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The novelty of teleworking has worn off and the reality of separation is settling in

Updated: Mar 11, 2022

Understanding the impact of a virtual corporate culture starved of emotional resonance - a hunger that can only be satisfied IRL


by Caroline Van Sickle


Lockdowns may have helped slow the spread of the virus, but no one can deny corporate cultures are under siege. The culture and the people are the primary reasons that draw us to our places of work. The culture often answers to the "why" behind the work we do. Our "why" gives us purpose, which drives us to our growth edge, our greater potential, and our higher selves. Therefore, in thriving corporate cultures, we remain more engaged and more motivated. The foundation of any corporate culture is the people - the relationships amongst teams are the conduits for culture to thrive. Our ability to relate to one another is weakened behind the digital veil of Zoom. That which conveniently connected us during the Pandemic also threatens the very infrastructure that holds us together as an organization.


Many of my clients have experienced the languishing feeling that has crept in like a thief in the night. They don't exactly know why they feel so disconnected, unmotivated, and just sort of "blah." One of my clients said, "I am so busy, and it appears as though I am getting a lot of work done. I am saving time by rolling out of my bed and turning on my computer - the commute alone saves me an hour. But I feel de-energized every night, and I've only been sitting all day at the computer." The back-to-back Zoom meetings with few breaks and no face-to-face human interaction on top of sitting all day are all the thieves of energy, inspiration, and joy in the work we do.


The once bright relational ties that spark happiness in our workday are dulling over Zoom, and our internal well-being is starved of limbic resonance.

This human-to-human interaction provides the prosocial feel-good hormones that keep our bodies physically and emotionally healthy. As described in the book, A General Theory of Love, Limbic resonance is "a symphony of mutual and internal adaptation whereby two mammals become attuned to each other's inner states." [1] Albeit this process occurs unconsciously, it is said to be "the door to communal connection." [2]


In a nutshell, limbic resonance is essential for not just our intimate and close relationships but for our interactions with the people with whom we engage daily - our coworkers. The human species is hardwired to not only be social but to be in collaboration with one another. Therefore, we have a better chance of survival by way of our natural-born tendency to work together. If you've ever played sports, winning as a team or accomplishing a team goal is a huge rush. Why? Because nature rewards us with dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin to promote survival. Unfortunately, in this virtual world, the rush of the winning feeling is watered down.


What happens when our limbic resonance isn't satisfied? We can experience the full spectrum from a sense of languishing to outright depression and anxiety.


One of my clients remarked that he wasn't feeling as creative. In fact, before COVID, he'd wake up early to work out, then go into the office for a full day, and after work, he'd go meet up with friends or have a date with his girlfriend. "I had so much more energy," he lamented. "Now, after working all day from home [on Zoom], I am drawing from an empty well; I'm half as active, half as energized, and way less creative." What he's experiencing is called languishing, something Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D., discusses in her book, Positivity. She developed a theory that explains why many of my clients feel that "dull blah" that came on like a frog boiling in water in the post-pandemic Zoom work environment.


Dr. Fredrickson's renowned Broaden and Build theory emphasizes the critical nature that positive emotions like joy, love, and gratitude play in our survival and our ability to flourish and thrive.

She explains that "micro-moments of positive resonance" are responsible for keeping the faucet of positive emotions turned on. Micro-moments, such as a direct glance that says "I see you and I hear you," a head nod, a smile, or any gesture that acknowledges someone's presence. The micro-moments of positive resonance are crucial to maintaining and strengthening socially bonding behaviors. Such behaviors are foundational to corporate culture. The "broaden" aspect of the theory suggests that when people experience positive emotions, they can expand their view to see new opportunities, solutions, and creative ideas. Simultaneously, positive emotions accrue over time, creating and nurturing fertile ground for well-being growth spanning from the physical, mental, emotional, and intellectual (Fredrickson 2009). Such resources serve as an appreciating portfolio of positive investments that pay off even when times are tough.


The "broaden" aspect of the theory suggests that when people experience positive emotions, they can expand their view to see new opportunities, solutions, and creative ideas.

Further, the Broaden and Build theory purports that negative emotions depreciate our emotional, intellectual, and physical assets. Therefore, fear and frustration - two significant effects of post-COVID isolation, deteriorate our creative and intellectual wealth, prosocial behavior, and overall physical, mental, and emotional health. Think of heliotropism - when the sun's out, all plant life thrives because they automatically turn toward the source of their nourishment. Since COVID, we've done our best to bring all the plants inside and keep them alive. But, the truth is, they are slowly withering because they are so far away from their source of nourishment. Indeed, several species of house plants thrive inside, but the majority cannot reach their growth potential under a UV lamp in the dark corner of an apartment.

According to Psychic Times, "A Neuropsychological Exploration of Zoom Fatigue" by Jena Lee, MD, "Indeed, social interactions are very much associated with our reward circuits, as oxytocin—the hormone involved in social bonding—modulates these same dopaminergic pathways involved in reward processing.11 Moreover, how that social interaction happens seems to matter. For instance, functional MRI data reveal that live face-to-face interactions, compared to viewing recordings, are associated with greater activation in the same brain regions involved in reward (i.e., ACC, ventral striatum, amygdala).12 So, more active social connection is associated with more perceived reward, which in turn affects the very neurological pathways modulating alertness versus fatigue." Therefore, our well-being and reward systems are tightly interconnected with relating to people IRL (in real life). Even though we seem to connect with people via our virtual office, albeit sophisticated and convenient, it tends to isolate us.

For instance, functional MRI data reveal that live face-to-face interactions, compared to viewing recordings, are associated with greater activation in the same brain regions involved in reward (ie, ACC, ventral striatum, amygdala). So, more active social connection is associated with more perceived reward, which in turn affects the very neurological pathways modulating alertness versus fatigue.


Our places of work contribute largely to the social fabric and culture of our community.

We've always heard two minds are better than one or "where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them" (Matthew 18:20). There is a reason this truth is so powerfully pervasive - because the magic that happens, the Holy Spirit Spark of creation, can only occur in relation to another human being. Our shared feeling of being connected to something bigger than ourselves is often through our work and the relationships we build through our professional environments.


In the book, Loneliness, Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by neuroscientists John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, "If you asked a zookeeper to create a proper enclosure for the species Homo Sapiens, she would list at the top of her concerns…do not house a member of the human family in isolation, any more than you would house a member of Aptenodytes forsteri (Emperor Penguins) in hot desert sand. It simply makes no sense to put a creature in an environment that stretches its genetic leash quite that far."


For many, the lockdown has snapped that leash and put us on our own deserted island. The Atlantic reported, "The astonishing resilience that most people have exhibited in the face of the sudden changes brought on by the pandemic …such as working from home, giving up travel, or even going into isolation—better than some policymakers seemed to assume." But neuroscience is teaching us that isolation isn't good for anyone, except maybe one case – a meditating monk in a state of Samadhi, so, there's that.


"Do not house a member of the human family in isolation..."

Zoom Fatigue isn't just an oxymoron.

Some of my clients average five to seven hours a day on Zoom. This inordinate shift in screen time contributes to the problems related to an unsocial (isolated), sedentary screen overload of an existence, which is proving to be unsustainable. Instead of flourishing, we've all hit a wall of post-pandemic languishing. To flourish, we must be in concert with one another, harmonizing with more than verbal language and the delayed gestures from the busts of our digital avatars. Per Thomas Cacioppo and William Patrick, "most face-to-face encounters in real life allow us to communicate through even more subliminal cues-body chemistry, body language, action semantics, mimicry – in addition to words and gestures. Once again, the mind that seeks to connect is first about the body, and leaving the body behind can make the human connections less satisfying." [3] And may I add less creative, less innovative, less intimate, and less everything.

"most face-to-face encounters in real life allow us to communicate through even more subliminal cues-body chemistry, body language, action semantics, mimicry – in addition to words and gestures. Once again, the mind that seeks to connect is first about the body, and leaving the body behind can make the human connections less satisfying."

We learn, grow, and are biologically rewarded through our social interconnectedness. In fact, according to Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D., even the small positive "micro-moments of positivity resonance" in our everyday social engagements are essential deposits to our wellness banks. Sharing a warm smile or laugh with someone IRL directly impacts our vagal tone, a measurement of the parasympathetic nervous system that indicates whether someone feels safe and relaxed or anxious, aggressive, or panicked.

When we're online, behind the virtual veil, we lack the discernible synchronicity that comes about through our shared experiences with one another. The virtual world disconnects us from all the shared biochemical boosts of empathy, compassion, and relationship rewards. Even though we can take online courses, compose the most informative online meetings, host festive online cocktail parties, these stand-ins don't measure up to the real thing. The reason is that so much of our communication is in the body, "The abstracted nature of electronic communication – the absence of physical context and forms of connection – may account in part for the finding that increased Internet use can increase social isolation as well as depression when it replaces more tangible forms of human contact." [4]


A new appreciation for communities and culture

Not only do we need to come together to feel good, to communicate, and to work together, but we need to come together to resolve what appear to be our differences and innovate from our common ground of shared goals.


If relationship rewards break down barriers, lack thereof puts us all on the defense. When no investments are made in the relationship, loyalty, and shared goals erode the foundation of the overarching business culture. And for most companies, culture is what not only attracts loyal employees in the first place but it's also what keeps them engaged and connected to the company's shared vision.


Culture is the invisible glue that holds everything together.


[1] A General Theory of Love (2000) by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon [2] Ibid [3] Loneliness, by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, p.227 [4] Ibid

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