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For much of his professional career, Pascal Theriault was required to report to work in person. The 28-year-old talent acquisition partner, who previously worked in recruiting for oil and gas, agriculture and civil engineering firms, now lives a 10-minute drive from his technology’s company office in downtown Calgary, but has no plans to go there regularly.

Working remotely, he enjoys the convenience of walking his dog at lunch, but taking calls in a quiet environment is one of the biggest perks.

“Even in the handful of days that I’ve been into the office, I have 100-per-cent noticed that I am finding it more difficult to focus,” he said. There are so many people “walking around, or talking in the hallway or poking their head into your office to say hi.”

Workers have finally adjusted to working from home, but are now being asked to re-acclimatize themselves to the office again, says Navio Kwok, vice-president of research and marketing at Kilberry Leadership Advisors, a firm of management psychologists based in Toronto and New York that specializes in executive assessments and C-level leadership advisory.

“That’s a radically different environment in so many ways,” he said. “I think the contrast makes it particularly difficult when working in more quiet areas and more private space.”

The ability to work from home may translate into greater productivity. A 2022 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research reported an 8-per-cent increase in lines of code written by employees of a large tech firm who worked under a hybrid model.

While workers may be noticing this now, the modern office was distracting well before the pandemic began. Mr. Kwok says research dating back to the 1960s suggest the open-concept office has been a productivity pain since its inception.

A December, 2020 study published in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found workers in private offices performed “significantly better” on cognitive tests compared with those in open-concept environments. And a study published in June, 2021 in the Journal of Management and Organization concluded that the noise of open offices is bad for more than just productivity: It found “a significant causal relationship between open-plan office noise and physiological stress,” wrote study author Libby Sander in Fast Company. This noise heightens negative moods in employees by 25 per cent, according to the results.

Kimberley St. Pierre, a 50-year-old director of strategic accounts for a cybersecurity software company, has primarily worked from home since 2017, with remote-work experiences going back to 2003. She said she has known for many years that being in the office wasn’t good for her productivity.

And while she doesn’t mind whiteboarding with colleagues in a physical office, she doesn’t ever see herself returning to full-time, in-person work.

“I couldn’t handle the distractions,” Ms. St. Pierre said. “It was very difficult for me. If you’re on a call and you’re trying to focus, and you’ve got somebody three seats away that’s on a call – it’s very hard for me not to eavesdrop or be distracted by their conversation.”

But as Greg Voeller, senior director at employee engagement consulting firm Gagen MacDonald, points out, not everyone working from home has a calm, serene environment. Some employees want to come back to the office – and some companies are eager to welcome them. But the pre-pandemic dynamic where everyone is in the office all the time, in Mr. Voeller’s eyes, is gone.

“As people return to the office, it’s not going back to the way it was,” he said. “And it never will.”

Hybrid environments will be the norm for white-collar workers going forward, Mr. Voeller believes, and smart companies are already discussing the best path forward with their employees. However, he says, how these companies and their employees actually adapt to this new norm is very much a work in progress.

Workers who spend a few days in the office and a few at home are figuring out which tasks are better suited for each location to help increase productivity. Chris Cicconi, a 36-year-old director of business development, says he wouldn’t mind going into the office two days a week for meetings and other gatherings, but his ideal situation would include handling cold calls and other “focus” work at home.

Finding the ideal balance between open office and quiet remote work is tricky, but not impossible. Mr. Kwok suggests seeing whether you can stay on task with mild noise in the background – a TV show or a podcast, for example. If you find them distracting, then maybe that task is best suited for a quieter environment. Otherwise, an open office might not be a bad place to get things done.

“I think the complexity of the task matters,” he said. “When you have highly cognitively demanding tasks that demand your attention, that is something that is better suited for quiet time – probably not an open office. But when your job is less cognitively complex, you might actually benefit from a little bit of ambient noise.”

For Mr. Voeller, there is no clear-cut answer to how employees and firms should address productivity while also respecting personal preference around working arrangements. Everything from someone’s role in a company, to how quiet their home environment happens to be, to the presence of conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD, can play a factor in concentration.

But Mr. Cicconi said a one-size-fits-all approach to the office, irrespective of personal preference, won’t be easy.

“I think as long as you’re mandating how people have to work to be productive, you’re always going to run into a challenge,” he said. “Because people will get distracted, and people will get frustrated.”

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