Distractions, Decisions and Domesticity: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of WFH

WFH

By Adrian Furnham

Whilst the number of teleworkers increased linearly since the beginning of the millennium, it has been the Covid-19 pandemic and the compulsory “working from home” that has made people very conscious of their working environment. The spare bedroom, dining table and man-shed have replaced Dilbert’s cubicle. The WFH revolution has begun. Work is something you do, not a place you go to, anymore.

There are many semi-synonymous terms for people who don’t travel to the office: home-workers, teleworkers, mobile workers. They inhabit the virtual workplace. Since the millennium, companies and gurus have trumpeted all the benefits of this new work style: Less time spent commuting (and traffic congestion/pollution); greater autonomy and flexibility about when, where, how to work (with greater productivity, satisfaction and much less absenteeism); better work-life balance (for carers, the disabled); a better talent pool (no relocating, retaining valuable workers); an environment free of office distractions.

Some companies embraced the idea perhaps more cynically, for the obvious bottom-line benefits. Home-working can dramatically cut office costs: space, heat, light;   tele-cottages can help rejuvenate rural economies and get hero points for the company; mobile workers can work anywhere and everywhere…airports, hotel rooms, etc. Mobile workers can go to customers rather than vice versa.

There is a long, well established list of potential problems with WFH

There remain numerous problems with WFH. Ten issues:
Equipment, bills and breakdown: who pays for all the work equipment? That is everything – computer, desk, phone (even air conditioning). What about phone bills? Who is on hand to repair and service equipment when it goes wrong? How does the helpline work? Who pays for the down time?
Health and Safety Rights and Protection: There are various directives on how to deal with ‘outworkers’. Has an ergonomist studied the proposed work area? What happens if a (sober) employee falls down the stairs, electrocutes themselves or has an asthma attack while working? In short, what are the insurance implications?
How to instil or maintain the corporate culture:   Must every aspirant teleworker have spent time in the office before being allowed home? Should teleworkers be required to do “top-up-time” in the office to ensure they still understand the same culture? Should only good office workers be selected for/allowed to work at home? In this sense, is teleworking a reward for proving you have absorbed the culture?
How to control, measure and monitor the home worker: Nowadays, this can be done electronically, but many home workers deeply resent the obvious lack of trust. Imagine your chair being monitored for heat or weight; the computer for key depressions; or even a discreet camera. So, if that’s out, how can the supervisor be sure his/her report is working and not mowing the lawn, doing d-i-y, caring for baby, or shopping?


Of course, we have learnt, there are many jobs where it is simply not possible to work from home. Whole industries, such as transportation, healthcare, retail and catering, have to be conducted from a very specific place. These workers have had a very difficult time and many have been paid off. No customers, no jobs.

Some organisations, and bosses, seem very eager to get everybody back in the office: ideally full time, and at least most of the time. It seems they don’t quite trust their staff to work independently. Where you can easily and reliably measure output, which is very rare in the modern workplace of knowledge workers, it seems reports differ widely. Some seem certain that productivity is down, others report no difference, while some are surprised and pleased to see an increase with WFH.

A great deal has been written on managing-by-Zoom, attending virtual conferences, and all the accompanying frustrations of not having the personal touch. Some long to get back, others are quite happy with the trade-off between tedious commutes and the water-cooler moments. Some love the idea of working in pyjamas till lunch, and having the option of doing a spot of gardening mid-morning. Other complain about the temptations to snack and noise of the neighbours.

Churchill, looking at the bombed House of Commons said “We shape our buildings, thereafter, they shape us”. It is a form of environmental determinism. It is equally true that we shape our working environments, and they shape us. How does the study or kitchen table compare to the office? It is an ergonomic and psychological question and there is research to answer some fundamental questions.

Distraction 

One very important feature of any workplace is the number of distractions. Many workplaces have a wide variety of stimulus distractions that can have a serious impact on performance over time. Distracting stimuli (e.g., loud, erratic, uncontrollable, background noise, loud music, strong smells, flashing lights, changes in temperature) can affect work performance, particularly information processing. The question is, does the home environment increase or decrease distractions? Are they more tempting or annoying than in an office environment?

Most importantly, are such distractions more or less controllable? You could put on specific music to lighten your mood; burn a scented candle; or sit in the garden.

Just as actors should never perform with children or animals, perhaps they are the most distracting at home. As many with school-aged children discovered.

Much of the human factors research has been on background sounds (music and noise), which is generally perceived to be detrimental to cognitive performance. There are three important and distinct factors: the nature of the distraction (i.e., music vs noise); the task being undertaken in the presence of the distraction (i.e., memory vs comprehension vs manual labour); and the personality of the individual (i.e., extraverts vs introverts).

Studies in this area often have a three-background (loud/familiar/vocal music, soft music/instrumental, silence), two-task (cognitively demanding, undemanding) and two personality types (introvert, extravert) classic experimental design, often requiring large numbers of people studied under highly controlled conditions. The reason is to explore and understand the interactions of the effects.

Lots of research dating back to “music while you work” has shown that differences in audible distractors, the tasks involved or the people assessed can have significant and quite subtle effects. Researchers in different disciplines have, quite naturally, concentrated on each of these three factors.

1. Noise

Studies have assessed various aural distractors including general office background noise, music, sirens etc. Those who have studied music as a distractor have looked at such features as vocal vs instrumental, familiar vs novel, loud vs soft, major vs minor key, familiarity of instrument. For noise, researchers have looked at the type of noise (office background, traffic, siren) as well as how loud and controllable it is. The literature suggests that loud, fast, familiar music and loud uncontrollable sounds associated with danger (i.e., sirens) are the most distracting and have the most negative impact on performance.

The effect of music on cognition is mediated through mood and emotion. Studies suggest that music generally impaired performance on a complex task, but improved it on a simple task.

2. Task

A central question concerns what work is being done: how cognitively demanding it is, over what period of time, and what are the consequences of failure. Early researchers in this area were interested in using music to improve the morale of assembly-line workers whose jobs were tedious, repetitive and cognitively undemanding. Think war-time assembly plants. They found that the right music did improve morale, which in turn had a small effect on output.

However, most of the experimental work has been done on more cognitive tasks involving classic information processing such as may be found in intelligence tests. Some have looked at speed and accuracy of processing and others of memory, while others have studied performance in applied settings such as operating theatres. Most of the results have confirmed the essentially obvious hypothesis that the more complex the task being done, the more negative the effect of the distractor on performance.

Critics will point out that many of these studies have low ecological validity in the sense that they assess an individual’s specific task performance in very controlled environments over relatively short periods of time. Many people work in teams, do a variety of tasks and over time adapt to, or have particular ways of coping with, distractions.

However, it is the primary interest of cognitive psychologists who research this area to understand cognitive processes and mechanisms in the presence of distraction and hence their insistence on careful experimentation.

3. Personality

It is obvious to anyone that there are strong individual differences in reactions to distraction: some people appear powerfully negatively affected, while others seem almost impervious to many forms of distraction.

We know that extraverts (like ADHD people) are under-stimulated and hence seek out stimulation (like social interaction), while the opposite is true of introverts. With the assumption that background sound is stimulating, and possesses the ability to increase levels of cortical arousal, it can be shown that introverts would be affected by background sounds to a greater degree than extraverts.

Others have looked at other traits such as Neuroticism (low Adjustment) and cognitive performance under distraction. This personality trait is characterised by anxiety, depression and general worrying. If the task is serious and the consequences important, those low in adjustment tend to do less well when distracted in any way.

Interestingly, musicians are more distracted by music because they listen more carefully to it. 

Conclusion

The WFH movement, provoked by the Covid-19 crisis has given us a chance to think more clearly about the consequences of where we work. Architects and ergonomists, as well as interior designers have been very interested in working spaces. Some are interested in the aesthetic appeal, many the simple cost of space. Where you work makes a difference to how you work. Ideally, the working environment should be designed to maximize efficiency on the task.

About the Author

Adrian Furnham

Adrian Furnham is Professor of Psychology at BI: Norwegian Business School. He says he now rather enjoys WFH. He has just completed a co-authored book on the Psychology of Spying.


References

  • Dobbs, S., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2011). The Effect of Background Music and Noise on the Cognitive Test Performance of Introverts and Extraverts. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 25(2), 307–313. http://doi.org/10.1002/accp.1692
  • Gheewalla, F., McClelland, A., & Furnham,A. (2021). Effects of background noise and extraversion on reading comprehension performance. Ergonomics
  • Gonzalez, M. F., & Aiello, J. R. (2019). More than meets the ear: Investigating how music affects cognitive task performance. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 25(3), 431–444. https://doi.org/10.1037/xap0000202
  • Landay, K., & Harms, P. D. (2019). Whistle while you work? A review of the effects of music in the workplace. Human Resource Management Review, 29, 371-385.

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