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The shift to remote work during the pandemic has not only changed our daily routines but also had profound effects on our brains. The quiet, controlled environment of home offices has conditioned us to work in silence, free from the constant hum of office chatter, ringing phones and clattering keyboards. This shift has made us more susceptible to distractions when we return to the traditional office environment.
The impact of working from home on our brains
The brain is a highly adaptable organ, constantly changing in response to our environment and behavior, a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. When we work from home, our brains adapt to the quieter, less distracting environment. We become more attuned to the subtle sounds of our home surroundings — the hum of the refrigerator, the ticking of a clock, the chirping of birds outside the window. These sounds become the backdrop of our workday, and our brains learn to tune them out, allowing us to focus on our tasks.
However, this adaptation comes with a trade-off. As we become more accustomed to the quiet of home, our ability to filter out the louder, more varied noises of the office environment weakens. Our brains, conditioned for the quiet of home, struggle to adjust.
Over the last five quarters, we’ve witnessed a concerning trend: a steady decrease in productivity. While there are undoubtedly multiple factors at play, one major culprit stands out — the cacophony of the office environment that accompanies the return to office.
As employees come in after months of working from home, they’re confronted with a barrage of sounds they had almost forgotten — the incessant ringing of phones, the constant hum of office chatter, the clattering of keyboards. These sounds, once a normal part of office life, have become significant distractions, disrupting focus and hampering productivity.
This phenomenon is not just anecdotal, as we can see from research on the negative impact of the noise distractions of the open office — and that’s from before the pandemic sensitized employees to noise. A review of over 300 papers from 67 journals found that open office layouts significantly worsen occupant productivity, with sound and acoustic strategies being crucial for office design. Similarly, another review of more than 100 studies on open offices found that the layout consistently led to lower rates of concentration and focus.
Research from the University of California at Irvine found that employees in cubicles receive 29% more interruptions than those in private offices, leading to higher rates of exhaustion. Edward Brown, co-founder of the Cohen Brown Management Group, found that office workers lose three to five hours of productive time every day due to unwanted, unneeded and unproductive interruptions, with 93% of workers reporting being often interrupted at work.
When companies switch from a private office to an open one, employees’ perception of health, work environment and performance decreases. Researchers from Karlstad University found that the more workers were gathered into a single office space, the less satisfied they became, resulting in lower wellbeing. This was in part because these workers felt it was harder to have a good dialogue with their colleagues due to concerns about being overheard.
These findings underscore the challenge many of us face as we transition back to the office. Our brains, conditioned for the quiet of home, are now struggling to adjust to the noise of the office. The question is, how do we address this challenge in a way that maximizes productivity and employee satisfaction?
The office noise dilemma
The traditional office environment, once the epitome of productivity, has become a battleground of distractions for many employees returning from remote work. The constant hum of office chatter, the incessant ringing of phones, the clattering of keyboards — these once-familiar sounds now pose a significant challenge to focus and productivity.
A recent Wall Street Journal article, whose subhead is “Working from home altered our brains. We need more office time to fix them” suggests that the solution to this problem is more office time to “exercise” our brains and regain the ability to focus amidst distractions. The article quotes S. Thomas Carmichael, professor and chair of the neurology department at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, who likens our brains to “flabby biceps” that need to be strengthened, and suggests the solution of “Make yourself work from the office more often.”
This perspective raises several questions. First, is it reasonable to expect employees to “exercise” their brains in an environment that is inherently distracting? Second, is it fair to place the burden of adaptation solely on the employees, without considering changes to the office environment itself? And third, what are the potential costs of this approach in terms of employee satisfaction, stress levels, and overall productivity? After all, the forced return to office – combined with the office noise – appears to have seriously harmed productivity for the last five quarters.
Forcing employees back into the office full-time, without addressing the issue of noise and other distractions, is akin to forcing a marathon runner to train in a swimming pool. Sure, they might eventually adapt, but at what cost to their performance? And what about the psychological stress of constantly struggling to focus amidst the noise?
Moreover, this approach overlooks the fact that not all work is the same. Some tasks require deep concentration and are best performed in a quiet environment, while others benefit from the energy and spontaneity of a bustling office. By forcing all work into the same noisy environment, we risk hampering productivity rather than enhancing it.
The solution to the office noise dilemma is not simply more office time, but a more nuanced approach that takes into account the nature of the work, the needs of the employees, and the benefits of both quiet and collaborative environments.
The flexible hybrid work solution: Embracing the silence and the noise
Given the challenges posed by office noise, it’s clear that a one-size-fits-all approach to the workplace is no longer viable. Instead, we need to embrace a more flexible, adaptable model that takes into account the diverse needs and preferences of employees. This is where the flexible hybrid work model comes into play, as I tell my clients when helping them figure out work arrangements for their staff.
The flexible hybrid work model is a blend of remote and in-office work driven by evidence on what people do best in the office and what’s most effective to focus on at home. It allows employees to do their focused, individual work at home, where they can control their environment and minimize distractions. The office, then, becomes a hub for collaboration, nuanced conversations, mentoring and on-the-job training and socializing — activities that benefit from the energy and spontaneity of in-person interactions.
This approach has several advantages. First, it respects the neuroplasticity of our brains and the adaptations we’ve made while working from home. Instead of forcing employees to “unlearn” these adaptations, it leverages them to enhance productivity. Employees can do their focused work in the quiet of their home office, where they’re less likely to be distracted and more likely to be productive.
Second, the hybrid model acknowledges the value of in-person interactions. While remote work has many benefits, there’s no substitute for the energy, creativity and camaraderie that come from working together in person. By designating the office as a space for collaboration, we can harness these benefits without subjecting employees to the constant distractions of a traditional office environment.
Third, the hybrid model offers flexibility. Employees can adjust their work location based on the tasks they need to accomplish. If they need to focus on a complex project, they can work from home. If they need to brainstorm ideas with their team, they can go to the office. This flexibility can lead to higher job satisfaction and better work-life balance.
Finally, the hybrid model is future-proof. It’s adaptable to changing circumstances, whether it’s a global pandemic, a personal health issue or a family commitment. By offering employees the option to work from home or the office, companies can ensure continuity and productivity no matter what the future holds.
In short, the hybrid work model is not just a response to the pandemic, but a forward-thinking approach to work that acknowledges the realities of our changing world. By embracing the silence of remote work and the sound of office collaboration, we can create a work environment that is productive, satisfying, and resilient.
The future of work: A symphony of silence and sound
The future of work is not about forcing employees into one environment or another, but about finding the right balance. It’s about creating a symphony of silence and sound, where focused work and collaboration each have their place. By embracing this approach, employers can maximize productivity, enhance employee satisfaction and create a work culture that is adaptable, resilient, and future-proof.