

Let’s look at each one more closely and in context.

Cognitive Overload When Working Remotely

Cognitive load is the amount of information we can hold at one time. When we’re trying to understand too much information, we go into cognitive overload. So what is it about working remotely that is putting us over the edge?

As a social species, we rely on non-verbal cues to gather information and communicate. Remote work lacks the social interactions where we can normally pick up on those cues. As a result, we compensate for that loss by using more of our brain capacity to decipher what our colleagues are trying to communicate, whether over video or messaging apps. 

As we enter — and remain — in cognitive overload, our brain becomes more and more tired. And when we’re tired, we don’t want to expend energy on non-essential tasks such as learning. It’s not just that our ability to learn is suffering in these instances but that we may not even be choosing to learn in the first place.

Let’s look beyond remote work and at a pandemic context. Is the exhaustion we feel something that can be relieved if other aspects of our lives were ‘normal’? Could we unload some of the weight by interacting with friends and family, seeing the expressions of people when they aren’t half covered by a face mask, etc.?

That’s something we may find out in the next chapter of remote work as COVID restrictions ease and recede.

We can agree that for the last year, exhaustion has been at an all-time high, and for some, this manifests in learning deficits. 

Lack of Mental Stimulation at Home

The headline above may at first appear to contradict the section that precedes it. How can we be in both cognitive overload yet experiencing less mental stimulation? 

The difference which makes it possible is that mental stimulation can create neurological pathways for creative and critical thinking while cognitive overload shuts that thinking down. Too much energy is going into one place, and the brain isn’t being stimulated in others, ultimately negatively impacting how it functions.

For some, the office and interacting with colleagues is where they get their inspiration and where their brain lights up, but it’s important to remember that this is not the case for everyone. Introverts are one group of people who may feel that their neurological pathways open up when the social stress of the office is absent. 

Taking that group out of the equation we could again ask if it is remote work or pandemic life that our brains are under-stimulated by?

Work, which in pre-pandemic times meant the office, occupies a considerable amount of our day. We could argue that even having social interactions outside of work wouldn’t necessarily replace the mental stimulation that the office environment can create. 

An office is a place where we can effortlessly bounce ideas off one another, where we can see the presentations for a client someone is working on and even just getting up and grabbing a coffee can have a multitude of stimuli. Home, on the other hand, can lead to a different environment and lifestyle all together. 

WFH Habits Impede Learning

Lockdown lifestyles aren’t the same for everyone, but many people are getting outside less, eating more takeaways, exercising less, experiencing more stress and just generally living unbalanced lives in one way or another.

If someone lacks mental stimulation or cognitive overload, their attention, retention and intention towards learning will already be weaker. Lifestyle choices can exacerbate the learning issue.

When there is a lack of distinction between work life and home life, the brain finds it difficult to switch off and relax. Rest and health are crucial to optimal brain function, and without them, we aren’t learning — or learning well.

Of course, WFH patterns can change, especially as we move out of a global pandemic. Workplace emphasis on habits can change as well, and People or HR functions can find new ways to support remote employees. It may have been a year of impaired learning, but that doesn’t mean we can’t take learnings from it.

Additionally, factors such as stress, lack of social interaction and outside environments are dependent on more than just remote work; they’re dependent on what is allowed or restricted, so there may still be hope for non-pandemic work from home learning. 

Final Thoughts

The last year doesn’t reflect a genuine work from home experience or experiment. Our ability to learn during it doesn’t wholly reflect the effectiveness of learning while working from home but rather learning while living through a pandemic that keeps us home.

The human brain is resilient, adaptable and can rewire so that it functions better in new situations. Whether work from home or work from home during a pandemic negatively impacts our learning, we can rest assured that it can change. Learning while remote can be effective and optimised.

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