Remote working will continue for the foreseeable future. Leaders can pursue mind-body balance to make sure they—and their teams—make the best of it.
How do successful leaders maintain, or even enhance, both effectiveness and personal connections in the virtual workplace? This question has been top of mind for many executives since the COVID-19 crisis abruptly forced them and their teams out of traditional office settings. Because many companies plan to maintain virtual workplaces for the foreseeable future, tackling the challenges is an ongoing imperative.
Research suggests that the answer to the question lies in the mind-body connection. A study conducted by Awaris (a company that focuses on leadership development and scientifically proven mindfulness-based interventions) and BCG found that the leaders who have adjusted well to the new environment have a deep, intuitive understanding of their own neurobiology and physiology. (See “About the Study.”) Because they are in touch with what their minds and bodies are feeling, they are able to balance several pairs of qualities: physiological activation and recovery, attention and awareness, and cognitive connection and empathetic presence. When these qualities are in balance, leaders can promote effectiveness and personal connections, for themselves and for their team members.
All leaders can cultivate mind-body skills to systematically recover from stress, train awareness, and enhance their presence. Indeed, our study demonstrated the efficacy of several basic mindfulness practices in building personal qualities that are essential for leadership in the virtual workplace and in any crisis situation. By adopting these practices, leaders can fare better during the current crisis and build their resilience for future challenges.
Many people have touted the success of the virtual workplace by citing reports of increased effectiveness. Indeed, 50% of executives participating in the leadership development program said that they were more effective (in terms of getting things done) when working from home during the crisis than they were in the traditional workplace. Even so, a substantial number—33%—reported that they were less effective working from home.
Effectiveness, while important, is only part of the story. Other factors, in particular well-being and team-wide collaboration, are equally important. Several aspects of well-being—reducing stress levels, maintaining personal connections, and setting boundaries for the workday—appear to be challenging for many leaders. Of the participants in the leadership development program, 66% reported that they observed an increase in overall stress levels in the virtual workplace and 81% found that people struggled to set boundaries and to disconnect from work. Taken together, the findings suggest that the loss of personal connections and work-life boundaries can exert tremendous pressure on the emotional well-being of leaders and their teams in the virtual workplace.
The data on emotional well-being should be of concern to companies as they proceed with plans to continue virtual operations over the coming months. More than ever, organizations need to support leaders in maintaining well-being as they manage teams during the pandemic. Indeed, BCG’s COVID-19 Employee Sentiment Survey found a correlation between mental health and productivity: people who have experienced better mental health during the pandemic than before it are about two times more likely to maintain or improve their productivity on collaborative tasks than those who have experienced worse mental health.
We believe that mindfulness offers a solution. Leaders who engaged in the ten-week programs were able to increase their emotional, psychological, and social well-being. (See Exhibit 1.) Mindfulness improved their ability to balance stress and recovery, increase awareness, and enhance emotional presence—allowing them to achieve an inner balance that promotes overall well-being. It’s important to note that this measure was taken during what was, in many locations, a difficult phase of the COVID-19 crisis.
Each of the six qualities comprising the following three pairs is fundamental to our humanity. The challenge, particularly in the virtual workplace, is to strike a balance that promotes performance without sacrificing well-being.
Physiological Activation and Recovery
Stress—a well-developed and life-saving biological mechanism to respond to danger—affects people physiologically via the autonomic nervous system. When a person perceives danger, the sympathetic nervous system is automatically activated, triggering a fight-or-flight response. (For example, vision narrows and blood flows away from brain into the legs and arms.) This happens before a person consciously processes a trigger as a source of stress.
Overloading on negative information is a major trigger of stress, which, in addition to health and financial concerns, explains why many people have perceived higher stress levels in recent months. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, people were already consuming massive amounts of information from news sites, social media, and email—we estimate 200,000 words per day, extrapolating from data compiled in a 2009 study by the University of California, San Diego.
One strategy for reducing stress in a crisis is to be conscious of the information we are consuming, or what we are otherwise paying attention to, so that we can focus on the positive and avoid being consumed by the negative. Coupled with this, we can promote recovery from stress through self-compassion. Being compassionate helps us avoid falling into a typical vicious cycle in which feeling stress induces a higher level of self-criticism and more stress. In other words, the solution is not to try to stop thinking about stress but to acknowledge the feelings induced in a nonjudgmental way and then to understand and manage the triggers.
By adopting a reflective body-mind practice—such as meditation, yoga, or tai chi—leaders can learn to sense the state of their nervous system and build habits for strategic recovery, including self-compassion. Even a simple meditation exercise focused on breathing can be beneficial for relaxing the nervous system and balancing activation and recovery. (See “Balancing Your Nervous System.”)
Participants in the mindfulness program reported, on average, a reduction in their perceived stress levels and an increase in self-compassion, even in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. (See Exhibit 2.)
Attention and Awareness
From an evolutionary perspective, mammals need two modes of perception to survive: attention and awareness. Consider a mouse that discovers a juicy worm in a hole. It must focus its attention to extract the delicate morsel from the hole and then select and munch the juicy bits. At the same time, however, it must maintain awareness to scan for dangers—is there an eagle overhead looking for its next meal? Such awareness is much broader than focused attention, taking in the whole environment and making connections (such as between a sound in the trees and a potential danger). This pair of qualities is essential for humans as well.
As the example illustrates, attention and awareness have different characteristics:
In the virtual workplace, attention tends to dominate over awareness. Many people experience remote work as being primarily task focused. For example, as they enter a video meeting, people typically do not have casual conversations or notice what colleagues are wearing. Because we are focused on effectiveness, we often lose our awareness of the bigger patterns of changes occurring around us. Indeed, numerous studies have found that remote work, while effective, imposes collaborative challenges—an observation that many of us can confirm.
To improve their grasp of the bigger picture of what they are working on and their collaborative skills, leaders need to stop overusing their attention and instead increase their emphasis on awareness, thereby integrating both halves of the brain. Awareness also helps them to be more aware of their own cognitive processes—and to avoid judging others or jumping to conclusions.
We can cultivate mental habits of awareness—feeling and seeing the whole—by pausing from work to look out the window, reflecting, consciously being aware, and moving our body. (See “Shifting from Attention to Awareness.”)
At the end of the ten-week mindfulness programs, participants showed a measurable increase in acting with awareness and in nonreactivity, thereby enhancing emotional intelligence. (See Exhibit 3.)
Cognitive Connection and Empathetic Presence
Remote workers have numerous ways to connect—such as email, messaging apps, and video meetings. However, these connections are primarily cognitive, not empathically felt or experienced as if one is truly present. As a result, despite connecting on a cognitive basis, many employees actually feel disconnected from their purpose, their team, and their organization.
Genuinely being present with others—on an emotional level—is more difficult in a virtual environment than face-to-face in an office. For example, some of the mechanisms we use to tune into each other’s emotions (including touch and body language) are not available when working remotely. Moreover, because almost the entire workday is spent in front of a screen, many people have lost the sense of human presence—as well as the many collaborative benefits that flow from this. Indeed, BCG’s COVID-19 Employee Sentiment Survey found that employees who reported satisfaction with social connectivity with their colleagues while working remotely are two to three times more likely to have maintained or improved their productivity on collaborative tasks than those who are dissatisfied with their connections.
Leaders transmit presence when they are attentive and sensitive and when they connect emotionally with people around them. Although the concept of presence may seem mysterious, it works through well-known mechanisms. In essence, interpersonal presence is an interplay of several leadership qualities, including two we discussed earlier:
Mindfulness training improves all elements of presence: As shown in Exhibit 3, it improves the ability to act with awareness and nonreactivity. We found that it also improves the abilities to be nonjudgmental and to describe emotional states. (See Exhibit 4.)
To cultivate presence, a leader needs to promote self-awareness of the body’s internal physical state (“interoception”). With self-awareness of one’s body, we improve our ability to get in touch with our own emotions. We also enhance our ability to discern what other people are feeling and to connect on an emotional level. This felt sense of connection can be achieved virtually, but it requires conscious effort.
By taking a few minutes to “check in” at the start of virtual meetings, leaders can enhance the emotional presence of all team members. (See “Promoting Presence Virtually.”)
At many companies, leaders have succeeded in making the virtual workplace effective. But effectiveness is not enough by itself—leaders must also promote deep connections with their teams. To sustain effectiveness and connections, leaders must be able to recover from stress, be aware of the bigger picture of their work, and be emotionally present for their teams. Our study’s findings indicate that mind-body practices have helped leaders enhance these qualities, even in the depths of the COVID-19 crisis. Those leaders who get in touch with their minds and bodies will be better able to help their company succeed during the pandemic and in any other crises that lie ahead.