Tamara Hlava in the Column Five office on Jan. 23; even before the pandemic, the company had made changes aimed at helping workers stay focused.
Brian Guido for TIME

In April, as office workers across the world stared down months of being stuck at home while juggling childcare, their jobs and general anxiety about a global pandemic, Lisa Kribs and Gavin Thomas, the co-founders of a marketing firm in Rochester, N.Y., decided to try an experiment to make life more pleasant for their stressed-out employees.

They implemented a four-day workweek at their eight-person company, TGW Studio, and cut the number of meetings by about 50%. By paying everyone their same salaries while expecting them to work less, they hoped employees would be more productive during the hours they were actually on duty.

They were right. Two months later, productivity had increased, and employees were generating the most creative work they’d done in a long time. A shorter workweek was something TGW’s leaders had been dreaming about for a year, but they worried how clients would react, says Kribs, 37. “And then COVID happens and we’re like, You know what, let’s do this,” she says. “It was almost this like ‘F it’ kind of a thing.”

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Office work was broken long before the pandemic. Technology has seamlessly connected workers to one another, but it’s brought with it an endless stream of distractions. The average knowledge worker—essentially someone who performs cerebral tasks for their job—checks email every six minutes and spends more and more time in meetings. Executives were spending 23 hours a week in meetings by 2017, up from 10 hours a week in the 1960s. Because productivity in office work is more difficult to monitor than manual work—it’s easy to see if a hotel room has been cleaned, for instance—many knowledge workers feel wedded to their desks, since the time they spend at their computers has become a proxy for how hard they are working.

The pandemic is forcing companies to rethink how they structure work, and some are trying ambitious changes to try to fix what is broken. They’re shortening the workweek, doing away with meetings and rethinking the butts-in-seats mentality. They’re adjusting workdays to suit the needs of employees scattered across time zones and faced with childcare responsibilities. Some are even reimagining offices as nonwork retreats for employees who need a break from home.

It’s not just small companies like TGW that are switching how they structure work. Morrison’s, a U.K. supermarket chain, said in July its 1,500 corporate employees would receive the same pay to work a four-day week, an effort to keep workers motivated. Slack, the messaging-software company, started a company holiday one Friday a month for its staff to rest and recharge. JPMorgan said in August that its employees would permanently cycle between remote work and the office. Fifty-eight percent of companies surveyed by Xerox in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Germany and France said they were changing their work-from-home policies.

Companies like TGW hope their experiment motivates others to try something different. “This is really the time, as a society, to think through all of this,” says Thomas. “People are really getting excited about new ways of thinking about work.”

Doing a desk job can feel like going into battle with a never-ending flow of information flying at you at warp speed, thanks to technology. As I sat down to focus on this story on a recent weekday, my cell phone rang with an unidentified number that I thought might be a source for another story (it was a telemarketer). My concentration blown, I quickly checked email to find a message asking me to review a purchase that had never been delivered, which led me into a rabbit hole of where in the world the package could be. Determined to concentrate, I shut down my personal phone and email, but then a Slack message from a colleague popped up, asking for a source’s contact information that I could only get in my email, which led me back to my inbox, which had filled up with new messages, some of which I felt compelled to answer right away. Just when I was finally starting to focus, a woman I’d interviewed for a story months ago called on my work phone to ask a question.

This is what office workers deal with every day. Since the 1970s, knowledge work, made up of nonroutine, cognitive tasks generally performed by people sitting at desks, has blossomed. This has freed millions from the routine and often physically grueling jobs of the past as bookkeepers, factory workers and the like, but the technology that helped create knowledge work has ushered in endless distractions.

The pandemic has added heaps more, with as many as 1 in 4 people working from home globally, up from more than 1 in 12 before the pandemic. Aside from interruptions by kids, roommates and spouses, we’re dealing with colleagues who use Slack and email to ask questions that, in pre-pandemic days, could have been dealt with quickly in impromptu hallway conversations. There are more meetings so that colleagues who no longer catch up over coffee in a shared kitchen can hear what everyone is up to. After companies transitioned to remote work in March, the number of meetings jumped 12.9%, the number of internal emails increased, and workdays grew 481⁄2 minutes longer, according to one global study of 3 million workers.

What this means is less time for the type of focused work that keeps workers happy and productive. Instead, people are spending their time switching between meetings, emails, chats and their core work tasks. Multitasking has been shown to cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time.

This has implications for the world’s economy. After growing globally at a rate of 3% per year in the early 2000s, productivity— essentially how much people get done in an hour of work—grew at a rate of 1.4% in 2019, according to the Conference Board. Some economists argue that the same technology that fueled a boom in productivity in the early 2000s has become so disruptive that it ruins workers’ ability to focus. Today, people can only focus on one task for 47 seconds, down from 150 seconds in 2004, according to Gloria Mark, a professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. “We’re in a productivity crisis, and the arrival of email in the 1990s is really what kicked it off,” says Cal Newport, a Georgetown computer-science professor who studies technology’s impact on cognition. “If you are writing an article, checking Slack and jumping into email, your brain is performing at a fraction of its potential.”

With so many people struggling to balance work and family time during the pandemic, more companies are stepping in to help workers achieve what’s known as “flow,” the state of being so absorbed in a task that you lose track of time. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi developed the concept in his 1990 book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. Flow allows workers to hone their skills and apply them at an elite level, says Newport, whose own book, Deep Work, helps readers figure out how to minimize distractions and do their best work. “Once you start getting incredibly focused, the amount that can be produced in an hour is much higher,” he says, “It’s about training to get in that space, just like athletes do.”

By mastering flow, workers are able to be happier both at work and away from the office—virtual or otherwise—because they’re not haunted by the tasks left undone.

Leanne Robinson, left, and Shea Costales at Column Five on Jan. 23. The firm is trying new ways to help employees be productive while working at home. (Brian Guido for TIME)
Leanne Robinson, left, and Shea Costales at Column Five on Jan. 23. The firm is trying new ways to help employees be productive while working at home.
Brian Guido for TIME

Kribs, of TGW, first noticed the benefits of flow when women who were new mothers returned to work. Eager to get home to their babies, they would sit down and get into a deep groove, accomplishing more than people who spent long hours at the office.

Adjusting to this level of focused work doesn’t come easily for workers accustomed to constant interruptions. So on a recent workday, I joined an online community in an attempt to get into flow, signing up with Caveday. The New York company charges $20 a pop for people to log into a Zoom call alongside dozens of other workers and a coach, for the sole purpose of forcing themselves to focus.

The coach, Kait, sitting at her kitchen table, led the 60 or so people on the call in a synchronous clap to kick off our first 45-minute focus session. My computer screen was filled with tiles of strangers’ heads staring at their own computers, supposedly focusing.

It was easy at first to turn off my camera and keep procrastinating, gorging on crackers and jelly and scrolling through Twitter, but I tried harder in the second 45-minute sprint. By pretending that the other discombobulated faces were watching to see if I was working, I could force myself to focus. By the time we joined in a deep breathing session at the end of the third and final sprint, I was agreeing with others who said the session did make it a little easier to get stuff done.

Column Five, a marketing company with headquarters in Costa Mesa, Calif., was experimenting with the idea of incorporating flow time into employee schedules before the pandemic. Between around 12:30 and 4 every day, it encouraged everyone to refrain from Slacking, emailing or calling one another so workers could concentrate on their own projects. But during the pandemic, as Column Five employees shifted to working from home, they saw their schedules disrupted by family responsibilities. Flow became more difficult to achieve, says Tamara Hlava, the vice president of people and culture at Column Five. The company redoubled its efforts, advising workers to set a blue “flow” emoji that looks a bit like lightning on their Slack status to let colleagues know not to disturb them when they were in flow mode.

“We needed to remind each other that our best way to work through the noise and distraction of everything going on was to find flow time somewhere in your day,” Hlava says. Some employees, like finance manager Daniella Hughes, instructed family members to follow flow too. That included her husband, who works at a warehouse and gets home around 3 p.m., while she’s trying to focus on deep work. “I’ve really had to train him to allow me to be in flow time,” she says.

Other companies are helping employees get into focus time by providing them with monitoring software, a development that can seem Big Brotherish, but that companies say is useful in making sure people spend their work hours on the right tasks. Memory, a Norwegian company that makes a AI-powered time tracking app, has seen an 18% increase in paying customers from the same time last year. CEO Mathias Mikkelsen says the software actually helps workers cut down on extraneous emails and Slack messages and web surfing.

“If you want to become more productive, using your time correctly and understanding what you’ve done with an hour — that is the place you should start,” he says. One financial services firm that uses tracking software created by Sapience Analytics gained more than 100,000 productive hours in a month, as its 11,000 workers spent more of their working days on “core activities” during the pandemic, which are essentially the most important part of their jobs, according to data collected by Sapience.

Other companies, including TGW, are finding that cutting back on meetings can help workers find more time for deep work. “How many meetings have we all sat in where everybody’s laptop is open and they’re checking their mail and you know only half listening?” says Kribs. “That’s not what a meeting means to us anymore.” There is tangible evidence that reducing meetings works: Microsoft Japan increased productivity 40% last year when it moved to a four-day workweek and cut its standard meeting length in half, to 30 minutes.

Now that many workers have decamped to different time zones, some companies are reconsidering the idea of live meetings and embracing “asynchronous communication,” in which people exchange information but not in real time. Column Five started using software called Loom, which lets employees leave video messages in documents that walk colleagues through directions or important context. Buffer, a social-media management platform with 90 employees in 19 countries, no longer has mandatory meetings and instead uses Threads, a platform that lets employees weigh in on questions and decisions whenever is convenient to them. (Threads is itself a child of the pandemic; it launched in stealth mode in 2019 and decided to open up in March to help more customers bring together remote workers.) Buffer stopped asking employees to attend live town hall meetings; the company now records town halls and encourages people in different time zones to have “watch parties” so they can view them together and still feel like they’re participating.

“One of the problems with meetings is that you often get the most outspoken, strongest opinions heard,” says Hailley Griffis, the head of public relations at Buffer. “Asynchronous communication is more inclusive—anyone at the company can jump in and be a part of any conversation.”

As employers adapt to remote work, the biggest question facing them is what to do with their physical offices. Even before the pandemic, many employers had begun questioning the wisdom of open-plan offices, which became popular in the past two decades. With employees seated in close quarters side by side and sharing kitchens and break areas, the offices enabled constant distractions. Once the pandemic hit, they also proved potentially lethal.

Now, many companies are questioning the worth of offices at all. Tech companies, including Twitter, Facebook and Shopify, have said they will let many employees work from home permanently. Pinterest paid $89.5 million to cancel a new planned office space in San Francisco, saying more of its employees were going to work remotely in the future. But going fully remote carries its own set of problems.

New employees and those in search of mentorship will have a hard time at a company if they’ve never met their colleagues in person; if people can’t “schmooze” with colleagues, they trust them less, according to a study from business school professors at Columbia and Northwestern Universities. Remote work can also deal a blow to employees’ mental health; when Ctrip, a Chinese company, let more than 100 employees to work from home for four days a week starting in 2010, they were happy for three months, but within nine months, about half wanted to return to the office, according to research by Stanford economics professor Nicholas Bloom.

That’s why some business owners are still investing in offices; they’re just building a different kind of office. John Sweeden, who runs a small software firm in Oklahoma that works in the oil and gas industry, broke ground in August on a new office building on a 25-acre plot. The complex is about 20 minutes northeast of Oklahoma City, on land that costs a whole lot less than real estate in a crowded city center. Though it’s an office space, much of it will be “a place where zero work gets done,” he says.

There will be a large salon for socializing; employees will be encouraged to spend hours there, talking about anything. Sweeden is building a guest cottage that will house a rotating slate of visitors; in exchange for a free place to stay, these visitors will be asked to socialize with and give feedback to Sweeden’s company.

The complex will also feature individual office chambers for employees who struggle to focus at home—small rooms without Internet access set aside for people to get into flow.

The solo and social aspect of his office is necessary for innovation and productivity, he argues, especially in an era of social distancing. “Essentially the office becomes a break from working at home,” Sweeden says. “You get to socialize with co-workers, help people, get help, learn, teach and discuss ideas.”

Sweeden’s future office is based on a design concept called the Eudaimonia machine, developed by architect David Dewane. Eudaimonia is a Greek term that describes the state of contentment humans achieve when they’re flourishing in life or work. Achieving a state of eudaimonia “purely comes down to managing distractions,” says Dewane, whose ideal office has different zones, each designed to put workers’ minds into a progressively deeper focus. Key to the concept is space for workers to socialize as they transition to isolated chambers for concentrated work. “What COVID and this ongoing quasi lockdown is doing is exposing our thirst for social interaction,” Dewane says.

Column Five, the Costa Mesa marketing company, had built a new office based on the Eudaimonia machine before the pandemic. Now, the company hopes employees still use it, but not for work. “We want to keep that space for socializing—if you want to go in and share a LaCroix with somebody and have a conversation,” Hlava says. “Going to the workspace and choosing how you want to be that day leads to the freedom and autonomy that is good for a work culture.”

Fixing office work could be good for everyone. Economies in the United States, Japan, and Europe are facing declining rates of business dynamism, which means that people are creating fewer new businesses and start-ups. Economic growth is stagnating, which translates to less prosperity.

It would be ironic if the same pandemic that caused such a disruption in work across the world actually helped companies to fix how they work and to become more productive. It could be one silver lining to difficulties of 2020, one that companies like TGW are already seeing. “Anyone in a leadership position was literally thrust into this ‘figure-it-out’ mode,” Kribs says. “And the next thing you know, it’s like, wow, people are actually getting their jobs done. This new way of work is not just some sort of pipe dream.”

—With reporting by Julia Zorthian

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