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Why are remote workers 'body doubling' online — and can it boost productivity?

Remote work Black woman drinking coffee and working from home, relaxed businesswoman, solopreneur, confidence, individuality
Remote work: Body doubling is a catchy buzzword for working virtually alongside someone else. Photo: Getty (10'000 Hours via Getty Images)

There are many reasons why it’s hard to concentrate when working from home. Despite the benefits of remote work on work/life balance, it can be hard to focus when you’ve got TV, pets, social media and more to distract you.

Now, remote workers are using a new technique to boost their productivity — body doubling.

It’s a tool believed to help people with attention deficit and hyperactivity (ADHD) start and complete tasks, but it has gained popularity since the boom of home-working during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But what exactly is it — and does it boost productivity?

What is body doubling?

Essentially, body doubling is a catchy buzzword for working virtually alongside someone else. Instead of rubbing shoulders with someone in a physical office, cafe or co-working space, people are hosting "live work" streams on TikTok for people to work alongside them remotely.

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Sometimes referred to as an accountability partner, a body double is a friend — or stranger on the internet — who works simultaneously either in the same room or virtually via social media, Teams or Zoom.

Read more: How to make sure you're not working full-time hours on part-time pay

A student who goes to a library to work is an example of body doubling in-person.

However, body doubling online is easy to do and a cheaper alternative to renting a desk in a co-working space. It is also quieter than working in a coffee shop — which is handy for people who need to take regular calls.

Body doubling and ADHD

The practice of body doubling emerged as a self-help strategy for people with ADHD. The condition can make motivation difficult and those with inattentive symptoms can find it harder to focus on a task.

A trademark of ADHD is low levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical released by nerve cells into the brain. Lower dopamine levels can make people more sensitive to task difficulty, making it more challenging to complete certain jobs.

However, many people with ADHD say body doubling helps them get things done.

Read more: How to support an employee on long-term sick leave

Although there are few studies testing the effectiveness of virtual body doubling on remote worker productivity, people suggest that working alongside someone — albeit online — helps them stay focused and engaged.

There are even productivity apps, such as Focusmate, which matches workers with a virtual partner for a work session.

How body doubling may improve productivity

The concept works on the principle that doing a difficult task alongside someone else can make it easier. It may be because being with someone else who is working may lead to gentle pressure to remain focused, or because the presence of another person is calming.

From a neurological perspective, being with other people may boost dopamine levels. Social interactions can trigger the brain’s reward system, which may be underactive in people with ADHD because of the lower dopamine levels.

A 2022 study suggested there are both structural and functional differences in the brains of students who have a tendency to procrastinate. These differences can affect someone’s ability to prepare for goal-oriented tasks.

However, the research suggests that working in groups helps people overcome problems with procrastination because they can observe others who are productive.

Read more: What is a 'permacrisis' and how can you navigate it at work?

There are other benefits to body doubling too.

Loneliness is a major problem among remote workers, with almost half (46%) of UK workers experiencing loneliness while working from home. Although sitting next to someone virtually is no substitute for a conversation with friends or colleagues, it may make some workers feel less isolated.

However, it’s important to note that body doubling may not work for everyone. For some, the presence of another person — whether online or in-person — may be distracting.

It’s important to take into account individual needs. Think about how and when to take breaks and communicate with your body double, as well as what kind of environment you find most beneficial when it comes to working.

For some, the background noise of a cafe may boost productivity. Others may find it easier to focus in a quiet setting, in which case working alongside someone virtually while at home may be better.

However — or wherever — you decide to body double, it’s essential to communicate what you want and need to get your work done.

Watch: Working from home may be making us less creative, study suggests