Illustration by Fanny Luor
Illustration by Fanny Luor

Work Culture

Study: Focus will shape the future of distributed work

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Published on October 13, 2020

Illustration by Fanny Luor

The shift to working from home has mostly been positive for knowledge workers, but the challenges reveal a $1.2 trillion opportunity

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Focus is how work gets done. Distractions that disrupt our mental focus have long been a problem in knowledge work. And as the optional privilege of “telecommuting”—a quaint term now—gave way to mandatory WFH, the challenge of focus has changed for workers, teams and entire companies as the nature of work continues to shift in where, when and how it gets done. Even the holdouts who in March assumed things would go “back to normal” have accepted that these changes are now the norm. And more may be coming.

To quantify the challenges to focus, Dropbox partnered with the Economist Intelligence Unit to study knowledge workers, both management and general staff, across fields from tech to manufacturing to retail and education. The results are need-to-know numbers for anyone who wants to understand where focus is a challenge—and how reclaiming it is a big opportunity.

The study’s data analysis often confirms what you’ve already believed, but just as often flips it on its head: 

  • Lost focus eats nearly a third of both time and salaries across American businesses
  • Meetings, even video meetings, aren’t the biggest disruptor
  • Managers are more reluctant to return to the office than their team members
  • Loneliness distracts WFH professionals even more than families and pets

Focus needs attention from the top down
Most urgently for companies to understand, lost focus is least felt at the top. Its effects increase as you move down the org chart. If you manage a business or a large group, you may literally have no idea how much more your front-line and back-office workers alike are being distracted from getting their jobs done. 

How focus affects business

Lost focus costs a startling average of $34,448 per year per employee among knowledge workers, as it drains 581 hours per year—nearly a third—from the average worker’s time. The largest segment of the U.S. economy—professional, scientific and technical services—lose the most, at $178 billion annually. But the rest of the workforce loses even more proportionate to its members, another $212 billion. Solving the problem could turn losses to profits: the potential upside of improving focus in knowledge work is an estimated $1.2 trillion in untapped employee output

You’ve suspected this. Your IT staff aren’t the only ones kept from innovating by constant distractions. They’re just better at making charts to prove it.

Meetings aren’t the problem
For software engineers, yes, meetings are the mindkiller (a quote from Dune, which they’ve all read.) But most of the workers we surveyed average only one meeting per day. That meeting only seems to be the biggest distraction of the day.

Pre-pandemic, the top focus-breakers across the board were face-to-face interruptions, as productive as those can be for the person interrupting. Close behind are constant notifications of new emails, texts, DMs, and phone calls from that guy who won’t use Slack. Any of this era’s instant telecommunications, which we’ve not yet learned to manage well, can pull us off track. 

Graphic showing biggest sources of workplace distraction? (% of survey respondents)

This is one case where our study’s data counters common-sense feelings. WFH workers joke about online meetings that “could’ve been an email.” Yet they may not realize how much that email and other messages can keep them from focusing on a task for a single uninterrupted hour. Have you gone a full hour today without checking for inbound messages? 70% of our respondents say they check it at least once an hour, with almost a fifth (18%) saying they check it “every few minutes.”

Stopping to switch context, even to see who’s messaging you, interferes with task completion and can prevent information from being saved in the brain’s long-term memory. This is obvious to someone editing a thousand lines of source code, but it affects all of us, no matter what we do.

Managers are less distracted, upper management least
On any workday, managers interact with far more people than most individual contributors do. That distracts their focus. They’re more likely than their staffers to cite meetings as another top distraction, but they also have advantages over their teams: They’re more likely to have a private office, or at least an understood Do Not Disturb zone around them. They have more authority to block off time alone to buckle down on planning, reporting, and exploring data for decision-making. And maybe they’re just better at staying on task. 

In fact, the higher up the org chart our respondents work, the more likely they are to feel very focused. That’s great, but the corollary is those in charge may not realize how much their teams, departments, or whole divisions are being thwarted by everyday disruptions and mandatory distractions from focusing on their own core work. 

How COVID-19 and WFH have affected focus

Beyond the virus itself, the constant firehose of news related to COVID-19 has significantly distracted 40 to 50 percent of all workers this year. It’s one area where managers are more affected than general staff. It hits everyone, whether or not shelter-in-place orders have affected their daily workplace and activities. 

Two in three feel focused at home
Working from home has affected individual workers differently. Four in ten respondents say they feel more focused at home, while another three report no change. But nearly a third have had the opposite experience, feeling “somewhat less” able to focus. Five percent are having serious trouble—an important minority that may include former workplace stars.

Managers miss the office less
Perhaps our most counterintuitive finding was that more managers hope to stay WFH even when pandemic-related restrictions are lifted. One might assume they’re eager to get the whole team back under their watchful eye. But what more managers want is freedom from the constant pop-ins that kept them from focusing on important tasks. Those who’ve begun working from home this year are more likely than not to say they feel more focused there.

No one misses the commute
Nearly 40 percent of respondents cited “elimination of the daily commute” as a benefit of working from home. Importantly, it’s not just the extra work time or more free time that they’re enjoying—the lack of commute is actually enhancing their focus throughout the day. They can save their attention and energy for work, without navigating a freeway or subway to start the day and bracing themselves again at its end. And when they need to attend a meeting online, four in ten say their participation level is up from their days of sitting around a conference table.

And yet: more work, more hours
Another surprise is that commute time has often been replaced with more work. Four of ten respondents say either the volume of work they do from home or the number of hours per week they work, have gone up. Often it’s both. 

Graphic showing how work life has changed during the shift to remote work according to 2020 EIU studay

Stress is up … and down
While managers are more likely to feel focused at home, rank doesn’t seem to affect the shift’s effect on stress either way. The spread is egalitarian: Four in ten of all who’ve switched to WFH say their stress levels are up. (Did you need a study to tell you?) Yet at the same time, another three of those ten say their stress levels are down at home. 

Mistakes are down, miscommunications are up
Workers in general don’t feel they’re making more mistakes. Only 7 percent say they’ve become much more mistake-prone, while nearly a quarter of others say they’re now less likely to make mistakes. Instead, the standout worry for WFH workers is miscommunication. Fully half of respondents said miscommunications are somewhat or more of a risk when working remote, and most say it’s harder to start new projects with multiple collaborators. Not surprising, but worth attending to.

Stop pinging me
Email, chat, and other messaging channels have overall remade work to be more productive and flexible since their introduction. But they’re also the prime cause of shortened focus. Both at an office and at home, email and video chat keep more than half of respondents from getting in an average of more than one hour straight of uninterrupted focus on a single task. That’s even more than cited face-to-face interruptions as the worst. Unsurprisingly, 70 percent of WFH respondents said they’re spending more time on email since relocating. The good news is that at workplaces whose primary communications happen in chat apps like Slack, nearly three-fourths of both general staff and managers said an hour of uninterrupted focus time is now a daily occurrence.

Graphic showing average length of unbroken time spent focusing on a specific task compared to main method of workplace communication according to 2020 EIU study

The quiet curse of loneliness
You don’t need us to tell you that family distractions, household chores, and the simple urge to chill are major challenges to at-home focus. But one in four of respondents who’ve been working from home during COVID say their focus on work is taken away by feeling disconnected from colleagues. The effect of feeling cut off from social connections is present across all sectors.

Its ubiquity is hard to dismiss. And while it’s a bit lower among managers and those in tech work where WFH is nothing new, it’s higher among non-management staff in education and manufacturing, where WFH was a new and sudden shift this year. More than one in three general staffers cite feeling disconnected as a reason they have trouble doing their jobs. And while people say they’re about as engaged with work as they were before, their top reason reason for feeling disengaged is disconnection.

The damage feeling disconnected does to businesses far outstrips having employees who check Twitter at work. Compared to the third of people that say lack of connection is a source of trouble doing their jobs, only a tenth cite checking social media as a source of distraction. 

How to build a culture of focus?

In 2013, incoming Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer shut down telecommuting and required all employers to report to work at company sites. “We need to be one Yahoo,” she said, “and that starts with being physically together… we need to be working side-by-side.”

Seven years later, it’s hard to imagine this ever happening again. But how do we improve focus in the future’s hybrid workplaces? 

So far that challenge has been left to employees to figure out for themselves. Most of our respondents consider focus on their work a personal responsibility instead of the company’s responsibility—but many top distractors are implicitly organizational. Another “Top 10 Tips for WFH” blog post won’t help anyone. The challenges must be seen all the way from the top, by managers for whom staying at home may not have brought the same problems.

Company-wide programs are few
The most frustrating stats in our study show how sparse company-wide initiatives to boost employee focus are. Meeting-free days, official “focus time,” internal classes that encourage mindfulness and discourage multitasking—fewer than one in five respondents were aware of any single one of these at their organizations. They were just as likely to report that the company has banned checking personal phones at work. That doesn’t help when the texts are coming from inside the office.

Automation and asynchronous communication
One strategy companies are using to empower WFH employees is automating tasks, such as scheduling meetings. It removes a lot of attention-sapping overhead.

But a sharp increase in the number of scheduled meetings compared to in-office work, as well as total hours worked, indicate they’d benefit from “going async”—eliminating as many events as possible where any two coworkers need to connect at a specific time. The Diverge-and-Converge model, where team members work independently more of the time, has shown higher-quality results in tests. 

Digital tools let workers receive and respond to new information immediately, but that doesn’t always mean they should. Limiting email sessions to three times per day in a controlled study reduced stress without reducing productivity. Three of five of our survey’s respondents spend less than two hours a day on email. An equal number spend under one hour total on chat. Waiting to handle those messages in batches would leave hours-long stretches of uninterrupted focus. 

Focus on feeling connected
Most workers say company culture suffers while fully remote. Researchers elsewhere have found remote workers often feel isolated in two separate ways: cut off from the company’s support network, and cut off from social connections with coworkers. Managers often struggle to implement fixes, partly for lack of research and literature on WFH isolation prior to COVID-19. 

Hardly anyone expects the company to fix it for them. Seven of ten respondents, whether management or not, feel maintaining focus is their own personal responsibility, and nearly as many feel they have personal agency over their own schedule and environment. What they most need may be the emerging knowledge of how to feel more connected from home.

Tomorrow’s workers won’t always realize it, but few of them will thrive at either end of the focus spectrum—interrupted nonstop, or cut off from contact all day. The winning workplace will nurture focus with a dual approach: Give workers separated by space and time new ways to feel a part of a connected group. But please, please, leave them alone to work.

Check out the full report from The Economist Intelligence Unit at lostfocus.eiu.com.