How to stay focused while working in an open-plan office?

Where do you work best?

Last year, I was very fascinated by the debate about open-plan offices and I was interested in advice on how to stay focused under the influx of distractions. Managers insist that it is necessary to interact with colleagues. Professors - what you need to focus on . How to find a balance between this and that?

The answer may not be as simple as returning to the fenced off booths. Even in cabinets behind closed doors, it was not always possible to hide from the distractions of the virtual world. Now, when new technologies allow you to always stay in touch, the attitude towards communication with colleagues has changed.

Thanks to SMS, calls became perceived as an overly intrusive way of communication. Chats have turned email into a boring routine. Turning off notifications helps you not get distracted, but does it really make it possible to enter a state of “flow” - or are we just building more and more isolated bunkers?

Jennifer Brook, as a specialist in HR research at Dropbox, has interviewed many people from many different countries . From conversations with knowledge workers from various fields, she learned how they switch between two work environments.

Translated to Alconost

“There was such an interesting example when they told me:“ I like it in the office, but there I can’t work on what requires concentration ””
- Jennifer Brooke

Brooke says: “Many expressed the idea that the optimal time for work in the office is two to three days a week, and the same amount from home. Interviewees regularly said: “I really like in the office, but there I can’t work on what requires concentration.”

Studies show that employees often complain about the distractions inherent in open-plan offices. For example, one of the problems is that when people are talking in the office, they are often talking about something that might interest you. David Barkus writes in a Harvard Business Review article :

“Quiet chatter of colleagues and a slight buzz of ventilation should help focus. The problem may be that we in offices cannot stop ourselves from engaging in other people's conversations and not letting ourselves interrupt when we want to concentrate. ”

In order not to be distracted, employees use external signals - for example, put on headphones - which allows you to immerse yourself in work. But when colleagues want to contact you, it causes inconvenience. As a result, team leaders often have to shield their subordinates from distractions.

“They isolate their subordinates from the rest so that they can concentrate. Team leaders in the company are a kind of intermediary that provides protection and support to their employees, says Brook. - Thus, the conversation about bunkers goes into a conversation about borders. Teams, departments within organizations, especially large ones, need boundaries. But at the same time we need people who can provide information exchange and query processing in a mutually beneficial way and satisfy the needs of both our team and the organization. ”

"The mechanism of random interaction of ideas was built into the architecture of space."

The question is: how to set flexible boundaries without breaking the workflow?

Many recall the Bell Labs way of organizing a workspace that promotes the “cross-pollination” of ideas. “The research scientists had their own laboratories, rooms, and offices,” says Brooke. “But in order to get to the right room in the building, they had to take a long walk along the corridor in which they inevitably met with other employees.” The mechanism of random interaction of ideas was built into the architecture of space. ”

This paved the way for a kind of “ joint simulation learning ” that helps apply the knowledge gained and improve their exchange within the organization.

“How can organizations ensure the work of employees in teams so that, on the one hand, they have boundaries for protection against distractions, and on the other, some communication permeability ? - Brooke asks. “So that ideas are born, that employees work on tasks not covered by the project, so that they find topics of interest to them, other people and groups with which to interact?”

Employees do not need to wait until the manager intervenes, another intermediary or company changes their work style. Brooke says that there are different strategies that you can experiment with in finding a way to stay focused and still be open to interaction.

Jennifer began to notice that employees in the organization began to close access to their calendars.

“A lot of the conversations I did last summer as part of the study had a big impact on how I organized my life and work last year,” says Brooke. - One of the methods of such an organization, I chose my calendar. "I shift the care of maintaining borders to the calendar, because it is my intermediary in working with the company."

“I tried to do this: three days a week, time in my calendar should not be occupied by other employees, and on the other two days, on the contrary, interaction is encouraged. For some reason, the “three-day silence + two days of communication” method worked just fine. ”

Jennifer began to notice that employees in the organization began to close access to their calendars, and this inspired her to do the same - to control her own schedule.

“I kind of have time intervals that can be filled with the labor hours needed to complete my work,” Brooke explains. - This is the concept of permeable border, right? “I want everyone in the organization to understand that you can talk to me or take time out on my calendar.”

Brooke says that such simple manipulations with the calendar influenced how others relate to meetings with her: “People who are not familiar with me usually contact to ask permission and clarify the context of upcoming communication. And this is more respectful communication. If you have a beautiful garden and a fence around it, no one will just pick your tomatoes: you will most likely be asked first if this can be done. ”

However, after agreeing to a meeting, one more important decision must be made: how much time should be allocated for this?

“In calendars, the default time unit is hour,” says Jennifer. - And I think that in a certain way controls our time and attention. Moreover, it seems to me that setting aside an hour for a meeting is stupid. The hour spent on the conversation requires another hour to prepare, and the same amount for further reflection and other actions. It turns out that an hourly meeting usually results in three to four working hours. ”

As a result, less time is left to do the necessary work. So how do you find a place and time for this - in calendars and in offices?

Open-plan offices have not become a utopia for employers in the sense of collaboration, but it seems that we will have to work in them in the foreseeable future . In the meantime, we have not found a new paradigm for organizing office space - hone your ability to stay focused and look for ways to protect your work time from “encroachments”. Because even if you do not control the environment in which you work, you can take control of your borders.

About the translator

The article was translated by Alconost.

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