Panic Toilet Roll Buying: Lessons from neuroscience for companies who are telling their people to work from home
People are panic buying toilet roll. Why? Fear and feelings of loss of control and uncertainty from contradictory information. Our brains constantly seek patterns, information that fits into our existing view of the world and confirms our perceptions and biases. Covid-19 doesn’t fit.
Covid-19 is a relatively novel situation. The world hasn’t shut down like this before. Italy, an already economically precarious country has ‘locked-down’ 60m people. The police are nearly the only people on the streets. Imagine the fear. Many people will have reduced or no income during the ‘lock-down’. Imagine the feelings of loss of control about earning enough to feed your family. ‘Lock-down' with family members for at least 3 weeks: Many people find a few days over Christmas difficult!
Novel situations and lack of pattern recognition stimulates our natural fear response. The mixed messages about how serious Covid-19 is creates uncertainty (although spare a thought for your older relatives with pre-existing medical conditions for whom the messages are not mixed!).
What does this have to do with working from home? If you are considering sending people home, consider how much, and what, you will need to communicate with them while at home to reduce the sense of fear, loss of control and uncertainty. To reduce panic and irrational behaviour. To allow them to continue to focus on work.
Panic in Singapore has been less than other countries: The President gave open and detailed information. In China, information at the beginning of the outbreak was tightly controlled, the virus was not. In Iran, a health minister tried to reassure people while clearly looking unwell. Clear, detailed, consistent and honest information is key.
Anyone at home will need a lot more frequent communication about events, actions and colleagues across your whole organisation. In this case, less is not more. This will help maintain calm, rational behaviour and interactions (which can so easily escalate into mis-communication even in normal circumstance). The lack of social contact may also be a problem. Anyone with pre-existing mental health concerns may be particularly at risk. Offering online meetings and coaching or counselling may be key for people to be able to maintain their work output while at home.
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