Marjorie Roberts, who runs a nonprofit in the Florida Keys, started out a recent morning with a list of tasks that ideally she would have raced right through. Figure out coverage for someone going on summer vacation. (Easy.) Look at the accountant’s recent audit. (Blah.) Redo a reimbursement request that the county finance department turned down. (Why?!) All simple enough.
But in the office — “a hoarder’s paradise,” as she called it — her time isn’t always her own. Clients and colleagues pass through all day with requests.
Even the work that Roberts isn’t particularly well equipped to handle often winds up on her desk. “I’m the IT person,” said Roberts, who runs Keys Area Interdenominational Resources. “When the printer is jammed, I’m trying to figure it out, Googling how to fix it or calling on my husband or children, ‘What do I do?’”
By the end of the workday, Roberts, like so many, leaves the office with a to-do list no shorter than it was when she arrived.
The last two decades saw businesses rethink their office spaces — some squeezing into smaller ones as rent increased, others undertaking an arms race for perks. The most luxurious offices gained slides, nap pods, laundry, ball pits and streams of cold brew.
But when more than 50 million people started working from home in March 2020, some of them discovered a luxury their companies couldn’t offer: peace and quiet. As executives tighten their return-to-office policies, workers are finding their days filled with more interruption. The workplace, they’ve discovered, isn’t always the ideal place for doing work.
“I have my larger to-dos, but I just have to address things as they come up,” said Jennifer Choi, who manages finances and operations at an arts nonprofit in New York and finds herself fielding office maintenance, technology and human resources questions during the four days each week she spends in the office.
Office interruptions aren’t distributed evenly, according to pre-pandemic research. Women are more likely than men to be asked to do tasks that do not lead to promotions and that “everyone prefers be completed by someone else,” like coordinating holiday parties, according to a 2017 paper in the American Economic Review. Women were 48% more likely to volunteer for this type of work, and when asked to complete it, women agreed 76% of the time, compared with men at 50%.
All this means that going back to the office comes with more trade-offs for certain workers. Someone has to reset the router. Someone ends up ordering the birthday cupcakes.
As managers try to draw people back to the office, they’re wrestling with how to rebuild a sense of community without taking away the focus that often came with remote work. Meanwhile, some workers are getting nostalgic for the silence they had at home, especially because many of the office changes aimed at bringing people back often make it harder to concentrate. (One company, for example, added a rock climbing wall.)
Research tends to back up the squishy sense that people get more done outside the office. A study from Stanford of a 16,000-person travel agency found that call center employees working remotely were 13% more productive than their in-person colleagues. Another study of 1,600 professionals found that they wrote 8% more code working a hybrid schedule compared with being fully in the office. “We freed people of group think; we freed them of some exclusion and disrespect; we freed them of micromanaging, deafening and distracting noise,” said Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. “We have literally a mountain of evidence that if you let individuals generate ideas alone, you not only get more ideas, you get better ideas.”
But many executives feel strongly about the benefits of the office: the opportunities to find mentors, build relationships and brainstorm. Some workers also struggle to be productive at home, especially those with care-taking responsibilities. So companies are going to extremes to bring quiet into the office.
Azeema Batchelor, who works at law firm Wiley Rein in Washington, D.C., has become reliant on her office’s red light, green light system. A rod the width of a sharpie sticks out of her monitor with a dome on it. When she needs to focus, she turns the dome red. When on a call, she switches it to yellow. When she is open to people strolling through her office to chat, a green light beckons them in.
Batchelor’s office introduced the colored lighting system earlier this year, as employees started coming in two or three days a week. The aim is to help them find that balance between productivity and the actually desired stop-and-chat. Just the other day, for example, Batchelor’s boss came by her office to discuss a training they were planning. The green light was on.
“We started talking about the fact that I went on the Peloton for the first time since my second son was born,” Batchelor said, adding that had they both been out of the office, the conversation would have been all business. “She would have sent me an email being like, ‘FYI the training is being rearranged.’” Asana, which makes collaboration software, renovated its workspace partly to make clear which areas people can use for socializing and which are for quiet. Scattered throughout the office are nooks where employees can sit on their own facing out toward the windows, and there is a library. Other corners of the building have soft seating around whiteboards where teammates can collaborate. On top of that, employees can change their status on Slack, the office chat app, to indicate when they are doing heads-down work. Hootsuite, the social media management company, also renovated its office to delineate between social spaces with comfy couches and focused work spots with soundproof booths, shifting from a previous office aesthetic that employees called “lumberjack chic.”
Joshua Zerkel, Asana’s head of global engagement marketing, said the company’s renovated spaces have helped him avoid the requests that interrupted his workday pre-pandemic.
“I’d be like, ‘Please not now,’” he recalled. “I literally just sat down, and I’m starting to work, and I got in my zone, and somebody would be like, ‘Can I just have two seconds?’ It’s never just two seconds. It would be that sinking feeling of ‘I’m never going to get my work done.’”
With the onset of remote work, Zerkel and his colleagues got a stronger sense of the conditions that help them feel most productive.
“Our ability to say with specificity, ‘I want and need to be doing this type of work in this type of space — we didn’t need that language before because all of us were in the office all the time,” he said. “It’s a new language.”
Samu Hällfors, an entrepreneur from Finland, found inspiration in his own experience getting distracted in the office. He co-founded a company in 2010, called Framery, that makes office privacy booths, which to date has sold over 75,000 units. Framery’s sales jumped to $93 million last year from $83 million in 2020, and the company is on track to make $150 million this year. Hällfors recalled the frustration of a colleague who once confronted their boss for talking loudly into a headset.
“He stood up and shouted to our boss, ‘You should go somewhere else; nobody can concentrate,’” Hällfors said. “He might have used some curse words as well.”
Then there is the set of businesses that have embraced the office as a site of occasional chaos. At Zline, an appliance company based in Reno, Nevada, where employees go in five days a week, late Friday afternoons in the office are for pingpong. Sometimes the employee band, called Hourly Rate, starts jamming and one of the more intrepid employees scales the company’s rock climbing wall.
The office, in other words, also serves as a living room, gym and summer camp recreation hall. “It’s for sure not a library here,” said Andrew Zuro, the company founder.
If Zuro needs to power through solo tasks, he usually does so in the morning, at home or in the evening after his 220 employees leave the office. “It’s usually pretty loud,” he said. “Pretty hustle and bustle here.”