Why Office Layout Matters When Improving Your Company’s Teamwork and FocusCameron ConawayLast Updated: August 16, 2016
I hung the Do Not Disturb sign on the door of my 5th floor hotel room, turned off the television, silenced my phone, closed the windows, shut the curtains, settled into the work desk and turned on my laptop. With fresh coffee by my side, I took a few deep breaths and opened a document to begin writing the article you are now reading.
That’s when three men strapped into harnesses and standing on a platform began pounding on the windows.
In full and intense conversation, they began inspecting the windows and taking notes. Then they pulled out their tools and began to clean the windows. One ate an apple (I could hear every bite as he was just a foot away) while the other two stripped off the sealant and applied a fresh layer.
This is the way it so often goes. We take steps to control our environment, to bend it towards creating the pockets of focus we need to do our best work, but distractions break through the bubble we’ve tried to create. Our teamwork suffers and we have to once again center our focus to be able to get things done.
The environment doesn’t care what we do, and all bubbles eventually pop, so we’re in a constant cycle of creating new ones. We pick up productivity hacks from websites with click-bait headlines and video advertisement pop-ups, we buy noise-cancelling headphones, and some of us even take the writer’s route and retreat to a cabin in the woods.
But in our world of increasing distractions—where we check our phones 46 times a day and many of us do our most important work on the same machine that can also be our largest source of distraction, the ability to focus is an increasingly crucial habit to form.
Indeed, if technological mavens are propelling the future of what our work will look like, focus mavens will propel the future of how we’ll actually get it done—and who gets a chance to do it.
Take the rise of the gig economy, for example. In the next 30 years, it’s projected to serve up opportunities for those who can quickly master new skills. How to stay afloat? Quickly master the ability to achieve the deep states of focus necessary to pick up those skills.
It might sound old school, but focus is the future.
Cal Newport’s terrific book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, drives this point home better than any book I’ve read on the topic. According to Newport, focus isn’t merely an episode, it’s a habit. And most of us have formed some pretty bad habits.
Or, if we’ve created some good individual habits, we haven’t figured out how best to apply them at work.
Enter: Offices of Mass Distraction
Let’s talk about office layout for a moment, particularly the infamous office cubicle. It’s become synonymous with dull desk job, but the inventor, Robert Propst, who referred to it as the “Action Office,” designed them in the 1960’s to optimize teamwork and focus.
Forget the dreary gray felt and forget any soul-sucking days you may have spent enclosed in them. Propst, who worked for the office furniture firm Herman Miller, developed cubicles in response to what existed at the time and what many, in the name of radical transparency and coolness, have worked hard to return to: the open office layout.
Here’s a glimpse into Miller’s Action Office Series 2, which likely looks familiar to you:
The separation allows for focus, and updated versions have a mix of open layout collaborative spaces for teamwork and focus, standing desks, and areas designed for individual focus.
While sleek open office layouts may seem new, they’re actually just a throwback to the 60’s. And most of them are environments (as Propst knew) almost perfectly built for distraction—you can see what everybody is doing at any moment, who just went to the bathroom, and who seems to be, for the love of all things holy, entirely unable to stop scratching their head.
Such layouts—while there are of course inherent positives such as the feeling of connectedness—can also become breeding grounds for collaboration collapse, where teammates dismantle all silos and place unnecessary reliance on collaboration as the ultimate, and sometimes only, path to productivity.
There’s a better way.
Building Team Focus
Shutting yourself up in a 5th floor hotel room, or even in some remote cabin, can be the way to go for the deep periods of focus we all need as individuals. But most of us are part of complex teams, even teams within teams, and this kind of team focus can only be achieved through a collective commitment.
Here are 4 ways, regardless of the size of your team, that you can work to build teamwork and focus:
1. Team Focus Demands Effective Project Communication. As with improving anything, awareness of the challenge first has to be recognized before it can be addressed. This means carving out time to think about how your team gets things done. What’s the underlying process? Has the same challenge stalled your work on more than one occasion?
When core teams communicate remotely, for example, it can be easy to lose sight of certain project details and deliverables. If everybody isn’t on the same page in terms of when a project is due, and who is working on which part of it, all sorts of problems can arise.
For some, a bi-weekly sprint thrown into a Google doc may be the solution, others may need a project management tool to streamline everything. Either way, the resulting transparency will likely increase team focus by creating a better system for completing projects.
2. Think Critically About Your Environment. Dreary cubicles may not be the aesthetic of the future, but the importance of their function remains. If you’re working in a cubicle, think about if the parts of it are aligned optimally. So often we get stuck in a habit—of walking over to a colleague’s desk many times each day, for example—when the better solution might be to break the habit, even if temporarily, by rearranging where we’re seated for a given project.
If you work in more of an open office, create a conversation with your team about how it could be optimized. Would some colleagues prefer to do pockets of work in an individual pod, while a small team within the larger team would like a space just for them? There are inexpensive ways, such as using curtains, to build both. But the change can’t happen without an open conversation.
3. Make Deep Work a Team Commitment. Every member of your team has to be on board with how important it is to have periods of time for both individual and small team focus. To get started, I’d recommended picking up copies of Deep Work, and having team discussions about it to see what insights can be applied to your current day-to-day routines.
A crucial part of this process is to go beyond the realization that teamwork and focus is important, and into a pattern of actually committing to it. Find a way to ensure that all members of the team have a way of knowing when a colleague is in deep work and should not be interrupted. In an age of increasingly annoying app notifications, I’ve heard of some teams simply putting headphones on—it was their way of saying “I’m in the zone right now. I’m all yours as soon as I take them off.”
4. Experiment to Find What Works. One study from Draugiem Group found that the top 10% most productive employees didn’t work longer hours, they took more breaks. For every 52 minutes of work, they took, on average, a 17-minute break. It’s likely that the breaks allowed the employees to detach and recharge.
Similarly, Switzerland is the most productive country in the world and, having just recently been beat out by Denmark, they are the 2nd happiest as well. What’s the deal? Part of the reason could be the work culture, which offers 28 mandatory vacation days, and embraces relaxing 60-minute lunch breaks where, “If it’s summer, jumping into the lake to swim with the swans is an acceptable way to spend your lunch hour” and “If you eat a sandwich at your desk [as many Americans do], people will scold you.”
If you’re able, play around to see what kind of routine works best for you. Some prefer brief bouts of focus with many breaks, while others prefer long bouts of focus with just one long break in between.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to share with your team what helps you do your best work. Everyone in the office probably wants the same thing, to be able to get more things done through effective teamwork and improved focus. If the office layout is destroying your focus, for example, ask what can be done to change the situation. I’ve formed some bad habits over the years (I was one of those phone checkers), but what helped me break through that habit was listening to how my teammates had formed their own good habits.
Sure, you’ll falter, and at some point you’ll get stuck in this middle ground where it would be SO much easier to distract yourself than go deep.
But if you’re going to do work, get focused and do your best work. You deserve the free time, and your team deserves the results.
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