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Dominique Blain takes a break with her cat Tommy after she signs into Zoom first thing in the morning from her home office in Montreal, Quebec on April 12, 2021.Christinne Muschi/The Globe and Mail

Just about every weekday, Dominique Blain signs into Zoom from her home in Montreal to join a video call with a few others. After some brief small talk, she mutes herself, leaves her camera on and simply goes about her job running her communications firm. Everyone else attends to their own work, too, with cameras on.

If working from home under the gaze of others and spending even more time with Zoom sounds like punishment, Ms. Blain insists it is not. “It’s about as awkward as working around other people in other circumstances,” she said.

Maybe less so, since she usually hides her Zoom window while working. More importantly, participating in these video sessions, which typically run for three hours, has allowed her to get more work done. “I was so productive for the first time in a long time, and just accomplishing stuff that I’d been struggling against for months,” Ms. Blain said.

Think of it as a virtual co-working space – people from different companies and different fields working independently, but in the presence of one another. The concept has become more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic, with offices and physical co-working spaces shuttered.

Some startups arrange access to group working sessions for US$40 to US$50 a month. Caveday hosts three-hour-long “deep focus” sessions that attract more than 100 people, while another company called Focusmate Inc. pairs participants with an “accountability partner” for a 50-minute work stretch. All promise to bring structure to the workday, carve out time to concentrate and improve productivity.

For some housebound workers, a boost may be needed after months of work-from-home monotony and the stress of the pandemic. A recent survey of teleworkers from Statistics Canada found that 58 per cent of teleworkers said they were as productive per hour as before, but the picture isn’t entirely rosy. About 10 per cent said they were accomplishing less, and 44 per cent of that group said they are working longer hours.

Nearly half of respondents who said they are more productive are putting in more hours, too. There are also other concerns, such as the mental-health toll, burnout and the eradication of work-life balance that happen when one’s home becomes an office.

Jeremy Redleaf’s productivity problems started years before the pandemic. A filmmaker in New York, Mr. Redleaf found it difficult to focus and get any screenwriting done. “I sort of had an existential crisis,” he said. In his therapist’s office once, he vented about needing to take a “cave day.” The off-hand comment led him to build on the idea. He made up a few rules – no smartphones, no distractions – and forced himself to work for a whole day.

Although he was productive, the experience was draining. With a couple of friends, he explored how to achieve that level of focus while around others. The result was a company called Caveday, founded in 2017, that started organizing structured, in-person meetings for people to concentrate and get work done. Caveday then launched an online version.

Interest exploded last year, with the number of participants surging 1,000 per cent, according to Mr. Redleaf. (The company does not disclose exact figures.) Caveday hosts multiple sessions a day, starting as early as 4:30 a.m., seven days a week. During the pandemic, clientele has expanded from freelancers and remote workers to high school students, retirees and corporate professionals in 25 countries.

Every video session is facilitated by a Caveday host who lays out the guidelines and, for a large group, sends participants to breakout rooms for a brief check-in with one another before everyone gets to work. “That contributes to a sense of community when you’re getting to know a couple of different people,” said Andi Cuddington, who facilitates sessions part-time from Toronto. She tells the group when to take breaks, and in the final hour, nudges participants to focus on a task they can complete during the remaining time. “Humans are overly optimistic about how long a task will take,” she said, “and we’re more successful when we break it down.”

There are a few reasons why participants might find such a setting productive. “We know just being with another person can facilitate your work,” said Tim Pychyl, an associate professor in psychology at Carleton University who studies procrastination. Research dates back to at least the late 1800s, when a study showed that cyclists completed a circuit faster if someone else was riding on the same track.

Some people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder have also employed a concept called “body doubling,” in which having someone in the same room – or even connecting over the phone – improves concentration.

Accountability is another component. At the end of a session, participants are invited to share what they’ve accomplished, which provides an added incentive to complete tasks.

Some of the marketing around virtual co-working can come off as intense, though. One U.S. company named Ultraworking calls its service the Work Gym, and offers an entire “peak performance ecosystem” that includes meal delivery “optimized to hit your macronutrient and caloric targets.” New York-based Focusmate warns that failure to comply with its code of conduct, such as showing up late or leaving early, can result in low ratings, difficulty getting paired up with others and ultimately getting banned.

Caveday, meanwhile, promises “fierce accountability.” But the company has relaxed over the past year, introducing shorter sessions to accommodate working parents. Many elements, such as keeping cameras on, are opt-in. “We’ve introduced a lot of flexibility just because everyone’s in such a different universe during the pandemic,” Mr. Redleaf said.

As for Ms. Blain, she had been paying a company to participate in focus sessions, but instead implemented her own version with a couple of friends. The Flow sessions, as she calls them, are free. The number of participants is still small – eight people at most – but growing. Not everyone logs on to complete work for their jobs, either. Some participants just need to clean their bathrooms or do the dishes. “There’s always something we struggle to get done,” Ms. Blain said, “especially these days.”

Eventually, there will be a return to the office in some form, and whether people will still want to log onto Zoom to work silently with others is an open question. Mr. Pychyl expressed some doubt. “Would they go back to something that might evoke memories of the pandemic? Maybe not,” he said.

But people had trouble concentrating before COVID-19, and offices have their share of distractions. “We’re not worried about the business model,” Mr. Redleaf said. “It’s never going to be easy to focus.”

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