Home / Blog / There’s a reason why the office is grating on you: Your brain’s ability to tune out distractions could be out

There’s a reason why the office is grating on you: Your brain’s ability to tune out distractions could be out

Aug 28, 2023Aug 28, 2023

Workers hate being in the office, especially after years of getting used to working from home. Employees see returning to the office full-time as just as bad as a 2-3% pay cut, according to a report from the Federal Reserve in May. And in survey after survey, employees consistently say that they feel more productive at home than in the workplace.

But one reason why the end of remote work might be so aggravating, at least right now, is the return of all the small annoyances of office work: overheard conversations and phone calls, chit-chat from fellow workers, and less convenient facilities.

Workers after years of remote work don’t have the same ability to block out distractions, hindering their ability to get things done, S. Thomas Carmichael, the chair of UCLA’s department of neurology, told the Wall Street Journal. And, the only way to get that ability back is to work at the office more: “if we just say ‘I’ll just get this done when I’m at home,’ we don’t learn it as well,” he added.

It’s not just small distractions that are stopping employees from getting work done. Returning to the office means more working together, and thus more meetings: Workday previously told Fortune that time spent in meetings increased by 24% after the HR software company shifted from a fully-remote to a hybrid work schedule.

Despite the distractions, corporate leaders want employees back at their desks. Companies and CEOs increasingly cite the importance of collaboration in their drive to get people back to the office. Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg suggested in March that new engineers with at least some in-person work experience at the company “performed better on average than people who joined remotely.”

And when Google told employees that it would start considering office attendance in performance reviews, the company’s chief people officer wrote in an internal email that “there’s no question that working together in the same room makes a positive difference,” the Wall Street Journal reported in June.

Experts say that collaborating remotely is more difficult than working together in-person. When meeting virtually, “we’re losing a neural basis of real-time social interaction, and we’re not acquiring information about others beyond the visual information of their face,” Carmichael previously told Fortune.

But more collaboration might come at the cost of getting certain tasks done during office hours, meaning employees end up taking work home. Workers are already experiencing a “triple-peak day,” with jumps in productivity around 9:00 a.m., 3:00 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. as workers catch up on tasks at the end of the day, according to data from Microsoft.

These gripes may be contributing to the resentment around the return to in-person work. Now, “when we go to the office, we have the counterfactuals of our home offices,” Laura M. Giurge, a London School of Economics professor who teaches a course on how time is spent at work, told the Wall Street Journal.

While workers argue they are more productive at home, their employers disagree. Multiple surveys report that managers see either no change or declines in productivity during periods of remote work.

Recent data may support the claim that people are more productive at the office. Data entry workers in India were 18% less productive when they worked at home compared to their colleagues at the office, according to a July working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, written by economists Dave Atkin and Antoinette Schoar at MIT and Sumit Shinde at UCLA.

Even worse, remote workers who wanted remote work reported larger drops in productivity at home than at the office, compared to those who preferred the office. The researchers suggest that those who prefer working-from-home may have other responsibilities, like family and child care, that might distract them from work.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com

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