A Blog by Jonathan Low

 

Dec 20, 2021

Why Leaders Are Finding Working From Work Is Harder Than Expected

The hybrid workplace often turns out to be noisier and more distracting than home due to high volume Zoom calls on laptops in open plan offices. And colleagues who rarely see each other in person want to catch up. 

Leaders are discovering that just announcing the hybrid schedule is the beginning of a process, not the end of it. Like so many other technology enabled processes, there is no such thing as plug and play. Investment, time and effort are required for optimal outcomes. JL 

Katherine Bindley reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Many people returning to offices are starting to wonder how they ever managed to be productive in a place with so many distractions. On top of standard interruptions to the workday that have long existed - small talk while making a fresh cup of coffee - there are now new temptations and annoyances spawned by staggered schedules, hybrid work, and the pandemic-induced realization that socializing can be exhausting. “Often there’s five people on the same Zoom meeting on full volume.” Some walk about the office with their phones on speaker, while others are behind closed doors that aren’t soundproof. “People have their headphones on but I’m hearing everyone talking to their computers.”

When Cara Dimitropolis started working from home nearly two years ago, she was constantly distracted by her chatty husband and the dog. These days, working from home is a welcome respite from the place she seems to have a hard time getting anything done: the office.

“Most people now want to sit and just chitchat with me for an hour,” said Ms. Dimitropolis, 30, who works in marketing for a real-estate company in East Longmeadow, Mass. “I’ll try and come in early and I won’t ever actually be alone. Somebody will come in and think I’m in here early just to talk and shoot the breeze for an extra hour.”

Many people returning to offices are starting to wonder how they ever managed to be productive in a place with so many distractions. On top of standard interruptions to the workday that have long existed—say, small talk while making a fresh cup of coffee—there are now new temptations and annoyances (depending on whom you ask) spawned by staggered schedules, hybrid work, and the pandemic-induced realization that socializing can be exhausting.

Small talk can easily stretch into a half-hour or more when you’re covering weeks or months of gossip since your last run-in. Some colleagues are taking Zoom meetings on speaker at full volume. Headphones are no defense against shoulder-tapping deskmates with questions, and for the love of God what is that incessant ringing? Ah yes, it’s a landline that you can’t silence!

Ms. Dimitropolis tried closing her office door to avoid disruptions, but co-workers would knock and come in anyway. A few months ago, she started posting a sign on her door for when she really must focus. It says: “Processing Checks—Please Come Back Later.” Trouble is, there is a window right next to her door so co-workers can still peer in.

“People tend to just make fun of me for it rather than listen to it,” she said. “They’ll just stick their face in the window and wait for me to look at them.”

Office signs that attempt to manage distractions have resonated with people on Twitter: One Ph.D. candidate in Oslo implemented a door policy “in order to protect my concentration and my sanity.” The sign instructed people not to knock on the door unless there was urgent business—defined as the building being on fire, an offer of coffee, revolution or a dog.

Valerie Warshaw, 40, an interior designer with an architecture firm in Richmond, Va., also has trouble focusing with people chatting near her desk, but for different reasons.

“I get distracted just from hearing other people’s conversation and then I’m like, ‘Ooh! I want to chime in on that,’ ” she said. “The group that I’m in is very social.”

Ms. Warshaw doesn’t get the same enjoyment from Zoom meetings her in-office colleagues have with people who are still remote.

“People have their headphones on but I’m hearing everyone talking to their computers.”

Her noise-canceling AirPods can help but have a downside: she gets startled when people come up behind her desk without warning. Ms. Warshaw has learned the best way to get anything done is to barricade herself in a conference room.

“People don’t disturb you because they think you’re on a call,” she said.

Hannah Hoffman, 28, an administrative assistant who lives in Farmington Hills, Mich., works in an office for a nonprofit with some people who don’t appear to believe in plugging headphones into their computers.

Hannah Hoffman is back in the office.

PHOTO: SERJ ORTAN

“Oftentimes there’s five people all on the same Zoom meeting on full volume,” she said, adding some walk about the office with their phones on speaker, while others are behind closed doors that aren’t really soundproof. “I hear the same thing being said at different volumes through different closed doors five different times.”

Because Ms. Hoffman has to answer the phones and listen for the doorbell, she can’t put headphones on herself so she’ll often just sit through 25 minutes of someone else’s meeting. Having to interact with her co-workers or with the nonprofit’s steady stream of visitors didn’t tend to bother her before the pandemic.

“I kind of crawled into my little crab shell working from home,” she said. “My social skills have remained in that little shell.”

Dan Malouff, a city planner who lives in Washington, D.C., finds distractions of different stripes at home and in the office. At the peak of the pandemic when schools weren’t open, his 5-year-old was home while he tried to work. Now, he is back at the office several days a week. One day last month, there was soft Christian rock wafting from across the room.

“You figure this will last 10 or 15 minutes and then they will get a phone call or they’ll get up and leave,” said Mr. Malouff. “An hour goes by and it’s starting to bug me a little bit more.”

Mr. Malouff and another colleague finally went in the direction of the music to investigate the situation only to find a closed laptop at the desk of their co-worker, who was working from home that day. They tried calling and emailing the person, but got no response.

“I can’t open the laptop and turn it off, that would be an invasion,” Mr. Malouff said he recalled thinking.

The pair debated whether they could unplug her computer and eventually tried it. The music stopped. It has been five weeks and Mr. Malouff has yet to overlap with the laptop’s owner.

“I’ve still never seen her,” he said.

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