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Shirking from home

For remote employees, meetings and deep work are now coupled with online shopping, soothing puzzles and video games, and an array of other distractions.

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Part of the July Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.

Since Matthew Burrows entered self-quarantine in March, he’s had to learn how to accommodate a new co-worker: Dipper, a chatty oatmeal- and eggshell-feathered finch with a beak the color of a traffic cone.

“I usually take my Zoom calls from my kitchen table over yonder, just so the background noise is a little muted,” Burrows says as Dipper trills in his cage.

Normally, finches would live in a lively flock, communicating in a constant pitter-patter. It’s the avian equivalent of an open office — an environment that also suited Burrows, an account manager at the technology PR firm the Hoffman Agency, until, faced with the pandemic, the company closed its San Jose, California, headquarters and sent employees home.

Since Burrows and his partner rescued Dipper in the first month of quarantine, the friendly finch has demanded a significant amount of attention — more than the couple could ever give him in a normal workday. To keep his new avian companion entertained while he works, Burrows DJs a nonstop mix of nerdy podcasts (Burrows is a fan of the McElroy Family’s extended universe) and random playlists (Dipper has “shown an appreciation for jazz”). If the sounds stop for too long or he selects something Dipper doesn’t like, the bird squawks — an angry staccato Burrows, now fluent in finch, ably mimics. “Ironically, we’ve been talking about what we’re going to do for [Dipper] when things get back to normal,” he says.

But working from home, and regularly diverting our attentions to pets, video games, kids and Tiger King, may just be the new normal. Before the pandemic, roughly 14 percent of Americans worked remotely five or more days a week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But since social distancing began, roughly half of workers are logging in from their scattered homes, apartments, and vacation rentals, according to research from Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of management science at MIT. And even those who snagged an ergonomic office chair or upgraded their wifi have, like Burrows, found distractions around every corner.

Dipper isn’t even Burrows’s only diversion. “There are some days I need a break, and the video game console is right there,” he says. But however demanding he is, Dipper gives something back: “He’s really the alarm,” Burrows says, providing some structure to an otherwise amorphous remote workweek.

With limited coping mechanisms at their disposal, American workers like Burrows are increasingly in search of a respite from the inexorable grind of working through a pandemic. Shut indoors and starved of sports, the masses have turned to video games: Thanks to a run on consoles and pandemic-related production difficulties, the Nintendo Switch is effectively sold out. And Twitch, a platform that allows users to watch each others’ gameplay, saw traffic rise 20 percent between January and March. People are making time for streaming TV and movies, too. In the first quarter of 2020, Netflix added 15.8 million subscribers — and longtime users’ habits are changing. As they searched for “comfort” TV to fill the silence, daytime streaming rose 4 percent in March and April, according to streaming guide Reelgood.

Many are finding it impossible to simply stay focused through this year’s upheavals. When schools closed, parents were expected to become teachers without missing team meetings. “I feel like I have five jobs: mom, teacher, C.C.O., house cleaner, chef,” one woman told the New York Times. Zoom calls, both personal and professional, have quickly crowded people’s schedules, further cutting short working hours. Hungry for new information about the virus and the recent wave of protests, social media use exploded as people lost whole days to “doomscrolling”: mindlessly refreshing feeds in search of new information about the pandemic or politics. Other frantic activities, such as day trading, have also reached a fever pitch. The troubling results are reflected in users’ screen time reports, which track exactly how much time people spend on their devices.

As work and life bled together like a tie-dye sweatsuit, the US workday for many companies grew by three hours since March, according to NordVPN, a network service provider. “If I’m trying to schedule a call, in the past it could have been that between 9 am and 5 pm, most of us would be available,” says Ben Waber, the president and co-founder of organizational analytics firm Humanyze. “Today, that’s not the case. It could be that I’m working from 7 am to 7 pm and available some of those hours.” Now, meetings and rare moments of deep work are punctuated by online shopping, soothing puzzles, and training new pets.

The pandemic seems poised to bring about a long-awaited revolution in work culture. Everyone from rank-and-file employees to tech leaders like Mark Zuckerberg are calling for flexible work to continue after social isolation policies end. But the path forward is riddled with wiki rabbit holes, Super Mario Brothers, and timed naps. Once no-nos in the old days of the traditional office, they’re now essential components of the new remote work lifestyle.

Burrows, for one, isn’t complaining. “It’s nice to be able to move just two feet to my right, and there I am, ready for my lunch break.”

NASA communications scientist Jack Nilles coined the term “telecommuting” in the early 1970s. By the 1980s, his vision was becoming a reality as companies such as IBM installed “remote terminals” in employees’ homes. Each new technological development, from the laptop to the video call to the smartphone, made work more accessible.

By 2013, roughly 23 percent of Americans worked from home at least part of the week. But that year, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer called her employees back to the office. “Speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” she wrote in a widely circulated memo. When IBM — the original telework pioneer — followed suit in 2017, some wondered if work from home was simply a fad.

Though employers fear “shirking from home,” decades of research have shown that flexible work policies offer numerous benefits, says Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University. Companies save on real estate and everyone cuts down on commute time. Workers are more productive, and they’re also more satisfied with their jobs. In the pandemic, those same practices that companies such as Yahoo and IBM recently eschewed are the only thing keeping them afloat. “The one overriding piece of feedback is that working from home is far better than anyone expected,” Bloom says. “We’re hearing that firms get the perception people are working harder.” But for employees, it can feel like treading water.

Without her colleagues around, Mariana Pelaez, a graphic designer for the Minneapolis nightclub First Avenue and 7th St Entry, says she’s experienced fewer external interruptions. But her attention wanders more easily. Instead of staying focused on design programs or Slack, Pelaez finds herself gravitating to Animal Crossing: New Horizons — which dropped March 20 and quickly became one of the bestselling games ever made for the Nintendo Switch — and conversations with her boyfriend, who now works right behind her. “I don’t know if it’s that I’m getting more distracted or taking longer because I’m at home, but I’m definitely taking longer to get things done,” she says.

Kenedie, an office worker and avid Twitch streamer in Ontario, Canada, has experienced similar struggles in social isolation — ones she’s not keen for her employer to know about, so she asked that Vox not use her full name. “I would go through this cycle of trying to work and still getting distracted, and then feeling guilty,” she says. “That’s still a challenge. Even though I’m still getting my workload done, I feel less productive.” While she is strict about not gaming during the workday, her second monitor is usually running Netflix or other people’s Twitch streams, and she gazes over from time to time while she works.

The meandering minds of remote workers around the world probably has less to do with working from home than the context in which we’re doing it — a once-in-a-century mass casualty event — says Larry Rosen, a professor emeritus of psychology at California State University Dominguez Hills and an expert in the science of distraction.

Our current predicament reminds Rosen of an influential 2010 study on multitasking: Researchers divided students into three groups and asked them to read a passage. One group had no distractions, one group received an instant message before they started reading, and a third group received instant messages as they read. When tested on the material, each group fared equally well, but the third group took the longest to complete the task.

“We are the third group right now,” Rosen says. “It is taking us longer to do everything. It is adding more stress.” While we eventually get everything done, it doesn’t feel like much of an accomplishment. Even Rosen, a longtime remote worker, says he’s recently struggled to stay on task. “I’m still in pajamas and robe at noon,” he says. And despite his best efforts to stay focused on his treadmill desk, tasks seem to slip through the cracks. “I find myself circling back at night to finish things.”

The pandemic isn’t the only challenge the country faces, either. We’re also in a period of profound social unrest and hurtling toward a presidential election. For Pelaez and her colleagues in Minneapolis, the police killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests disrupted every aspect of their work and life. “That week, I don’t think anyone got anything done,” she says. “I think that just shows, even when we are stuck at home, everything that’s happening in the city is still going to affect us.”

These struggles are only exacerbated by our unprecedented isolation. “When you get a note from someone that says they’re following you on Instagram, when you crave connection, you immediately go there,” Rosen says. In an office, people usually spend part of the day chatting with colleagues. At the very least, they feel the presence of others around them. Now, “the only way to make up for it is to electronically talk to people, so you self-interrupt all the time,” Rosen says. “We think it’s making us happier, but we’re more stressed, and we’re struggling with work.”

The potent mix of professional productivity and personal strife could have serious consequences. “I think people are burning out, to be honest with you,” says Tim Pychyl, an associate professor of psychology at Carleton University in Canada and a leading researcher on procrastination. Pychyl says workers need clear boundaries to stay balanced. The 5 pm mass exodus from the office was a useful signal, but now everyone must rely on their own internal clocks. “We all have to have that ability to say, ‘That’s enough for today,’” Pychyl says. If we rely on companies to tell us when we’re done, “they’re going to eat us alive.”

Mary Therese Jackson is a remote work evangelist. Last year, Jackson, the vice president of community programming and strategic planning for DC-based accelerator Springboard Enterprises, joined the Tulsa Remote program, which grants select workers $10,000 to relocate to Oklahoma. She says working from home has made her more productive, flexible, and happier. But the pandemic has threatened her carefully balanced schedule.

“All of my phone calls, people wanted to be Zoom calls. And all of my emails, people wanted to be calls,” she says. As the rest of Jackson’s team went digital, they tried to mimic the physical office they’d left behind. “Every day, people were like, ‘Let’s have a virtual happy hour!’” They hoped it would boost morale and productivity, but Jackson says she got less done, and she noticed her coworkers starting to stress out, too.

“People were like, ‘Oh, we have all these tools, so we can just proceed as usual,’” she says.

The challenge and opportunity of working from home is that it has forced teams to throw out the rulebook. “Having video conferences all day long is totally the wrong direction,” Jason Fried, the co-founder of the all-remote software company Basecamp, told Marker in early April. “The beauty of remote working is the opportunity to improve the way you work, to cut way back on meetings, to cut back on the number of people that need to be involved in any decision, to cut back on the need to FaceTime constantly.” But this utopic vision of the workplace can’t be achieved with conventional “best practices.”

Cal Newport, a computer science professor at Georgetown University and the author of several books, including Digital Minimalism, says companies will have to learn to communicate less, but more effectively. He says he believes managers will have to apply software-industry standards like the “sprint” — a set period in which a predetermined list of goals must be accomplished — to knowledge work writ large if they want their remote teams to succeed. “We’re all going to have to be a bit like the software geeks, for better or worse.”

Managers are also going to have to trust their employees, sometimes for the first time. Many companies have resisted remote work because they like to keep an eye on their staffs. “If I see you here and being frantic and busy and looking stressed and always running into meetings, at least I know that you’re not being lazy,” Newport says. Even now, employees are still feeling the need to perform their productivity while working remotely. “People just do it on email and Slack,” Newport says. “It becomes a thing of like, ‘Look, I’m the first person to respond.’” Rather than reward this behavior, executives will have to create a new work culture that empowers employees to work the way that’s best for them — even if that involves a little therapeutic goofing off.

Burrows is still working remotely, along with a restless sea of other Americans who are realizing there is no end in sight. But he may no longer have to spend his days entertaining Dipper: Burrows and his partner recently rescued two more finches, Mabel and Wendy.

Eleanor Cummins reports on the intersection of science and popular culture. She’s a former assistant editor at Popular Science and writes a newsletter about death. She previously wrote about the “death-positive generation” and the people hell-bent on ignoring social distancing for The Highlight.


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