Focus in the Workplace
How to Support Individuals and Teams for Success
Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a six-part series on five different work modes. The first piece outlined a framework for each work mode, while subsequent posts explore a single work mode in greater depth — including focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest.
This post was co-authored by Kelly Griffin and Alyson Erwin.
One of the most valuable assets in the creative economy is the ability to focus — to deeply concentrate and immerse oneself on a task at hand — and have the time to do so. Yet as new information and data is produced, disseminated and shared 24/7 — and an infinite array of technology makes people more connected than ever before — carving out the time to focus can be a challenge. Interruptions and distractions decrease productivity. Studies show that after an interruption, it can take an average of 25 minutes to refocus, and multi-tasking is bad for the brain.
To help achieve the ideal mental state for heightened creativity, innovation and productivity, one of the most critical factors is having the right space for focus work. While the pandemic has shown the benefits of focused work at home (with potentially fewer interruptions and more choices about where to focus), as employees return to the office, the workplace can utilize a design framework to support focus work so people can make the most of their time. Below are three ways to optimize this essential work mode.
Define the amount and type of focus work needed.
First, determine the percentage of focus work needed for employees, departments and the organization as a whole. In some businesses, such as accounting firms, many people conduct a majority of work heads-down. Yet other fields, such as IT, require more time for collaborative activities. Note that focus work encompasses a variety of tasks: at one end is more routine and repetitive- work that requires concentration and accuracy (for example, data input) and at the other is creative flow-oriented focus work such as drafting a presentation or developing a strategy.
Focus work can also be solo-oriented or team-based. Individual focus work is typical for roles such as a software developer, financial analyst or mechanical engineer. Yet focus work can also be conducted as a group, where multiple people are creating or producing deliverables in real time. For instance, this could be in a workshop session, common in creative fields like entertainment and advertising. It can also be a quiet group study zone: these spaces are typically found in libraries.
Group focus is distinct from traditional collaboration, which is more interactive and broadly includes conversations, planning discussions, debate and critiques. Group focus is required when a team is working together to solve a specific problem or are working toward a deadline and would benefit from no distractions or interruptions. Workplaces that enable a full spectrum of focus work can boost productivity and innovation for individuals and teams.
Identify areas that could be repurposed or created for focus work.
Next, it can be helpful to evaluate the existing spaces in which focus work occurs. Where are employees most productive, and what are the elements that make that space successful? Do focus workers always need to present in the office? How can staff adapt offsite? Answers to these questions can help pinpoint opportunities to redefine and build focus space.
Focus activities should take place in areas away from distractions, so individuals, teams and companies can foster healthy focus habits for solid chunks of time, ideally in 50 to 90 minute chunks. Spaces that eliminate and reduce interruptions from technology, smartphones, and other people, can set the foundation for successful focus work so new ideas can be developed and implemented. Read on for a few ideas below.
Implement strategies to heighten focus work. To tailor environments for focus work, it can be helpful to consider different planning and design elements, such as location, acoustics, adaptability and access. Below are a few attributes to consider.
Consider where singular and group focus work should take place. How much real estate for focus work is needed? Are there several locations that can serve different types of focus work, or one or two core spaces that can flex for different focus mode requirements? Consider visibility and accessibility and how this might this shift for solo and group focus modes. In observations of employee work patterns, individuals will travel far from their desk and team’s space for focus work, while teams like to conduct group focus sessions in the immediate vicinity.
Seamlessly enable people to check distractions at the door. Create a space that is irresistibly welcoming and energizing, where focus time is sacred and acknowledged. Areas for focus work should reduce visual and acoustic interruptions: this could include additional acoustical dampening, as well as comfortable, inviting furniture like couches and lounge chairs, soft floor coverings and flowing drapes. If available, face furniture toward views of green space and natural light to help boost mood and productivity. Even the ability to have music piped in, from soothing nature sounds to upbeat rock-and-roll anthems, can help set the right tone.
Develop responsive problem-solving and “thought” zones. To help staff foster creativity and ideas as a group, flexible innovation-hubs can enable people to come together for distinct bursts of problem-solving in a way that is productive and engaged for each team member. This means providing enough personal space for each person to feel comfortable, but not crowded. Customizable elements, such as dimmable lighting and temperature controls can adapt spaces to different team members’ needs. Movable partitions can allow space to expand or contract as needed, while adjustable ceiling heights can be tailored to the task at hand: research shows lower ceiling heights support route tasks while higher ceilings foster creative work.
Indicate availability. The ability to easily reserve focus areas online and/or through a smart keypad immediately outside a space can facilitate and streamline planned and impromptu sessions. It can also be helpful to indicate when focus sessions are underway, perhaps through a red light at the threshold that turns on when the space is in use and changes to green when the space is available.
The design of physical space is just one part of the picture. Organizations can build cultures that embrace focus work and recognize how integral this work mode is to create knowledge and generate insights. This can be accomplished by setting aside specific times each day for people to be “off stage,” effectively giving them permission to create the conditions they need to concentrate. In a hyperconnected world that runs on innovation, the right space for focus work can kickstart the foundation of creativity. The above strategies offer guidelines to help modify and develop these spaces in the workplace, while boosting staff agency, so focus work is maximized for employees and teams returning to the workplace following the pandemic.