Have you been working from home since March? Are you enjoying it or are you missing your old workplace? Are you are also starting to notice a monotony that seems to lead to mild memory confusion? I am. In this post, I want to explore how and why doing everything online might make it harder to keep things straight.
In 2020, many of us learned to work from home. The novel coronavirus that caused COVID-19 also caused a shift in how a lot of us worked. Across the world, many teachers, tech workers, knowledge workers, people in media, and people in business began working from home and began holding meetings on video meeting platforms like Zoom, Skype, or MS Teams. For many of us, it represented a significant shift in how we did our work, even though much of the content work stayed the same.
At first this was as novel as anything else. I liked writing from home, and I converted the spare bedroom into an office.
Great, I thought. We’ll get through this. More than 7 months later I’m not sure. There have been more than enough essays on Zoom fatigue, the challenges of spotty internet, tips for better meetings, and Zoom etiquette. I want to talk about something else. The unbearable sameness of online meetings and its effects on my memory.
Zoom Takes Over
Video meetings have been around for a while in academia, but the near total reliance on them in 2020 was unprecedented. We use our knowledge of the past to help guide our behaviour in new situations. But for this, I had few prior memories available to guide me. What I did have to guide me were my usual routines, like weekly lab meetings and weekly advisory meeting with my students. So that’s how I began to structure my online day. It was similar to my pre-pandemic workday, just using video meetings in place of face-to-face meeting.
I began to teach online using Zoom for student meetings and recording lecture videos. I meet weekly with my graduate students online on Zoom. We hold weekly lab meetings on Zoom. We hold department meetings on Zoom. We have PhD defences and masters thesis defences on Zoom. There are formal Zoom talks and informal zoom coffee breaks. Some people even have Zoom happy hours. Even academic conferences, which have long been a way for academics, researchers, students and scientists to come together from different locations switched to online formats. Soon, I was doing all my work—all my teaching, research, committee work, and mentoring—from the same screen on the same computer in the same room.
Although a lot of my research and teaching work is able to carried out at home and online, I began to notice some small changes. Not just general fatigue, though that’s also a concern. I was making more simple memory errors (more than usual). For example, I might be talking with one student for 10 minutes about the wrong project. Or I might confuse one meeting for another. A lot of these mistakes were source memory errors. I remembered the student, a topic, and the meeting, but confused which one was which. I was more like the stereotype of the “absent minded professor” than I used to be.
Then I realized a possible source for the problem: Everything looked the same. I was looking at the same screen on the same computer in the same room for everything. This was not typical. For my entire career as an academic, there have always been different places for different activities. I would lecture in a lecture hall or classroom. I would hold seminars in a small discussion room. I would meet with students in my office. I would meet with colleagues at the café on campus. Committee meetings were usually held in meeting rooms and board rooms. I would work on data analyses in my office. I would usually write at home or sometimes in a local café. Different places for different tasks. But now, all the work was in one place. Teaching, research, writing, and advising were all online. And worse, it all looked the same. It was all on the same screen, on Zoom, and in my home office. I no longer had the variety of space, time, location, and context to create a varied set of memory cues.
Location Based Memory
Memory is flexible and our memory depends on spreading activation to activate similar memories. In some cases, local context can be a strong and helpful memory cue. If you encode some information in one context, you will often remember that information better in the same context. Memory retrieval depends on a connection between the cues that were present at encoding and the cues that were present at retrieval. This is how we know how to adjust our behaviour in different contexts.
We react to locations all the time. When you walk into a restaurant or diner, you probably adjust your behaviour. If you are returning to a restaurant that you were at years ago, you will remember having been there before. Students behave differently in class than out of class. Being in specific place helps you remember things that you associated with that place. This is all part of our natural tendency to remember things where and when they are likely to matter most.
But it seemed like this natural tendency was working against me. Each day began and ended at the desk in my home office. Each day I was in the same location when I taught, wrote, met, and carried out analyses. But this was also the same location where I read the news, caught up on Twitter, and ordered groceries online. What I noticed in my new forgetfulness was that I was experiencing memory interference. Everything was starting to look the same. The contextual cues that would normally be a helpful reminder of what I was doing were no longer working as memory cues because they were the same cues for everything and everyone. When everything looks the same, context is no longer a helpful memory cue. If you work, meet, read, write, shop, and casually read the news in exactly the same place, the likelihood that you will make an error of confusion is increased. It’s not that I am forgetting things; It’s just that I am not always remembering the right things
What (if any) solutions?
This is not an easy problem to solve, of course, because as long as COVID is ascendant, I will still have to work from home. But I am trying a few things. One simple fix might be to vary my approach to video meetings. It might help to change platforms in a consistent way, say by meeting with one working group on MS Teams and another on Zoom. It’s not as strong of a difference as meeting in different rooms, but it’s still a change of venue. Another way to accomplish the same goal is to simply change the appearance of my computer each time you meet with a person, use different backgrounds for different people, or light view for “work”, dark view for “home”. These seem like very small things and they might not fix the problem entirely, but they could help.
I thought about working in my university office, maybe once a week, and do my Zoom-based grad advisory meetings that way. Maybe that will help create a good context cue. Though I have to say, I like my home office setup with my cat, no driving commute, and unlimited coffee. The other issue with working on campus is that if we have another lockdown, I have to start over again from home. I really want to make it work from home. I need to find new ways to work, not try to work the old way.
I’m willing to try different things to help bring some better sense of structure to my online life. Like it or not, this is how a lot of us are working now and for the foreseeable future.
I would be interested in hearing your suggestions and other ideas.