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What the great work from home experiment has taught us about the way we work

Man holds briefcase and surgical mask.
Ready to go back to the office? nito via Shutterstock

This is a transcript of episode 8 of The Conversation Weekly podcast, The great remote work experiment – what happens next? In this episode, four experts dissect the impact a year of working from home has had on employees and the companies they work for – and what a more hybrid future might look like. And we talk to a researcher who asked people to sit in bath tubs full of ice cold water to find out why some of us are able to stand the cold better than others.

NOTE: Transcripts may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Gemma: Hello. In this episode of The Conversation Weekly, we talk to experts about the impact that a year of working from home has had on employees and the companies that they work for. And what a more hybrid future might look like.

Ruchi Sina: There’s a new kind of subgroup forming now, those who are on the video call and those who are in person.

Dan: And I speak to a researcher who asked people to sit in bathtubs full of ice cold water to find out why some of us are able to stand the cold better than others.

Victoria Wyckelsma: We got about 40 men to sit in this ice bath at 14 degrees.

Gemma: I’m Gemma Ware in London.

Dan: And I’m Dan Merino working remote this week actually, from the mountains of Lake Tahoe, California. And you’re listening to The Conversation Weekly, our world explained by experts.

Gemma: Dan, when the internet age properly dawned back in the 1990s, a lot of academics hoped that it would revolutionise the way we work. No more office.

Dan: Seems like such a natural technocratic dream, right. The internet comes in, everyone’s completely flexible, no pollution, working from home, cities change, it would have been great, right?

Gemma: Except that it didn’t really happen, and actually the number of employees who work from home full time has remained pretty flat, until the pandemic that is.

For many people who can do their work from home, and we’re talking predominantly here about those people who are employed in what’s called the knowledge economy, so jobs that don’t have to be done face to face, 2020 saw a dramatic shift to remote working.

Dan: But whether this remote work normal is going to stick around is still kind of up in the air.

Gemma: Yeah, some company bosses really don’t like it. Barclays chief executive Jes Staley said it just wasn’t sustainable … and the chief executive of Goldman Sachs, David Solomon, called it an aberration.

Dan: But other companies think working from home is the future … In San Francisco, a huge number of office buildings are just sitting empty as companies and their employees have left.

Gemma: And some companies are announcing hybrid policies, so the energy giant BP has said that it expected staff to work two days a week from home once the lockdown lifts here in the UK.

Gemma: To find out more about how remote working has changed the way we work, and about some problems of a more hybrid future, I’ve spoken to four experts who’ve been researching remote and flexible work during the pandemic.

Gemma: Before the pandemic turned many people’s lives upside down, around 3%-5% of employees in North America worked from home full time. In the European Union, it was around 6%. Some reports had suggested that numbers were increasing – one 2016 survey found that nearly half of US employees worked from home occasionally. Still, the massive shift to remote working that was envisaged back in the 1990s just didn’t happen. But why?

Jean-Nicolas Reyt: Managers tend to dislike the idea of managing remote employees, it’s more complicated.

Gemma: This is Jean-Nicolas Reyt.

Jean-Nicolas: I am an assistant professor at McGill University in the Desautels Faculty of Management and my research focuses on the distances people consider when they’re working, such as, when they’re working remotely.

Gemma: Part of the resistance to full-time remote working seemed to stem from a misconception among employers, that their staff just wouldn’t work as hard if they were not physically in the office. That productivity would go down. But decades of research shows that the opposite is actually true.

Jean-Nicolas: Research has shown consistently that actually there is an increase in productivity when people work from home, and there are several reasons for this. One of them is that people tend to reallocate their commuting time to work time but you also have the fact that people tend to be able to structure their days better and they’re less interrupted than when they’re in a physical office.

Gemma: And yet before the pandemic, managers were often reluctant to allow their employees to work from home.

Jean-Nicolas: So in a lot of organisations, what you see is that, managers get requests, by employees to telework and they often deny it saying, you know, it’s impossible. But we’ve seen, right, recently that it turns out we could actually do it. And we did it.

Gemma: And much of the world did it, very quickly.

In the European Union, estimates suggest that 40% of the bloc’s employees started working from home because of the pandemic. Of the rates vary, depending on the type of job somebody can do, and by country.

Marie-Colombe Afota: My name is Marie-Colombe Afota, so I’m a professor in management, organisational behaviour and leadership in a French business school, ISEG school of management.

Gemma: In France, Marie-Colombe says employers reacted to the sudden imperative to stop office-based work in two phases. When France went into its first lockdown in spring 2020, many companies went into crisis-management mode, shifting to remote working en masse. But after restrictions lifted, and then the second lockdown came around in October, compliance slipped.

Marie-Colombe: On the one hand, we started to see that many organisations were initiating negotiation with unions in order to implement telework programmes that would persist after the pandemic. But on the other hand, we saw these very same organisations, requiring their employees to come to the office, even though they could do their job from home.

Gemma: And data indicates that, before a new wave of restrictions were announced in parts of France last week, only a third of the people who could actually work from home, were doing so, five days per week. Marie-Colombe thinks this is partly because there is no legal obligation on companies to use remote working.

Marie-Colombe: But, I think that part of the explanation also lies in the specific managerial culture of control that still persists in many French companies. To some extent, they were perfectly expressing a form of suspicion that maybe remote workers were not really working.

Commuters walking on train platform in Paris wearing masks.
Commuters in Paris in late March after a new wave of restrictions were announced. Yoan Valat/EPA

Gemma: Marie-Colombe and her colleagues wanted to find out more about the way that employees were affected by these suspicions. They managed to get the agreement of a large French multinational to conduct two surveys of 4,000 of its employees, one in September and once in November last year. She can’t reveal the name of the company because of confidentiality reasons.

Marie-Colombe: This is a large company, the headquarters is based in France, but the company has offices in many countries. But most of our respondents were located in France, Spain and the US.

Gemma: The research has been submitted to an academic journal, though not yet published – but Marie-Colombe and her colleagues recently published some of the initial findings in French on The Conversation. One of the survey questions they asked was how many hours were people working, and because not all the respondents were actually working remotely full time, they were able to compare those in the office, to those working from home.

Marie-Colombe: And, it turned out that this number of hours was exactly the same for these two populations: 45 hours a week. And no significant difference also between countries.

Gemma: So no, those working from home weren’t working less, and this has been backed up by other studies too that show people have actually been working longer hours during the pandemic. But Marie-Colombe was also interested in the perception that these employees had, of how important being present and visible in the office, was to their organisation. She calls this a “climate for face time”.

Marie-Colombe: What we found is that the more employees felt that their organisation generally values being visible in the office, the more they felt expected to be constantly available while in remote work. And in turn, two months later, the less they felt productive and happy in remote work.

Gemma: This working environment isn’t just created by the top bosses of a company, it can be down to individual line managers or supervisors, and the way that they communicate to their teams. And it often means employees feel they need to be physically present in the office to demonstrate their dedication to the job.

Marie-Colombe: But now these employees are home and that don’t have any possibility to signal their dedication performance through this visibility. So it seems like they’re replacing this signal of visibility by another signal, which is extended availability. The problem is that this constant extended availability tends to impinge on their wellbeing and self-rating productivity.

Gemma: Practically, what do they do to compensate for not being in the office?

Marie-Colombe: So, some say: “I’m not moving from my desk. I feel guilty, each time I get up. And each time I have a coffee or take a break, I feel guilty because I need to be able to answer any phone calls, any message, any email as soon as I get it to signal that, yes, I’m there, I am working.”

Gemma: The results varied depending on where the employees were based.

Marie-Colombe: We saw that this climate for face time was much more important in France, Spain than it is in the United States.

Gemma: And take that from the other side, do you think that the employees are right, that their employers actually need that from them?

Marie-Colombe: We know that employees tend to think that if they are visible in the office employers will think that they’re are dedicated, and research shows that this is true. Employers will tend to think that face time equals dedication, equals performance, and research suggests that face time equals promotions. And this is a huge problem for women, for example, it’s a real cause of discrimination at work.

Gemma: This is because women tend to take on more childcare or caring responsibilities, which has tended to make them less visible in the office. And that was before factoring in the negative impact that the pandemic has had on women’s employment, including their likelihood of getting a promotion.

Other ongoing research on people’s experiences of full-time remote working during the pandemic suggest that it has taken a big toll on some.

Dave: I’m Dave Cook.

Gemma: He’s an anthropologist and psychologist studying for a PhD at University College London.

Dave: I’m conducting a seven-year study on remote workers. And I was almost five years into the project when the pandemic hit a year ago.

Gemma: When the pandemic began, he joined a group of academics researching work-life balance as part of a project called They’re interviewing people in the UK about their experiences of working from home.

Dave: During in-depth interviews I noticed the main issues were not being able to unplug at the end of the day, difficulties with collaboration and communication and obviously as we all know now distractions at home. They were a nice little diversion and there were some viral videos, but by the time we got to this lockdown that started at Christmas and then went on into January and February this year and kids weren’t going back to school, that was really eroding people’s wellbeing and mental health over time.

Gemma: And you’ve actually described your findings of this initial survey as it’s kind of a public health issue. Why do you you say that?

Dave: I would say that burnout and work-life balance is the forgotten public health emergency that’s emerging throughout this lockdown. Obviously we’re focusing on trying to beat this pandemic, but while we’re looking the other way, our work-life balance is kind of like falling into tatters. So, things like overwork and not being able to manage distractions at home. Not being able to divide between family time and work time and caring responsibilities, is decreasing people’s sense of wellbeing.

Gemma: Nevertheless, the shift to remote work for those whose jobs allow it, has been a good experience for many other people during the pandemic. Here’s Jean-Nicolas Reyt again.

Jean-Nicolas: A lot of CEOs and a lot of employees are saying, like, it was forced but it’s actually pretty good. And I think one of the reasons is because it addresses a lot of problems that were unaddressed for a really, really long time. For example, I’ll always say, before the pandemic a manager could say for sure to an employee, “Your personal life is completely your problem.” But it’s true that now in a pandemic where we’re asking employees to go and work from home and so work is invading the private space, you know we’re realising that people need the flexibility and people need to to be able to structure their days better.

Gemma: Since the pandemic began, Jean-Nicolas has been tracking what chief executives of companies listed on the NASDAQ and NYSE say about the shift to remote work in their quarterly updates to investors and analysts.

Jean-Nicolas: So I’m following around 250 Canadian CEOs and around 3,000 US CEOs.

Gemma: At the start, many said they didn’t believe in remote work, or that they were worried about productivity and would bring their employees back to the office as soon as possible. But that shifted over the course of the year.

Jean-Nicolas: What you see is that actually that misconception, that telework is just not as efficient as co-located work, has vanished for a lot of CEOs. A lot of CEOs actually say that were very surprised that it was working so well. A lot of CEOs are announcing that they will make remote work permanent. Some CEOs are still maintaining that they want to have co-located work, but I would say the very very vast majority of them talk about hybrid arrangements.

Gemma: Offering some form or remote work is also a way to recruit and retain staff.

Jean-Nicolas: I see now that some companies are doing permanently the switch to remote work. This is going to be something that’s going to be a desirable attribute for a lot of workers, whether or not they can be hybrid workers. A lot of companies are pointing out how remote work also helps them recruit people from other countries or recruit people who live in other places. So it does have some advantages.

Gemma: Flexible working, of course, is not new. And there’s lots of evidence already out there on what works.

Jean-Nicolas: The less you are trying to make everything transactional by clocking in, clocking out, counting the number of clicks on a computer, the more you do that the less people are intrinsically motivated to work. Managers who have a much easier time switching to remote work are the ones who understand that employees are self-motivated that there is excellence in everyone and there is ambition in everyone. So what you have to do is you have to provide them with the resources so that they can do the work. It doesn’t mean you’re not checking that the work is being done, it just means you tell them the why they’re doing it because they need to know why. You let them figure out the how, and then you measure the output. And a lot of research actually has found that it helps a lot with intrinsic motivation.
Gemma: And I guess it’s also about choosing what they do when they’re actually in the office?

Jean-Nicolas: Yes. So this is something that’s very important which is team identification right, the extent to which you feel like you belong to a team. There are issues when somebody is a hybrid worker because they’re not here all the time. And so I’ve seen you know in my CEO data set that there is a concern among CEOs in terms of organisational culture. But it’s true that in a time where everybody would be hybrid workers, then you need to make it more intentional. It’s not just something that happens on its own by the coffee machine.

Gemma: The gravity of the coronavirus situation, and the speed of vaccine rollout is of course different around the world – and so it’s possible to see what the future has in store in countries where life has pretty much returned to normal. Like Australia.

Ruchi Sinha: I live in Adelaide where we’ve been without community transmission for a very long time.

Gemma: This is Ruchi Sinha, a senior lecturer at the University of South Australia business school, who studies organisational behaviour and psychology.

Ruchi: The transition back to work has still allowed people the flexibility to work from home if the nature of the work allows that. But yes, there is an expectation now to have more face-to-face meetings at work than it was last year.

Gemma: People who work in the knowledge economy, at least, are settling into a more hybrid routine.

Ruchi: It’s now become the norm when you schedule a meeting and it’s primarily face-to-face that you also send across a video conference link into the calendar.

Gemma: But these hybrid arrangements come with their only challenges. If some people are in the room and some people on a video call, it can be disruptive if you have to ask someone to unmute themselves or the connection keeps dropping. And this makes for some difficult decisions for employers.

Ruchi: They’re going to find it hard to make a choice. Should we mandate people to be all on a video conference call, even though they’re present in person? Or should we mandate people to start coming back to work?

Gemma: For employees, Ruchi says the issue is how to maintain the quality of relationship with their colleagues. Trust is often built up outside of work meetings - sitting next to somebody, walking to lunch with them.

Ruchi: There’s a lot of research on fault lines and how subgroups form at work. And typically they used to form based on similarity in values, you know, how much you work together. But there’s a new kind of subgroup forming now, which is the subgroup of those who are on the video call and those who are in person. And I think those fault lines can cause teams to have differing level of relationship and thus affect coordination.

Gemma: Ruchi is currently conducting research within a large Australian company on a new type of flexible work arrangement that it’s begun to pilot since the pandemic. It includes an element of working remotely, but also allows people to change when they do their work. She’s still analysing the data, but so far one of the biggest predictors of success is the support of the manager.

Ruchi: So even though you have all of these work arrangements, at the end of the day, your one-on-one relationship with your immediate line supervisor determines how much flexibility you have within that arrangement.

Gemma: Flexible working, of course, is more than just working from home, and flexibility comes in many forms: where you work, when you work, how you work and even what you’re doing. I asked Ruchi whether, after the pandemic, she’s been hearing Australian employers talk more about introducing more truly flexible work policies, ones that aren’t just determined by how many days somebody needs to be in the office.

Ruchi: I see a lot of conversation happening on the topic, and it’s happening from two or three different angles. And one is the fact that you see it as an efficiency tool. So, you start rethinking about how space needs to get utilised, on whether we need to have offices the way we used to traditionally have. I think in the last one year, at least in Australia, you’ve realised that how much time was sucked into walking over to meetings, getting out of meetings, going to the next one, that the efficiency argument for supporting this is pretty strong.

However, what I still think we are lacking in that conversation is on talking about autonomy. So we talk about flexibility and flexibility by definition means something that bends, that is adaptable to change. But we forget that in order to adapt, bend and change, individuals need autonomy. So the autonomy is choice and choice is very important in flexibility. So, I don’t think we are spending enough time thinking about are we giving people choice to shape their jobs?

Gemma: Ruchi wonders whether opportunities to really embed a more flexible way of working are being missed.

Ruchi: Once the work from home becomes the new normal, I think we will still fall back to having that as a rigid form. So, what I mean is that you start making policies that, “Oh, we will now allow you to work this many days from home, and we don’t need you to come to the office. You don’t need a desk.” And I do think all of that is going to happen. But I really think, it’s going to be tough for employers to accept giving choice, that this is all going to eventually become the new normal with more rigid work arrangements that just look different from what it used to be.

Gemma: For those parts of the world still in the grip of the pandemic, Australia offers a glimpse of the conversations that will be happening over the new few months. But once the public health crisis eventually subsidies, there will be many factors that determine whether or not a company decides to bring back their employees into the office – and for how much. I asked Dave Cook where he thought we’re heading.

Dave: It’s really important for individual companies, whether they’re going to want to take a moral position that remote working is a good thing or a bad thing is to start communicating that with their employees so their employees can get on with planning the rest of their lives. And then if we step back from that and we accept that not all companies are going behave in the same way, there is a very important and active role for policy and for government to bring in new legislation to make sure that companies do create a flexible and interim flexible working policies.

Gemma: Whatever happens next, it’ll be hard to please everybody.

Dave: It’s going to be quite polarising. So some people are going to be asked to come back into the office and they’re gonna feel really resentful, and some people are going to be required to work from home when they want more collaboration. And I think it’s going to be quite hard. I think, you know, we have been in a period of hibernation I think that the changes we come out of this is going to be a shock.

Dan: I totally agree with that. It’s gonna be super weird to either be forced to stay or at home, or to be back in the office, having to deal with all the things we’ve forgotten how to do over the last year.

Gemma: Yeah, and the habits of working from home have already formed right, whether or not they’re good habits or bad habits. I mean, I’m not getting out nearly enough.

So you can read more about the research of Dave Cook, Marie-Colombe Afota, Jean-Nicolas Reyt and Ruchi Sinah in their articles on The Conversation. Find the links in the episode notes.

Dan: Coming up, why one single gene might be the reason some people never seem to get cold.

Gemma: But first, we’ve got a message from our colleague Sunanda Creagh in Sydney.

Sunanda: I dunno if you can hear that. It’s rain on my roof in Sydney, where I live. I’m Sunanda Creagh from The Conversation Australia. Here on the east coast of Australia in the state of New South Wales, it’s been raining for more than a week, non stop. We’re in the grip of a one-in-100-year flooding event, and whole suburbs in the city are being evacuated. Homes everywhere are being inundated and Warragamba dam, which is the main dam that supplies Sydney’s water supply, is overflowing.

Now in the wake of all this thousands of people have already rushed to file insurance claims, but people are wondering how quickly will those claims actually be assessed and how many of them are actually going to succeed? We asked researcher Chloe Lucas from the University of Tasmania to write about that, and she’s done a really fantastic piece called “They lost our receipts three times.” How getting an insurance payout can be a full-time job. She shares some really heartbreaking stories she’s collected from people who’ve battled insurers in Australia after previous floods and makes some suggestions on how the system can change for a future that we’re flooding is likely to be more intense and more frequent.

Another piece we’ve published is titled Why do people try to drive through floodwater or leave it too late to flee? Psychology offers some answers. That one’s by Gary Stevens and Spyros Schismenos from Western Sydney university, co-authored by Mel Taylor from Macquarie University. And they talk about what clues psychology can offer to explain why people take really big risks in the middle of a flood. You can read all about that on The Conversation.

Gemma: That was Sunanda Creagh from The Conversation in a very damp Sydney. And a special shout out to our colleagues in Australia where The Conversation started ten years ago, this week.

Dan: Happy birthday to our colleagues in Australia.

OK, for the next story, we’re looking at cold tolerance actually and how it’s tied to genetics. Everyone has that one friend who seems impervious to cold, right. It’ll be absolutely freezing out. And they’re just like walking around with shorts and a sweatshirt on, happy as can be.

Gemma: I know the person you mean Dan. It’s not me, I am always there with four jumpers and five scarfs on, but I know. I have friends like that.

Dan: So it turns out that there’s actually a gene closely tied with susceptibility to cold. Some people have a mutation in this gene that turns it off and makes them able to handle the cold much better than other people.

Gemma: So I can blame being called on my genes?

Dan: You can blame it on just one single gene, and that’s super rare to find a single gene that has such a clear effect. So let’s jump into it. And by it I mean, let’s jump into some nice ice cold bathtubs.

Victoria Wyckelsma: My name is Victoria Wyckelsma, and I’m a post-doctoral researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. And primarily my research is on skeletal muscle and how it influences our ability to respond to exercise and environmental challenges.

Dan: OK, muscles, but not just in terms of strength and stuff. You also study how muscles help people deal with environmental factors like cold. So how did your most recent research look into this?

Victoria: We had these people and, we convinced them to have an ice bath for two hours and we wanted to see how people would respond to this ridiculous cold bath. Some people obviously respond pretty well. You can chuck some football players in an ice bath and they’re like, “Yeah, no worries, be here all day.” And you put other players in an ice bath and they’re like, “Get me out as soon as I can.” Some start shivering like crazy. I mean, there’s obviously a reason why two different people can have such insanely different reactions. And so we kind of wanted to see why.

Read more: Your genetics influence how resilient you are to cold temperatures – new research

Dan: I have friends who wear a T-shirt and shorts like 365 days a year. Meanwhile, I’m putting a jacket on the minute the sun goes down. Has this difference always been a mystery?

Victoria: Generally speaking, people don’t really understand the mechanisms and some of the molecular reasons, I suppose, why some people are better than others. There’s a lot of research suggesting that this gene is super important in maintaining your body temperature, which is the thing that’s going to make you want to get in and out of the ice bath.

Dan: So what is this gene? What does it do? And why were you looking at this gene in particular?

Victoria: Yeah, so this gene is called the ACTN3 gene. A group of researchers actually in Sydney and Melbourne, looked at this in a mouse and they noticed a few molecular, physiological things happening on a muscle level itself. And the results from that study sorta led us to think that maybe the lack of this gene is going to be really beneficial in a cold environment. So we thought, all right, let’s test it out.

Dan: OK, OK. So some people have a working version of the gene, some people don’t. And what you were trying to get at is how this genetic mutation can affect a person’s ability to withstand the cold, right?

Victoria: Yeah, absolutely. So we know that about 20% of people don’t have it. Which means they don’t express a particular ACTN3 protein in your muscle. And there’s no consequence. I mean, you aren’t, you’re not susceptible to any illness. The only thing that it does is it can enhance your athletic performance or have a detriment to your athletic performance depending on the sport. And apparently it can influence your ability to sit in an ice bath.

Dan: How do you test that please? And, I hope it wasn’t too terrible for your subjects?

Man swimming in freezing water.
People with a particular gene variant shivered less and had a higher core body temperature when exposed to cold water. Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock

Victoria: We did this testing in Lithuania and we got about 40 men to come in and we set an ice bath at 14 degrees, which is probably as cold as we could make the water and have it be medically safe for the amount of time that we wanted to put them in the water for. So we asked these guys to sit in this ice bath, the water up to their shoulders. So they completely covered. 20 minutes in, and then they got 10 minutes to sit out just in a chair next to the ice bath, watching it. And then the in between the researchers dump more ice and make sure it’s at 14 degrees. And then they go back in for 20 minutes.

Dan: How long did they have to do this for?

Victoria: They repeat this for 120 minutes of sitting in the water or until their core temperature dropped to 35.5 degrees. So that was our cutoff. Once they got to that, then we said, OK, you’re done.

Dan: Is it like dangerous?

Victoria: I think, it’s not safe to go much, much colder than that. We didn’t want to put anyone in any sort of risk for this. So, and then just to figure out if they had a gene or not, all you have to do is take a blood sample and you send it off to a lab and then they do a very quick analysis for us. So then we could separate the people.

And then actually we just found that about 70% of those people who actually could complete the challenge, didn’t have the gene compared to only 30% of the guys with the protein. I mean, pretty, pretty strong contrast. And it was, it was pretty shocking to see like, just the differences in how strong this was.

Dan: Are you saying some of these people lasted for a full two hours in like frigid icy water?

Victoria: Yep, absolutely.

Dan: OK. So they jump in an ice cold bath. How do you measure what their body is doing?

Victoria: I mean, they had things everywhere, like to measure rectal temperature so we can get an idea of their core temperatures, things to measure like their muscle activation. And we actually check their respiration and their heart rate and all sorts of things. And, obviously the drop in muscle temperature was different and the drop-in core temperature was different. But otherwise, I mean, when you look at your heart rate and oxygen consumption, they were basically identical.

Dan: What was the difference between those with and those without the mutation?

Victoria: The key thing that is the difference is the guys who have the mutation and can stay in the bath for longer – they actually shiver less. And this is something that we’re related to, to the fibre type of the muscle. So within your muscle, you have fast muscle fibres, which are a really good for athletic events, like 100m sprint, high-jump, whatever you want to do. And then we’ve got really slow muscle fibres, which are important for marathon running, and you can go all day. And when you have this mutation, you have more of these slow fibres. And then so overall your, your pattern is rather slow.

And when you do have this gene, then you have more of like a fast muscle phenotype. So your, your muscle behaves more like a fast muscle. And shivering is associated with fast-twitch muscles. So when you’re shivering, you’re activating a lot of your fast-twitch muscles. And if you have this gene, you have more fast-twitch muscles, and it’s a lot harder for you to produce energy because your muscles are always shivering.

So, you need to use more energy to generate heat, to keep yourself immersed in the water. When you have more of a slow-twitch phenotype in your muscle, they don’t need to go into the shivering space. And what we’ve found is they have sort of low-lying levels of contraction. So they’re activated and they’re working, but they’re not really working as hard. They don’t need a large amount of energy, like the guys who shiver a lot, do. And that’s what we found was the key difference.

Dan: To make a metaphor that might actually work here, you’re cold in the morning. One guy decides to go and sprint up a hill until he gets warm, but he can’t do that for very long. The other guy just kind of goes for a nice, slow jog, and that’ll also warm him up, but it definitely doesn’t use anywhere near as much energy. Is that what’s happening on like a muscular level?

Victoria: Yeah, basically. So your muscles are sort of contracting either really rapidly, as you say, like you would in a sprint, if you do have this protein and that’s chewing up all your energy and making your muscles fatigue. And it’s, I mean, then it’s hard to continuously use as much energy to make heat. Whereas like you said, if you just go on for a slow jog, you’re burning energy, but not as much. And then you can maintain the effort for a lot longer period of time.

Dan: What did those people kind of look like at the end of this, compared to the people that were shivering and had this more fast-twitch muscle?

Victoria: There’s not real difference in, in anything, I mean about them physically. So they weren’t, they had the same amount of body fat. They had the same amount of muscle mass sort of thing. Similar weight, similar height, similar. Yeah, from that perspective, it was more about the underlying muscle activity.

Dan: You really kind of discovered that people with this mutation, meaning they’re missing this gene and missing this protein are just kind of built different, huh?

Victoria: Yeah, their muscles are absolutely built different. Like, I guarantee you, anyone at the Olympics who is in the 100m final has absolutely got this. But then when you go to the other end and you go your marathon runners and all your cross country skiers, then these guys are probably more likely to have this mutation. And it’s 20% of the population.

Dan: That’s a tonne of people with the mutation. How is it distributed amongst people on earth? Is it some areas have a lot, some areas have less?

Victoria: Yeah, exactly. So, I mean, this gene is more prevalent in colder climates, obviously. So if you’ve got less people with this mutation living in super hot places, but then when you’re looking at more of a colder climates, I think this is definitely more prevalent.

Dan: So like we got gene therapy coming down the pipeline pretty dang soon here. Can you imagine some future where people like double up on this gene. And so therefore they’re extra fast and strong, or they like take the mutation cause they’re like swimming and love swimming cross the English Channel. Is that a possibility?

Victoria: I recommend, just doing maybe some just gradual cold exposure and a safe, over a safe, prolonged period.

Dan: Thank, you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. It’s been fun. It’s been interesting.

Victoria: Thanks for having me on. It was fun.

Dan: That’s it for this week. You can find links to Victoria’s article, and all the expert analysis we’ve mentioned in the show notes. You can also find a link to sign up to The Conversation’s free daily email.

If you want to reach out – tell us what you think about the show or what questions we should be asking academics, find us on Twitter @TC_Audio or on Instagram at Or you can email us on

Gemma: Thanks to all the academics who’ve spoken to us for this episode. And thanks too to The Conversation editors Lee-Anne Goodman, Thibault Lieurade, Liam Petterson, Heather Kroeker, Sunanda Creagh and Stephen Khan. And final thanks go to Alice Mason and Imriel Morgan for helping with our social media and promotion.

Gemma: This episode of The Conversation Weekly is co-produced by Mend Mariwany and me, with sound design by Eloise Stevens. Our theme music is by Neeta Sarl.

Dan: Thank you so much for listening everyone, and we’ll talk to you next week.

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