In every online meeting, we’re asking our sophisticated, social brains to take moving images from a flat screen and create real-life, three-dimensional meaning out of them.
You know from life experience that an online meeting is vastly different from an in-person one. Now, take a moment to consider just how different it is for your brain.
In-person, you have the setting laid out right in front of you, in plain sight. Yet when logging in to a meeting, class, or get-together remotely, you don’t have this luxury. Your immediate setting is something like a room with a desk and a computer. To translate this into the context of a “work meeting,” “classroom” or “happy hour,” you must take additional mental steps. Your brain takes limited information coming from the screen, the speakers, your own physical work area, and information inside your mind to construct a version of a three-dimensional world.
We navigate through this new virtual world by deciding what things coming into our eyes and ears are relevant, and what can be ignored. To understand how we interpret this experience, we must turn to the navigator itself: our attention.
As my co-author, Diane Lennard, Ph.D., and I explain in our book Humanizing the Remote Experience, paying attention is a complex, multistep process. Here’s where some of these steps can go off track during online meetings:
1. When your brain thinks you’re alone, it may become hypervigilant.
The first step of paying attention is called alerting: coming into an internal state of mind that’s ready to receive and respond to sensory information. Alertness can range from a very low level (asleep) to a very high level (vigilant).
A happy medium of alertness can only happen when you feel safe in your environment. Safety is a prerequisite for alertness, just as alertness is a prerequisite for focused attention.
If your brain and nervous system deem your environment to be unsafe or threatening because you’re all alone—despite the other faces on the screen—you’ll be unable to concentrate well. Our brains are wired for connection. Feeling safe, alert, and focused often requires the actual presence of other people.
2. When working online, a usually automatic process becomes forced.
Orienting is the step in which you move your attention to a specific location in space. It involves realizing where you are and what’s going on.
If someone steps up to the front of a physical conference room and stands next to a projected PowerPoint presentation, it’s pretty clear where your attention should go. But on a Zoom call, with its all-too-familiar grid of equally shaped and sized faces and different noises coming from the same headphone output, it’s not so easy.
Natural attention-grabbers like movement or brightness will capture your attention. You have to literally “push” your attention to the person who’s speaking or presenting, rather than it naturally drifting to where it’s supposed to be. It’s much like forcing yourself to look at the road on a monotonous drive versus locking on to a deer that just darted out into your path. Online meetings are filled with darting deer.
Worse, once your brain orients, the process isn’t over. Based on physical cues, your brain is skilled at locating people in three-dimensional space. But on the flat screen, information about the people you’re interacting with doesn’t necessarily match what your brain expects. This mismatch is what creates the need for frequent reorienting throughout the meeting.
3. When you’re remote, it’s harder for your brain to prioritize what to focus on—and what to tune out.
In a shared physical space, people tend to be distracted by the same things. If there’s a loud bang in the next room or something interesting is happening outside a window, everyone experiences it. Many people in the room will switch their attention to this new thing, and then the group’s attention will eventually refocus.
But this is far from what happens when everyone is in their own “digital window.” You may be distracted by something in your space while everyone else continues with the online conversation. No one is aware that you’ve switched your attention, and you can easily lose the thread of the group’s conversation.
If you work from home, you likely have many distractions competing for your attention. For example, hearing your children or pets in the next room, regardless of how well or poorly they behave, is a distraction. This increases the likelihood that you’ll switch your attention or have trouble prioritizing the meeting you’re leading.
Avoiding attention switches can be even trickier if you don’t have the luxury of a completely dedicated space in your home for remote work. A repurposed or shared room comes with its own set of distractions.
4. Digital spaces and platforms make sustained attention challenging.
In remote environments, distractions appear from everywhere: your environment, your co-workers’ digital spaces, and even the remote platform itself. Video platforms introduce many new distractions that result in frequent attention-switching, such as the chat function and the ever-present self-view. The opportunity to check your email or answer a text without anyone noticing can also be hard to resist.
Yet every switch from one stimulus to another is extra work for your brain. As much as we think we’re multitasking, in truth, there’s no such thing.
Attention is a finite resource that can run out, just like physical stamina when running a race or wakefulness throughout the day. Becoming more aware of when you’re making higher demands on it can help you begin to manage it better, even when your environment makes it difficult.
Dr. Amy Mednick is a psychiatrist working in her own private practice who specializes in the overlap between the humanities and neuroscience. Dr. Diane Lennard is a professor of management communication at NYU Stern School of Business and a communication coach for executives, teams, educators, and professionals. Their new book is Humanizing the Remote Experience through Leadership and Coaching: Strategies for Better Virtual Connections. Learn more at HTRE-Book.com.
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