My periodic, rare stints in cube-farm offices are an exercise in distraction management. Remote working consistently for so long I now find it hard to focus when in whichever corporate office I occasionally inhabit. Interestingly, it is not the location, it is the people who make the difference. Telecommuting is usually a solitary environment or surrounded by anonymous strangers.
When I do visit an office, it is usually to meet my teammates. Often, this is the first time I may meet my coworkers in person. I find I engage in more water-cooler type conversations at random intervals with people.
This got me thinking, what makes working from home, a library, or coffee shop easier for me to manage?
Obviously, when I am in the corporate office, I am there to interact with coworkers which inherently disturbs productivity. This is only true initially. If I am there long enough work becomes routine, yet still more distracting for me than working almost anyplace else.
A Laundry List of Commotion
For example, in 2013 and 2014 I worked from an RV in various locations along the west coast, mostly in Washington and California. Among the many inconvenient factors of living in an RV is doing laundry. Unless you find a large commercial laundry mat, available facilities are often limited to one or two machines of dubious quality and efficiency. You are stuck waiting for the wash to cycle, followed by a couple minutes shuffling a load from one appliance to another.
Scheduling is dictated when the clean clothing hits critically low levels. This is awkward but not entirely counter to virtual work as might appear.
My work preference is to start early in the day, between six and seven in the morning. Strangely, few people don’t do their laundry this early in the morning, and I take advantage of this oddity. Once laundry starts, I settle in nearby to work. While washers and dryers and various people are noisy, they don’t require much attention. It doesn’t take much time to shift the loads. People may come and go but keep to themselves. A headset mutes most background noise.
It is worth noting I have the flexibility to arrange timing around specific meetings and types of work. Similarly, this is not a particular enjoyable work situation, more of a necessity or circumstance.
As a specific and somewhat unusually extreme example, it illustrates the worst conditions of remote working from almost anywhere. Noise from people or the surrounding environment, disrupting tasks, people intruding in your space.
Office Cube Invasions
How is the corporate office worse than a laundry mat?
In one specific way, the corporate office is like being surrounded by family in the home office. You are alert to any nearby conversation in person or on the phone. There is always some loud talker on a call. Anyone who invades your space potentially requires attention.
In other words, the distractions are relative.
Why are family, like strangers, easier to work around than co-workers? Strangers in public tend to keep to themselves. Coworkers have an interest in communicating and connecting when together. Relatives or housemates can be told to sod off thereby leaving you to work in peace.
In 2019 I spent about a third of my workweek in the company office. It was a great opportunity to connect with my team. And while this time was invaluable and collaborative, it was also filled with shoulder-taps and cross cubical talk. Mostly work related, but often random. Unlike online meetings, instant messaging, phone calls, or email, the in-office chatter comes at you without hesitation, filter, or direction. It is a close cousin to Mindless Accept Syndrome (see No MAS and David Grady’s TED Talk).
In the home office setting with roommates or family, a unique opportunity exists to discipline yourself and the people around you. The successful remote worker enforces a boundary of tranquility and concentration. It may be noisy or have periodic unrelated tasks like lawnmowers, deliveries, or changing the laundry, but overall productivity is attained through distraction management.