Productivity and Employee Focus

If your intention was to develop a common space designed to distract people from their work, you’d be hard pressed to do better than the modern traditional office.

Putting aside annoyances like “unending barrage of emails,” the office environment is filled with activities almost intentionally meant to draw attention away from work that needs to be done. Someone sitting at a standard cubicle desk is surrounded by a consistent stream of

  • Groups of people walking past while discussing personal or professional matters
  • Office doors opening and closing
  • Coworkers in other cubicles typing loudly, engaging in personal or professional phone calls, drumming on their desk etc
  • The smell coming out of the office kitchen when someone burns a bag of microwave popcorn or warms up their leftover chili
  • Coworkers dropping by on their way to the restroom to ask a quick question about the email they sent earlier in the day

It’s hard to see what kind of quality work could get done in this kind of situation, how people are expected to get into a groove on any project or have the kind of time necessary to engage in creative thinking.

While concentration may be broken as you wonder what that smell is or what’s wrong with Kevin next to you because that doesn’t sound good, the actual physical aspects of the office are also working against the optimized productivity ideal. Those include:

Lighting – Poor office lighting is responsible for employees feeling bummed out and uncomfortable, neither of which is good for productivity.

Temperature – Men and women perform differently on job-related tasks as the temperature of the office goes up or down. One study showed productivity could be increased in the afternoon by lowering the office temperature, which sounds like a weird kind of behavioral experiment that ideally be discounted because it’s effectively torturing people.

Color – While the productivity of men and women is impacted to various extents by different color schemes, grey and beige – the dominant color of boring offices – makes everyone depressed, resulting in less enthusiasm for their work.

Sound – While research suggests music aids productivity, that isn’t true for everyone, as different people may prefer different styles of music or want radio, podcasts or other background noise.

Design – This one deserves a slightly deeper dive.

Instead of progressing along a straight line, the history of office design has looped back on itself repeatedly, especially since the beginning of the 20th century. Open office plans mimicked the factory floor, allowing managers to easily monitor workers. As the percentage of workers in offices increased the need for privacy was introduced via cubicles.

Open offices returned in the late 90s and early 00s, led by the emergent tech companies that held them up as fun, creative spaces for employees to both work and be inspired. This time it was less about “monitoring productivity” and more about “making room for a ping pong table and beer fridge” and creating opportunities for spontaneous and unconventional problem solving.

As the 2010s moved along, a backlash to the open office designs that were becoming pervasive began to build. Chief among the complaints were that there was nowhere for people to go when they needed a bit of privacy, that women in particular were being judged by superiors whose gaze they couldn’t escape, that it was too noisy and that it was causing everyone too much stress. Also, the very kind of creativity open offices were meant to foster was actually being hindered because workers were so distracted by their surroundings they couldn’t follow their own thoughts.

Because every problem is an opportunity for capitalism, solutions offered included blinders that offer the illusion of a private workspace to “micro offices,” phone booth-like spaces companies can install offering a completely enclosed workspace. All these products promise to enhance the productivity that was undone by implementing an open office environment.

It’s not just the actual design of the physical office space that frequently lends itself more to distraction than intent focus. The kinds of environments and perks that have been introduced in recent years are only adding to a surreal setting that has more in common with the indoor amusement centers filled with massive inflatable slides and trampolines that host six-year-old birthday parties than a place of business.

Much of this shift is by design and focused in one of two areas: 1) Food and beverages, 2) Playtime.

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