Illustration by Chris Behroozian and Fanny Luor

Shifting dimensions

To promote focus, companies are rethinking everything


Published on December 07, 2020

Workers are more distracted than ever, and companies aren’t doing very much to help them find focus.

Even before the pandemic hit, the way people worked at the Toronto accounting software company FreshBooks was in flux. Jeremy Bailey, a designer and Head of Experience at FreshBooks, says the company is known for an incredible in-office experience—one where collaboration and “collisions” with co-workers are the norm. It’s the type of place where there is “a party with a cake every day,” Bailey says, laughing. 

In response to Toronto’s rising cost of living—a similar story to other major cities—many employees felt an increasing desire to work from home. The downside was that while in-office workers were having a great experience, remote workers found themselves stuck in Zoom calls, and otherwise getting a comparatively less enjoyable work experience. Bailey says it created a malaise of sorts, where the remote workers felt like second-class citizens compared to in-office workers. 

Then the pandemic hit, and FreshBooks went fully remote on March 14th. To the surprise of Bailey and his co-workers, the company’s operations were running smoothly from home. And, in some ways, it helped equalize the experience for the existing remote workers. Bailey and his colleagues also noticed that productivity didn’t nosedive—at least not for engineers. FreshBooks engineers’ productivity spiked by about 25 to 30%. The designers, however, were struggling to focus on their work. 

“When an engineering team works really fast, it puts pressure on a design team, and we weren't able to keep up,” says Bailey. “Design work is more collaborative, so it took us a little while longer to figure out how to collaborate.”

“For creative people who need to bounce an idea off someone, it’s not as simple as it once was.” —Jeremy Bailey

“If you're an engineer and you're really focused on your work, and there's no distraction at home, then you're actually doing relatively well, right?” Bailey adds. “For creative people who need to bounce an idea off someone, it’s not as simple as it once was. So there's less efficiency in some areas and more efficiency in others.”

FreshBooks’ design team also began using Miro, a virtual whiteboarding tool. Bailey, a new media artist well versed in virtual technologies, quickly realized that this process alone wasn’t cutting it for the design team. In office, FreshBooks’ designers had a shared workspace, where ideas could be quickly produced and shared, and team members could watch for all of the nonverbal cues that co-workers might convey. Emotions like excitement or disinterest—things that help a team navigate an idea—are really crucial. But with Miro, it has been harder for the design team to pick up on the nonverbal cues, mostly because the presenter can’t see others on their screen while sharing a sketch. 

As with many companies responding to the pandemic, FreshBooks soon realized that different approaches were required for its employees. The company began developing different practices and tools to help remote teams work effectively. Now, with large blocks of time and fewer in-office distractions, engineers could reach deep focus. Starved of a real collaborative space and the water-cooler “collisions” where people could float ideas in a zero stakes game, the designers fell behind. 

“Initially, it was a bit of a struggle for the design team,” says Bailey. “Now, I think we’ve got some patterns of working together, but it was harder for us, in a big way, to start.”

Freshbooks’ experience illustrates the experience divide between different teams with different demands for focus. Bailey, part of FreshBooks’ COVID-19 response team, says the company is “throwing a lot of balls up in the air” in its efforts to help employees find focus. He says companies have a role to play in the experience of every employee, regardless of whether they are in their office or not.

Whose responsibility is focus anyway? 

FreshBooks’ approach stands in stark contrast to a recent study from Dropbox and The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which found that most companies don’t directly address challenges of employee focus.

“Companies are not doing enough to proactively build a culture of focus,” our report finds. “Only 15% of respondents say their firm has classes, workshops or internal messaging promoting focus or discouraging multitasking. Only 10% say their firms advocate ‘focus time.’

In the early weeks of distributed work, FreshBooks employees also reported not having a true work setup at home, only temporary solutions on the couch or a kitchen table. The company responded with a fund to help employees obtain desks, chairs, and other office items. They now offer employees a $50-per month work credit to help optimize remote work spaces.

FreshBooks published best practices for running meetings and enhancing online collaboration. One specific strategy will sound familiar to many knowledge workers: FreshBooks now holds regular virtual events to digitally replicate in-office collisions. 

The EIU study found that while 75% believe focus is the responsibility of the individual and not the company, many of the top factors blocking employee focus are organizational in nature.

“We actively encourage our people, from associates all the way to managing directors, to reduce fragmentation—do fewer things, but do them with depth.”—Bharat Khandelwal

Like Bailey, Bharat Khandelwal, a Managing Director and Partner at Boston Consulting Group (BCG), sees a definite role for companies to play when it comes to focus. Khandelwal acknowledges that individuals can do much to limit their distractions, but he believes the full burden cannot be placed on workers. And so BCG actively works to help employees get to that deep state of focus. At BCG, he says, “we actively talk about reducing fragmentation because it’s not just focusing on a thing, it’s focusing on it for a period of time so you can go deep enough to have meaningful thinking on it. We actively encourage our people, from associates all the way to managing directors, to reduce fragmentation—do fewer things, but do them with depth.”

Khandelwal says daily check-ins and check-outs help worker focus. The check-in sets the table for the day, while the check-out lets the worker know that they’re definitively done. Uncertainty about when to sign off can impact sleep schedule and other nightly routines, and possibly wreak havoc on the following day’s work. 

Sarah Elk, a Management Consultant at Bain & Co, says a focused workforce is something a company can foster. It starts with culture. Those companies with strong cultures tend to have teams that are better able to transition back and forth between the office and remote work. So, while Bain & Co and its clients now use tools like Zoom and Miro more often, they haven’t seen a serious drop in focus during the pandemic. 

The EIU study found that almost all respondents check their emails every hour, creating continual distractions. To combat this, Bain’s teams focus on very specific tasks for sustained periods of time to avoid the distractions of multi-tasking and communicate in short video conferences instead of by email. 

But even some companies who were experimenting with programs to promote focus have seen a backslide during the pandemic. Dave, a compliance officer for a major US bank, said that his bank was experimenting with “no email Fridays” to encourage workers to hop on the phone or into in-person meetings.  “Email warps or distorts your work relationships to a certain degree,” says Dave. “Being on the phone is more social. But, as things fell apart because of the pandemic, it seems like ‘no email Fridays’ lost momentum.”

Dave believes companies do have a role to play in promoting focus—one that is much the same as it was pre-pandemic. Companies must glue team members together, bridge lines of contact across teams, and get people “grinding together.” Dave says that companies should be cheerleaders keeping team members engaged. 

“The pandemic requires more trust and tolerance, stretching the bounds of what’s normal,” he says. “Maybe it means increasing the role of digital tools, and keeping people active on the company’s internal social media.” 

How companies can help people focus better

The EIU study found a number of strategies that prove successful in helping workers find focus. Taking breaks is by far the most popular strategy, with 54% of respondents saying they take breaks in order to focus. However, simply stopping work for 15 minutes, and either sitting at one’s desk or briefly stepping outside, might not suffice.

Rian Doris, the Chief Operating Officer at Flow Research Collective, says that finding deep focus requires a complete break from work. These could be something like a walk or meditation. Doris also noted that learning a new task allows a person to recharge and reset their brain for work. These breaks can and should be done throughout the workday, but also during leisure time. 

Carving out discrete blocks of time for specific tasks was also important to 38% of the EIU respondents. People were three times more likely to report being focused if they reserve these blocks of time for work. 

To maintain more mental peace, it's good to stay with things for longer periods of time. “I think if we actually educated employees on this, and gave them the tools and technology to do it, we would find a much more engaged and happier workforce,” says BCG’s Khandelwal.

Doris says that one big challenge in finding focus right now, with many people’s routines broken by remote work, is the lack of “transition rituals.” Typically, people wake up, take a shower, make some coffee, and then commute while maybe listening to the news or an audio book. Doris says this transition ritual from home to work “kicks people into gear cognitively,” setting them up for the work day. With these rituals largely gone, Doris recommends implementing structure, boundaries, and transition rituals to help the brain focus. He suggests waking up at the same time, having some form of an afternoon activity, and creating a “power-down ritual” to switch into recovery and sleep. 

Mental health is also an issue of vital importance. The EIU study found that feeling disconnected from colleagues was the top factor contributing to employee disengagement while remote. 

“As a company, we’ve created more opportunities for community building.” —Cate Brand

“This uncertainty that we’re all grappling with leads to stress and can certainly make it hard to concentrate on the tasks at hand,” says Cate Brand, director of talent acquisition at the education company General Assembly. “As a company, we’ve created more opportunities for community building, including video coffee chats, office trivia over Slack, virtual happy hours, and mental health town halls in which employees can gain advice on how to navigate this new landscape.” 

Internal surveys at FreshBooks revealed a rise in mental stress and exhaustion, a trend also borne out in the EIU study, with 43% of workers across industries feeling more stressed while remote. Like many companies adjusting to the pandemic’s realities, FreshBooks explored many ideas to help workers. “We created new holidays for employees in the form of long weekends,” says Bailey. “And then we forced people to take vacation because people just stopped taking it, which is also contributing to burnout.”

These strategies, which aim to empower employees, tend to work better than command-and-control mandates. For instance, the EIU study found that using an internet firewall to prevent employees from visiting non-work websites had no positive impact on worker focus.

Why focus strategies are so difficult

As the different approaches we’ve discussed suggest, what works for some companies does not apply to every company. A one-size-fits-all approach to finding focus just doesn’t exist. And often digital tools can become the distraction. 

FreshBooks’ Bailey says a company cannot manage focus-related issues in ad-hoc fashion. It could set up individuals and the larger organization for a struggle. He believes more effort must go into things like goal-setting. “We've created a lot more explicit documentation of our goals and focus areas with clear responsibility and ownership over each area,” he says. 

As the company is realizing, good focus strategies can take time. Bailey’s design team gradually created new patterns of work. One involved moving to charrettes, a type of intense sessions for design or planning. As the team grew accustomed to Miro, they started using it to structure discussions and workshops. In these group Miro sessions, his team could come with answers to questions and solutions to any problems the group had in real time. 

“Imagine a conversation as a sticky note cloud,” says Bailey in describing these sessions. “That seems to be the preferred way to work now. When GIFs, images, arrows, and links pop up, things get meta in some wonderful ways that don't even exist in person. We've also created more official design strategy and management documentation including a record of all our decisions that keeps everyone on the same page.” 

Adam, who works at a tech-entertainment startup, says he experienced a lot of micro-management at his previous job. His boss would make him track his activities throughout the work day so that he knew how Adam was spending his time.

“That’s not only hurtful to the worker’s psychology but also inefficient because while I’m sitting there tracking my work, I’m not actually doing the work,” says Adam.

Why improving focus is a big opportunity

All of this lost focus has a big impact on revenue. The EIU report found that distractions can translate into lost productivity totaling more than $34,000 per employee, and adding up to $391 billion for US companies annually. All of this is to say there is a lot of opportunity in optimizing focus time. The EIU estimates that less distraction across sectors could produce gains of as much as $1.2 trillion in “untapped employee output.” 

Bailey believes the upshots to finding focus aren’t just about productivity and revenue gains. Companies will also learn something more fundamental about how teams work and interact. “We stand to learn what's truly important to collaboration and team work,” says Bailey. “Is it a louder voice or a larger pile of sticky notes? Hopefully not. Is it ideas that build off of each other to make something greater than any individual could produce? I think so.”

“Being more productive is great, but it is better and even more valuable when it is on topics that are changing a business for the future and delighting customers.” —Sarah Elk

“All teams want to know that their work is valued, and that they are part of something bigger than themselves,” says Bain’s Elk. “Being more productive is great, but it is better and even more valuable when it is on topics that are changing a business for the future and delighting customers.”

There is great opportunity in the midst of the pandemic. Companies can begin experimenting virtually with ways of reducing hierarchical inequalities to help general staff and middle managers optimize their time. 

And, again, a one-size-fits all approach won’t work. To seize this enormous economic opportunity many combinations of company and individual efforts will be required to achieve deep focus.