Commercial real estate in the downtown area is not cheap. To lower real estate costs, employers build their offices with an emphasis on collaboration and open workspaces that encourage group efforts. Open workspaces are great for communication among team members, however, more recent research shows that the costs to individual employee performance in open workspaces can outweigh any benefit of collaborative group work.
Interruptions often come in the form of internal and external distractions, which divides attention between tasks. Once an interruption occurs, it takes time to resume a task. One study of workers (information technology and accounting services) found that it took, on average, 25 minutes for workers to get back to their original task once interrupted, and workers focused on at least two other tasks before resuming the original task.
External distractions, on the other hand, maybe people walking past the line of sight, visual clutter on a work surface, overheard conversations, or ringing phones. Some of these external inputs may help with focus; for example, “office buzz” may create enough white noise to assist concentration. Unfortunately, during focused work, many external distractions are unwanted, making it difficult to keep attention from being divided. Particularly, irrelevant speech consistently ranks as the most distracting element in the office environment.
Despite the obvious need for focus, the emphasis in space design remains on work collaboration. Companies justify their open workspaces by the need to collaborate more, however, oftentimes the real estate cost savings play a major role in the office design. This continues despite research that points out office workers, on average, loses 28 percent of their productive time per day due to interruptions and distractions in open offices. And while open workspaces can support communication among team members, but the cost to individual employee performance in open workspaces outweighs any benefit of collaborative group work.
The brain tunes in when speech is recognized; it then diverts attention away from the current task and toward the task of figuring out what is being said. Unfortunately, unlike vision, hearing cannot be turned off—it will sense everything, relevant or irrelevant—and can slow work performance.
Higher multitasking equals lower effectiveness. Focusing on a single task is much more productive, especially if it’s in “flow.”
When in flow, people are wholly focused on a single task, fully involved and energized, internally motivated, and often lose a sense of time; its outcomes are highly productive and creative.
Signs of Achieving Flow
- Confronting achievable challenging tasks with clear goals
- Deep—yet effortless—involvement and unwavering concentration
- Lack of self-awareness
- Intrinsic reward
- Transformation of time
Workspaces designed for focus work traditionally stress managing external visual and auditory distractions, which is not aligned with the current trend of open shared spaces for collaboration. Previous research indicates spaces for focus work should have
- A high degree of enclosure— preferably a private office
- Low density with adequate distance from disruptive noise
- High-circulation areas
- High level of acoustical treatments (sound-absorbing ceilings and walls, sound masking systems, and sound rated walls).
However, these traditional solutions require increased space and are inflexible with rapidly changing organizational needs.
After doing intense focus work, everyone needs to recharge. One way to enable recharging is by simply providing views to the outdoors for workers to gaze at as they periodically pause in their focus work. Another way is to have minibreaks throughout the day that consist of caring for physical needs (healthy snacks and clean, comfortable restrooms) and social needs (opportunities to chat with coworkers in lounge areas). One or two larger breaks during the day, like hitting the gym or going for a walk, can invigorate people for a longer stretch of work. Access to all is essential for employees to be well recharged and ready to focus again.
Nagy, G., Dr, O’Neill, M., Dr, Johnson, B., & Bahr, M. (2016). Designing for Focus Work. Retrieved November 02, 2020, from https://www.thercfgroup.com/files/resources/Designing_for_Focus_Work.pdf