If you find that working from the office feels more distracting now, you’re not alone.
Not only has the workplace changed since the pandemic began in early 2020, but experts suggest so have our brains. As a result, many workers are feeling uneasy in office environments that may have once felt like a second home. While some of that discomfort may be temporary, experts suggest we may never feel the same about shared workspaces again.
“It’s possible that our threshold for being distracted may have changed, because the pandemic lasted several years, and we became accustomed to an environment that is quieter, and that we have more control over,” says Veronica Galván, an associate professor of psychological sciences at the University of San Diego. “It can be jarring to go back to a situation that is quite different.”
During the pandemic period, the nature of work itself has changed in a way that may be causing more in-office distractions. Specifically, with virtual meetings becoming the norm, many workers – especially those working in an open office layout – are exposed to more one-sided conversations, which research conducted by Dr. Galván suggests can make it harder to concentrate.
In 2013 she led a study which found that bystanders have a harder time paying attention to a task when in earshot of someone speaking on a cellphone, more so than those overhearing two people engaged in a conversation in person. During the study, participants were asked to complete a task, unaware that they were being intentionally exposed to one of the two kinds of conversations in their vicinity.
“What we found is that people have a better memory of the cellphone conversation, and they were more annoyed at it,” Dr. Galván says. “Both sets of participants were distracted, but the cellphone conversation did a better job at capturing people’s attention.”
While the study didn’t provide an explanation, Dr. Galván speculates that the intermittent and unpredictable noise, missing details and unexplained context make the cellphone conversation more distracting. With remote meetings becoming norm, many post-pandemic workplaces present more of these distractions than ever before.
The other significant factor that is creating a certain degree of discomfort among many office workers is the loss of control over their environment. Dr. Galván cites one study that concludes a lack of control over your environment is directly correlated with anxiety. She explains that not only do workers typically have less control over their workplace than their homes, but many are also being required to return to the office against their will.
“Before the pandemic, people didn’t have a choice, so they weren’t missing it,” she says. “Post-pandemic, they feel that there is [another option], so there is a body of research showing that when people have less control, their levels of stress hormone – cortisol – rises.”
Other experts suggest remote work may have had a more profound and lasting impact on our subconscious that will make the office feel more uncomfortable for the foreseeable future.
“The tranquillity and control afforded by home offices have recalibrated our brains to operate optimally in quieter environments,” says Gleb Tsipursky, the chief executive officer of hybrid work consultancy Disaster Avoidance Experts and author of Returning to the Office and Leading Hybrid and Remote Teams. “This adaptation to the silence and minor ambient noises of home settings has made it more challenging for us to cope with the more robust and varied auditory stimuli in traditional office settings.”
Dr. Tsipursky points to recent statistics that show 2022 and the first quarter of 2023 saw the longest period of declining worker productivity in the United States in 75 years.
“The pandemic has sensitized employees to noise distractions, making the once familiar office sounds – such as phones ringing, office chatter and keyboard clattering – significant obstacles to focus,” he says. “This is not merely anecdotal; research supports the negative impact of noise distractions on productivity, particularly in open office layouts.”
The ideal solution, according to Dr. Tsipursky, is reserving collaborative work for the office and engaging in more focused or independent work at home. He also encourages employers to invest in acoustic panels and other sound-masking tools. Employees, meanwhile, can similarly invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to help reduce sensory distractions.
“They’re also a nice signal to others that you’re heads-down on work and you may not want to be disturbed if it’s not time sensitive,” added Talia Varley, the physician lead of advisory services for Cleveland Clinic Canada, a medical centre where physicians, wellness experts and management consultants help organizations improve employee health and manage organizational risk.
Dr. Varley says she’s encouraged by the employers’ efforts she’s seen in recent months to rethink the workspace with a focus on employee wellness and mental health. For example, she says many are taking natural light into consideration, providing soundproof meeting rooms for noisy phone or video calls and offering more quiet spaces for distraction-free work.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re at work in an office or at home or a mix of the two; when it comes to attention concentration there’s only so much to go around,” she says. “It takes a lot of effort to stay focused on something, no matter where you are.”