After a long stretch of working remotely, head of software engineering Mayank Kushwaha found that his first few days back at the office were packed full of distractions. People wanted to catch up after not seeing each other in person for so long, and conversations were everywhere, making it difficult to concentrate. Other things like the hours lost to commuting affected work, too.
“You had to really adjust to the new sleep cycle and everything,” said Kushwaha, who works at Pomelo Pay, a fintech startup that currently uses a hybrid office plan. “I would rather stay in my study for the whole day, 24/7. I just don’t want to step out.”
Employees had to adjust their schedules to accommodate working in person and adapt to the different rhythms of the office. But after the initial few days, it got easier.
Don't Be Fazed By In-Office Distractions
- Safety first. Prioritize employees’ health and work to minimize Covid-19 concerns.
- Adopt do-not-disturb conventions. Have a signal that lets others know you are busy, like wearing headphones.
- Carve out a designated quiet space. Provide developers with an area where they can work undisturbed.
- Embrace the advantages. Take advantage of working in person to run more effective meetings and build stronger team relationships.
“When you actually get into that particular cycle of really going to the office, it becomes pretty smooth,” he said.
Despite the drawbacks, there are also plenty of benefits to be gained from returning to the office. Productivity isn’t just about the number of lines of code you’ve written. Developers have to collaborate effectively and build trusting relationships that foster mutual growth — things that can be easier to do in person. As for the distractions, it’s a matter of figuring out how to best work around them.
Ways to Work Around New and Old Office Distractions
Harry Brundage co-founded Gadget, a software startup that helps developers build apps, in the midst of a pandemic. When he decided to shift to a traditional “in-person first” plan in September 2021, it was the first time most employees met their colleagues in person.
Under the plan, employees are expected to work in the office unless they are ill. From the start, one of the most noticeable distractions was Covid-19 itself — people were nervous about someone at the office getting infected and spreading it to others.
“That’s the thing that’s on everybody’s minds right now,” Brundage said.
To overcome that hurdle, the company ramped up testing on an as-needed basis for employees, which is provided free of charge for small businesses in Ottawa, where Gadget is based.
“We have lots of people that do Neo-in-the-Matrix work, where they have a lot of things suspended in their head, and an interruption can disturb them. They need that time to do dedicated, intense, solo work.”
“We were able to get basically as many tests as we want, and administer them as often as we want,” Brundage said.
But being at the office also introduces other small distractions. Coworkers come up just to chat, and even when you’re not participating in a nearby conversation, it can still be distracting. It’s especially problematic for developers who work on parts of the codebase that require a lot of concentration. Any distraction can set their progress back.
“We have lots of people that do Neo-in-the-Matrix work, where they have a lot of things suspended in their head, and an interruption can disturb them,” Brundage said. “They need that time to do dedicated, intense, solo work.”
For these problems, which were common in the pre-pandemic workplace, too, developers can turn to tried-and-true solutions like wearing a pair of earbuds or noise-canceling headphones to signal that they don’t want to be disturbed. That’s the convention developers at Gadget respect, Brundage said.
Developers at Pomelo Pay who need more of a buffer from distractions can go to a dedicated quiet area in the office, Kushwaha said. He and his team came up with the idea after discussing the need to replicate their more productive home environments. Developers can book a spot for an hour or two when they need to complete their most important tasks of the day uninterrupted.
In-Person Planning Meetings Just Work Better
Still, there are advantages to being back in the office. Meetings in particular work much better in person, Brundage said.
People tended to mute themselves by default at the start of virtual meetings. That often meant a few people did a disproportionate amount of talking while others spent the entire meeting muted. To get around that, the company implemented a no-mute rule to encourage everyone to participate.
That also eased a subtle barrier to speaking during virtual meetings, in which people tended to unmute only when they think what they have to say is important. But having everyone unmuted can be its own distraction, especially during meetings with lots of participants.
“Body language goes a long way to keeping people civil or to not misinterpreting someone who’s really passionate about what they’re talking about.”
The mute-unmute dilemma during virtual meetings may seem small, but it can have a significant impact on the quality of meetings, especially planning meetings. Big decisions about future and ongoing projects are made during planning meetings, so any barriers to people communicating their opinions can impede that work.
Virtual meetings also affect people’s ability to interpret each others’ emotions and intentions because they can’t read body language. That can breed a sense of distrust that prevents honest debate on technical solutions.
“Body language goes a long way to keeping people civil or to not misinterpreting someone who’s really passionate about what they’re talking about,” Brundage said.
In-person whiteboarding is also a better experience than at virtual meetings, he said. Software development teams like to have whiteboards at planning and technical meetings because code can get very complex, so it’s often easier to sketch an idea out on a whiteboard. But Brundage found that the virtual tools turned everyone into a whiteboarding perfectionist.
“You’re tempted to spend time fixing things up or making things proportional ... like make it square, or fix the padding on what it’s containing,” he said. “So you spend time gardening instead of thinking.”
Brundage said collaborating on a whiteboard design together also works better in person because it’s easier to see people’s reactions and intentions. Small inconveniences like that can add up and determine how a meeting goes — whether it accomplishes its goal of fielding different viewpoints and uniting the team with a common plan, or wastes time and ends without a consensus.
There’s Nothing Like Collaborating in Person
The biggest advantage of being at the office is the relationship building that happens when people collaborate in person.
Kushwaha said that during remote work, the fun factor was missing — like chatting with co-workers in the hallways and getting together during breaks to play the in-office PlayStation 4s. Those activities help teams build trust and function better together during working hours.
Brundage said fun, in-person activities are also important on the company level to build a sense of cohesion.
“I hear this over and over from my team, that they’re so glad when someone joins to help them work on a challenging thing.”
“My job as a leader in this company is to build a place that has a center of gravity — that they care about and want to work hard at creating this thing that doesn’t exist yet,” he said. “It’s really hard for me to have that gravity with emojis or recorded Zoom calls.”
Being at the office can help because the physical place starts to take on “its own set of norms and values and stories,” he said. Employees also find it easier to learn from each other and work through problems together.
“I hear this over and over from my team, that they’re so glad when someone joins to help them work on a challenging thing,” Brundage said.
Being remote can be difficult for less experienced developers and developers new to a company. While they can ask questions on communal chat apps, some people may feel self-conscious doing so, especially because it’s visible to everyone. That kind of thinking can impede developers’ growth.
Brundage said new developers felt much more comfortable turning to the person next to them for help, especially when they needed things that didn’t feel important but were critical to their job, like learning where documentation is kept and accessing certain resources.
It’s Not Just About Individual Efficiency
While there are many distractions when working in an office setting, for a lot of developers, the distractions themselves are also the benefits.
“There is this moderation between the deep-focused, intense work and coming out for air to work closely with the person next to you,” Brundage said.
“If you consider your job in terms of lines of code written per week, I think you will probably enjoy remote more than on-site work, because you’re forcing people to interrupt you less. My question is: Is that a good thing for the company?”
Sure, developers may be able to write more lines of code when they are working at home by themselves, but without good coordination between team members, developers might write an entire API only to realize the endpoints aren’t compatible with the other side.
“If you consider your job in terms of lines of code written per week, I think you will probably enjoy remote more than on-site work, because you’re forcing people to interrupt you less,” Brundage said. “My question is: Is that a good thing for the company?”
Successful businesses are rarely created with only a few hero developers. Instead, they take teamwork and collaboration — and new team members who need to be effectively trained and integrated into the development process.
“You can only write so much code,” Brundage said. “I think people very quickly learn that the right way to maximize impact at the company is to bring new people into the fold and mentor them so that you and them are executing speed in parallel.”