How Return to Office Policies Kill Productivity for Software Engineers - and How to Salvage It

Date: 2024-07-10 | create | business | creation-cycle | productivity | return-to-office | software-engineering |

Since the pandemic many companies have implemented Return To Office (RTO) policies with the goal of increasing productivity, morale, and collaboration. Companies large and small have since slashed their remote work policies in favor of hybrid - often 2-3 days in office per week.

I've worked as a software engineer for 7 years and have participated in many different work environments large and small (FAANG to startup) and across many RTO policies from pre-pandemic 5 days in office to pandemic 0 days in office to post-pandemic 3 (where I am today).

In this post I'm going to share some observations about Return To Office and why most of these policies suck leading to worse productivity for software engineers. I'll also provide a few suggestions on how to make them suck less - if we're going to do this we might as well do it right.

Caveat: I am not an expert and many will not agree with my views. That's okay these are just my own experiences.

Software Engineering Requires Focus

The craft of software engineering is largely about Observation, Creation, and Reflection.

  • Observe - The problem, survey existing solutions, talk w experts and stakeholders.
  • Create - Notes, specs, RFCs and eventually coding.
  • Reflect - Crystallizing what we've learned into knowledge, thinking ab the tradeoffs, and coming up with ways to make it better.

I call this process the Creation Cycle and it is rarely a single-shot process, rather a series of iterative cycles before we get to a reasonable outcome.

This process often requires significant amount of focus to do effectively. Each step requires thought to translate from one form to the other. Each step ideally gets feedback from others and thus we need to condense that new information into the next version of the artifact.

I think Deep Work (affiliate) aptly describes the state of mind required to do this efficiently - significant blocks (~2h) of focused, uninterrupted time to make quality progress in each of these steps.

Context Switching Kills Focus

The necessity for Deep Work for effective software engineering is why context switching is so commonly named (and memed) as a productivity killer for software engineers. Context switching destroys the focus required to make progress in one of these steps which not only prevents forward progress but often also reverts progress as the next time we want to work on this thing we now need to figure out where we left off, reload RAM, and redo the initial parts.

Context Switching - Bad for Focus

Context switching comes in many forms. Obviously if you are trying to do work, have 4 tabs of YouTube open, and are working from a busy bar during happy hour then you will be distracted and not be able to achieve good focus.

But really anything that takes your attention away from the main thing can induce the penalties of context switching - even very small, seemingly innocuous ones.

  • A chat ping / email could require research to accurately respond thus losing focus on the main thing
  • A 30 minute meeting in your focus block will inevitably cause a context switch so you may avoid doing deep work around this time
  • People being loud / distracting around you could cause you to lose focus causing context switching

The point is that context switching is bad for focus and focus is necessary for effective software engineering.

Return To Office Increases Context Switching

What does all this have to do with RTO?

Many offices are seemingly built without an understanding of context switching and thus often increase the surface area of distractions which increases the rate of unplanned context switches which decreases the amount of focus / deep work blocks available which ultimately lowers productivity.

I don't know who needs to hear this but open offices are bad for focus and bad for productivity. This has been proven over and over again and my only hunch at this point is that open offices maximize people per square foot so we build them this way because it looks good on paper. (quantity > quality amirite?)

Open offices are particularly bad for focus and productivity because:

  • They do not block sound - This means one person taking a meeting / having a side convo now distracts EVERYONE in the area. And because we have an open office plan this is usually a very large area impacting dozens of people. And because we have dozens of people in one area it's very likely we will have at least one distracting person doing distracting things around once per hour. There goes the deep work sessions.
  • They do not block sight - This means that you can often see people behind your monitors. And it's not just the people in the next row over, often it's several rows. This means you may be trying to focus on your monitors but the next person over is fidgeting, some people are doing jumping jacks, or perhaps others are throwing something. You are trying to focus on the monitors and yet it's hard not to be distracted by these movements - it's like trying to focus on your screen while you have an intrusive, unclosable YouTube window playing on half of it. It can work kinda but would be better if we didn't have to deal w that.
  • They pack a lot of people per area - This means that one distracting person can impact a bunch of people. It also means that even when people are being good and not doing the distracting things, there's still a high rate of baseline distractions - people getting up / sitting down, eating their loud / smelly snacks, having short convos.

All of these are unwanted distractions. They all happen because people are forced to sit in confined spaces together. It is often not the people's fault (though some are definitely more distracting than others) - we are people and we need to move around and do stuff. More it's the design of these offices that don't take these humans into account leading to regular and consistent lost focus and productivity day over day and week over week.

How to Make Offices Less Distracting

So the root cause of these distractions really is that:

  • People are people and so they need to move around and live and stuff
  • Most offices maximize people per square foot without regard to focus

This means we've got a lot of people together in a tiny space which means a high rate of distractions.

We can mitigate these issues in offices with some pretty simple measures:

  • Make smaller sections of floors - One of the big problems with these open offices is that one distracting person can negatively impact the dozens of people around them. With so many people it's likely there will always be at least one distracting person every hour so largely people are always distracted. An effective way to mitigate this is to make each section smaller so that a distracting person distracts less people at a time and the rate of distractions for a given area decreases. I think ideally each person, team, or small group of teams (<12 people) gets a section as this lowers distraction rate considerably.
  • Section off desks visually - I know that there is some emotional resentment towards "cube farms" but honestly those are better than open offices for focus. You don't need to go full cubicle if you don't want to but you do need to at least have desk backboards so that I don't have to watch Bob eating snacks all day in my peripherals when I'm trying to look at my monitor.
  • Make meeting rooms work and available - If people are taking meetings and calls from their desks it is a sure sign your office is ill-equipped for RTO. It works for that one person but distracts the dozens of others in their area. If this is happening you need to really think about why - either taking meetings from their desk is more efficient or you don't have sufficient meeting rooms. Fix it. Relatedly if people are holding meeting rooms to work (vs meet) you need to think about why - this is a sign that your office is ill-equipped for RTO and people are trying to build that environment for focus with the tools available.


At the end of the day offices are for working. If you've paid a lot of money to hire someone to do a job and you are making policies to encourage them to do it better but you are not investing in giving them the tools to accomplish this then you need to think about what you're actually trying to accomplish cause something doesn't seem to be adding up.

I have a lot of other thoughts on RTO but I think focus is the most glaring one so putting those thoughts out here first. My other big issue is offices that have terrible desk setups and don't allow customization because I think that also negatively impacts productivity but that's for another time.

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