Working From Everywhere is Getting Harder

The pandemic ruined everything.

CC0 Public Domain image from PxHere

The Economist‘s Bartleby columnist declares, “Every location has got worse for getting actual work done.”

Work would be so much better if you could get work done. It has always been hard to focus amid the staccato rhythms of meetings, the relentless accumulation of messages or the simple distraction of colleagues thundering past. But since the covid-19 pandemic, every single place of work has become less conducive to concentration.

Start with the home office. The promise of hybrid working is that you can now choose your location depending on the task at hand. If you need to focus on work, you can now skip the commute, stay home and get your head down. This tactic would have worked well in 2019, when no one else was ever at home. Now there are likely to be other people there, too, grabbing the best spot for the Wi-Fi, merrily eating your lunch and talking loudly to a bunch of colleagues in their own workplaces. Home has become a co-working space but without any of the common courtesies.

While working out common courtesies with family members isn’t that hard, it’s true that working at home with others in the household is considerably more distracting than doing so alone.

Even if none of your family or flatmates is at home, they now know you might be. That spells disaster. Parcels are delivered with monotonous regularity; large chunks of the day are spent being photographed on your own doorstep holding intriguing packages that are not for you. Children who want food or money know where to track you down.

Delivery in Bartleby’s neighborhood must be considerably more theft-adverse than in mine. I can count the number of times I’ve been asked to sign for a package, much less be photographed holding it, since the pandemic on one hand.

Worst of all, jobs that once required a day off can now be done at no personal cost by booking them in for days when someone else is at home. “Are you going in today?” might sound like an innocuous question. It should put you on high alert. It means that a bunch of people with drills will storm the house just as you settle down to the laptop.

Obviously, partners should be able to coordinate such things for days when there aren’t demanding deadlines and the like. But, yes, my wife and I schedule things—in coordination with one another—for getting household tasks done.

On the one hand, yes, it makes the workday less productive. On the other, it means we can get things done during the workweek, leaving the weekends for other matters. That’s not a terrible tradeoff.

One natural response is to head to the place you were trying to avoid—the office. But its role has changed since the pandemic. It was never a great place for concentrating (the periods of lockdown were glorious exceptions). But it has become even less suitable now that the office is seen as the place where collaboration and culture-building happen.

Before you might have been able to sit in a cubicle, fenced off from other people; now openness is in vogue, which means fewer partitions and greater visibility. Before you might have had a normal chair and a desk; now you will be asked to wobble awkwardly on a tall stool at a champagne bar. Before you were interrupted; now you are being given an opportunity to interact. There is much more emphasis on meetings, brainstorming, drinking, eating, bouncing around on space-hoppers or whatever appalling activity builds team spirit. There is much less emphasis on single-minded attention.

This really hasn’t been my experience but my wife has had a bit of it. For a variety of cultural reasons, my organization—which is in a sense in competition with a non-resident version of ourselves—went back to work quickly after COVID and has emphasized getting back to the old routine. There’s more flexibility in terms of telecommuting and holding meetings virtually now—because the three-month shutdown for COVID proved we could do it—but we still have assigned offices and no more team-building than before.

My wife’s workplace is a weird hybrid, where everyone works from home three days a week but has to slog to the office two days just because. And, with the exception of one day a month where they all pretty much have to be there, there’s no coordination to maximize the team aspect of this in-office presence. Because she’s at the Pentagon, where space is at a premium, though, some people don’t have a desk they can call their own, having to find space where no one is currently sitting.

Juggling all of this is definitely more aggravating than a pure remote model. But it’s still mostly better than a pur at-office model as well.

Home is heaving, the office is off-putting. What about other places, like co-working spaces and coffee shops? These too have got worse since the pandemic, for two reasons. First, there is more competition for spaces. Everyone else who is finding it hard to concentrate has had exactly the same idea of heading to a third location.

Second, online meetings have made it acceptable to reach everyone everywhere. It used to be said that you are never more than six feet away from a rat; now the same is true of a Zoom call. Wherever you are—homes, offices, cafés, libraries, monasteries—someone is within earshot, yapping away about something that manages to be both tedious and impossible to ignore: the plight of local papers in Maine, the risk calculations behind Solvency 2 or why Denise is so impossible to work with.

I’ve never really done the coffee shop thing, aside from the occasional work-from-home day when I needed to escape the cleaning crew or something similar. And it’s been years since I’ve done that, so I don’t have a feel for the change.

There are ways around the concentration problem. One is to become richer: everything is so much easier if you have another wing of the house, or indeed another house. Another is deliberately to swim against the hybrid tide: if Monday is the day when most people work from home in order to focus, the office is going to be a better place to work that day. The most common and least healthy answer is to defer focused work until the evenings and weekends.

Having a larger space is indeed nice. Alas, the trend toward “open” floorplans has somewhat obviated the benefits.

This is not a lament for the pre-pandemic world. Just because each location has got worse as a place to do focused work does not mean that things have got worse overall. Hybrid work allows people to pick the most appropriate locations for specific tasks. The option of occasionally staying at home, even if home is noisier than it was before 2020, is still better for many workers and employers than the pre-covid norm of coming into the office every day. But wherever you are, other people are more likely to be there or to have a greater expectation of interacting with you. The ability to concentrate is sold as a benefit of flexibility. It can be the price you pay for it.

Quite right.

And, further, it’s worse emphasizing that these “problems,” such as they are, are the province of white collar knowledge workers. As the pandemic highlighted, those in the service sector don’t have the luxury of telecommuting. Ditto everyone from coal miners to carpenters to construction workers. All in all, it’s not the worst problem to have.

FILED UNDER: Economics and Business, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Andy says:

    I’ve been a remote/at home worker since 2017. Prior to that, I was an intelligence analyst and trainer which is generally something you can’t do from home, although I was afforded some remote work hours for administrative tasks that didn’t involve classified info.

    As with anything else, there are tradeoffs both ways. I think much depends on the job’s tasks. In my old intel job, a big part of it was face-to-face briefings of leadership, aircrews, people getting ready for travel or deployments, and people getting security clearances. I also trained people and participated in exercises in the field for training events. Very little of that is conducive to a home office.

    By contrast, my current job is entirely online. The entire company I work for is remote—there is no office anywhere. I still do training and consulting, but it’s for things that can be done with Zoom and written products. Our processes and deliverables do not depend on regular, scheduled meetings – we have one every two weeks. There is both more independence and responsibility to get tasks done, and that flexibility means I can work the hours I want/need to instead of a set schedule as long as I get things done when required. So, for me, what works is breaking the workday into chunks and work the hours when I’m most effective and have the least distractions.

    I do sometimes miss the office environment and the camaraderie, and I think if I was younger, I would be seriously challenged with the isolation of remote work. But one thing I do not miss is commuting.

  2. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    By the time I was working at desk-type work, I’d been wearing a hearing aid for a few years, so I have absolutely no experience with what he’s talking about. On the other hand, the reason is because if I take my hearing aid out (which I do when I need privacy and quiet (not really that often for me), I hear nothing and students now know that if they’re approaching me from my right to ask a question, they need to take physical action to get my attention–wave, tap me on the shoulder, etc.–because I don’t notice them unless I’m looking directly at them.

  3. Jen says:

    I’ve been self employed for more than a decade. The article to me is weird, it sounds a lot like someone who doesn’t understand how to manage their own time. We’re pretty frequent users of Amazon (we live in a rural area, which also cuts down on the door-to-door sales the article is whining about), but I know that our “Amazon day” is Monday, and that deliveries usually happen at roughly the same time daily. My husband and I coordinate everything from when service activities to home repairs will happen.

    Making working from home work isn’t hard. It does take communication and planning though.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Oh boo hoo. We’ve written north of 150 books at home. In shitty apartments, in coffee shops, on planes, in hospital waiting rooms, in hotel lobbies, in foreign countries, in cars FFS. Man and/or woman and/or non-binary up, ya wimps.

  5. Barry says:

    There’s a large industry, second only to Russian troll farms, of (IMHO sponsored) ‘people’ dissing WFH.

  6. DrDaveT says:

    I don’t know what this guy and his flatmates do for a living, but I wouldn’t hire any of them. Apparently he was only happy when he was either the only person in the office, or the only person working from home. If he’s a poet or a mathematician, I might sympathize slightly. If he does anything require even tiny bits of collaboration, he’s just a social incompetent.

    On review, I suspect arid English humor. Bartleby for a pseudonym. Yeah, OK, it’s a troll.

  7. Lisa L. says:

    This entire article regarding WFH, is just off-putting. In my opinion, it’s giving beta male whining and complaining with notes of social anxiety and unorganization issues.

    As a Gen Xer, I found the lock down to be an actual Godsend. WFH, was an actual dream come true. Not having to wake up two hours earlier just for an expensive, stressful commute to do work in a corporate office that obviously could be done at home, in the first place. To be able to save money on gas, parking, food and most importantly, my precious time. Being able to work in my comfy pajamas instead of wearing an uncomfortable suit and shoes, or even corporate casual gear? Didn’t have to ask me twice.

    I was more productive, better rested, and gone were the obligations of feeling forced to socially bond with coworkers, or do “team building ” exercises outside of the office. I’d much rather spend that time with my actual family. I found that connecting, collaborating, and brain storming with coworkers was just as easy, perhaps moreso, virtually. It was truly the definition of work life balance.

    Afterwards, the hybrid “solution ” actual has nothing to do with team-building. But rather, the confessions of C-suite executive’s and owners pains of losing money from their corporate real estate being empty.

    Now there will always be professions that are simply impossible to be able to do remotely. But for those that can, let’s go back to what was working well. Or at least, give the opportunity to do so. Times and technology have changed to the point where WFH, became inclusive to a work force that had been overlooked and/ or ignored. Disabled, families with young children not old enough for school or daycare, single parents not having to spend the equivalent of rent or mortgage on daycare and those caring for aging or elderly parents. Let’s not try and fix what wasn’t broken.