A year and a half into remote work, a cultural divide has emerged: Most people either love it or hate it.

A recent survey by the found 31% of people want to stay home permanently, while 45% want to get back to the office, full-time. (The remainder want a blend of the two).

What gives? Why are people having such radically different experiences? It’s a complex question, obviously, because there are a ton of variables here, such as whether you have kids at home, how much room you’ve got, and your demographic.

But there’s one other intriguing possibility:

Maybe it’s about how our brains outsource our thinking to our environments.

If you prefer working from home, it might be because you’ve been able to create a better cognitive environment than you had at work. If you’re desperate to get back to the office, you may have discovered home is a terriblespace in which to think.

I thought of this while reading Annie Murphy Paul’s new book  She talks about the field known as “situated cognition” — how we use the objects and buildings around us as tools for thought.

Our environments help us think

If you’ve ever had to work on a complicated project, you usually configure your physical environment to help out. Maybe you spread a pile of documents around your desk (or a table) so you can glance at them easily while keeping your laptop at hand for jotting down notes or Googling stuff. Maybe you prop up a whiteboard nearby to sketch out ideas, or stick a flurry of post-it notes around your desk, or keep a stack of books on a shelf to glance at.

Either way, you’re organizing your space to enable complex thinking. Each document, each post-it note, each book-spine, and browser tab acts like a mental trigger or a little store of artificial memory. They let you hold a ton more in your mind — because your mind isn’t merely your wetware brain anymore. It’s all those documents, that desk, those post-it notes. You’re a distributed cyborg, and those external supports make you enormously more mentally powerful than if you were sitting alone, unaided, stroking your chin like Rodin’s “The Thinker”. A good environment makes you smarter.

And a bad one makes you dumber. It also makes you unhappier and irritated. Have you ever tried to do a similarly complex project, except you’ve only got a tiny, cramped desk? Or desk or table — maybe you’re forced to juggle documents in a single messy pile on your lap?

It’s much harder to think clearly like that. Your environment is your cognition. (The same thing is true with digital-screen real-estate, by the way. If you’re trying to juggle a bunch of digital apps — working on a spreadsheet, say, while also typing into a Google Doc and hunting up stuff on a browser — it’s much easier to do on a big desktop screen than on a small 13-inch laptop, or a phone.)

So the thing is …

Being able to control your environment is a big, big deal

Because our physical environments matter, our ability to them — to set them up precisely as we prefer — matters. It matters a ton!

In Paul’s book, she reports on a fascinating experiment done by the psychologists Craig Knight and Alex Haslam. The duo took 159 volunteers and gave them tasks to perform in four different situations. Some volunteers worked in a spare and uncluttered “lean” office; others worked in one that was “enriched”, decorated with posters and plants. Yet others worked in an “empowered” office, where they could arrange the room however they like. And the final volunteers worked in a particularly devious situation: They were allowed to organize the room as they wished, but then it was re-organized without their consent or consultation, right in front of them — and they were forced to work in the new configuration. (The “disempowered” office.)

The results? The folks who could control their setup did best …

So, being able to organize your workspace makes you nearly one-third more productive than when you can’t. That’s a improvement.

As a caveat, I’d like to see this finding replicated by other experiments to know how solid it is. (You can download the original study here.) But if it holds water, it means that, as Paul puts it, “three people working in empowered offices accomplished almost as much as four people in lean offices.”

The dreaded open office (via Wikipedia)

The problem with American offices is that over the last few decades, companies have gradually employees’ ability to control their environments.

First, bosses got rid of private offices. That dramatically reduced how many surfaces you had control over: Cubicles give you far less space to arrange things as you’d prefer. Then open-offices came along and made things even more miserable because they destroyed even the vestigial bits of privacy we had with cubicles — as well as the meager (but still useful) cubicle wall-space you’d use to organize info. And of course, open offices also meant more noise distractions and more interruptions, which were, as Paul argues, possibly the worst blow of all to our thought: “Perhaps the most important form of control over one’s space is the authority over who comes in and out.”

When you think about how our environment affects our cognition, maybe it helps explain the wildly different reactions people have to remote work.

When employees headed home last year, they likely had two very divergent experiences …

For some, working from home meant a better workspace, more control — and clearer thinking

If you had very little control over your office workplace, going home might have rocked. , you could set up a workspace where you called all the shots! You could decorate it as you like, and arrange files or equipment the way you liked. Maybe you used an extra room with a door that closed.

In my reporting over the last year, I’ve done Zoom interviews with people who were tucked into some decidedly odd corner of their house. One product manager was sitting in her submarine-dark basement; a programmer was in the corner of his bedroom; I even spoke to a woman working in a toolshed. But even though they were cramped and jammed in awkwardly, they told me they  their new situation. They had far more control over it than with their open-space workplaces. It was private and customized.

One actually told me “I can finally think clearly here.”

But …

For others, remote work meant more interruptions, worse space, less control — and lousier thinking

I also spoke to employees with the exact opposite experience: When they went remote, their house or apartment was too small to allow for a decent work setup — particularly if two adults were forced to work in one teensy domicile. (NYC folks in shoebox apartments, I’m looking at you.) If they had young children engaged in the slow-mo trainwreck of remote school, the interruptions were incessant and unignorable.

So for folks, the cognitive environment was far worse than in their former offices. (One of them said some variant of “I can’t think  here”.) They couldn’t wait to get back.

People sometimes talk about the difficulty of thinking clearly during the pandemic — that their brain feels less sharp. I’m not speaking of the clinical “brain fog” suffered by folks who had COVID-19; I just mean people who never got sick, but have some floating sense of “I feel mentally sludgier”.

With these folks, I bet their sense of mental frailty is linked to situated cognition. Remote work interrupted the way they normally used their bodies at work — ranging from having a terrible desk situation at home to losing the commute that gave them some alone-time and exercise and sunshine, all of which, as Paul notes in her book, catalyze our thinking.

So, consider this one of the big lessons of the pandemic:

It showed us how deeply intertwined are our bodies, our spaces, and our thinking!

If we’re smart, we’ll carry these lessons forward, no matter where we work.