Part of the challenge of working from home has been the difficulty of not being distracted by domestic tasks, as Professor Gloria Mark at the Donald Bren School of Information and Computer Sciences, University of California, Irvine, explains: “People who have poor boundary control (being able to separate work from home life) have a much harder time to focus. They’re not just distracted by other people in the household but also by the physical surroundings of the home which provide cues to pull them away from work. For example, that they should do some cleaning.”
It’s a kind of busyness, computer scientist and bestselling author Cal Newport describes as shallow work. Its opposite, unsurprisingly, is deep work: “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task”.
In contemplating a return to the office, many of us may long for the opportunity to be in a distraction-free, or at least a distraction-reduced, work space. Whether heading back full time or in some kind of hybrid mix of office and home, it’s an opportunity for businesses to reset and create an environment that allows this deep, productive, and satisfying work to take place.
But Dr Leroy’s research shows it’s not just the fact that there’s washing to hang up or the sound of your partner’s Zoom call causing our lack of focus. Last summer she conducted a study looking at the impact of lockdown and the pandemic on how we have been able to concentrate, one involving 1,000 people in a single professional setting and another with 250 people in a variety of professions. Though the papers on this research aren’t yet complete it’s clear we can’t just blame domestic distractions for our reduced productivity over the past 12 months.
“The story isn’t all about non-work (house chores and childcare) interruptions – although there is a significant increase in those. The shift to remote work due to the pandemic has been associated with an increase in the number of interruptions emanating from the work domain.” Cue the ping of an email, the request for a quick call, and all-pervasive message notifications.
With these new working norms established, it’s safe to say that it is unrealistic to expect a return to the work place to offer a panacea of deep work without distraction. “If companies keep valuing and rewarding quick response to emails or messages during the entire workday, people will stay connected all the time, keep multitasking, and interruptions will be frequent,” says Dr Leroy.
And while multitasking might seem productive, she’s found it hurts productivity and quality performance. “Protected time for deeper thinking needs to be a priority, not an afterthought,” she says. “If time for deeper thinking is the time left between interruptions, between meetings... it won’t happen. In part, because there won’t be much time left, but also because attention residue will make it difficult for people to transition and reach the desired state of high focus.”
In his book Deep Work, Newport recommends blocking out periods of time for checking social media, setting ‘false deadlines’ that force you to concentrate on one task and one task only, and keeping a scoreboard on how well you’re doing on focusing on a priority project. Dr Leroy recommends simplifying avenues of communication, and agreeing times when people can be focused and times which are for meetings.