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Planning workplaces to reduce the menace of interruption

06 April 2016, by Duncan Mitchell

I recently watched Jason Fried’s excellent TED talk Why work doesn't happen at work. It provides some good insights about why it doesn’t happen and some ideas to solve the problem. But, notable by its absence – especially if you’re in our business – was a rather more obvious solution. It’s called the workplace.

I’ll get to that later, but first to Fried’s argument. He proposes (from a decade of asking this question) that we’d all rather work somewhere else when we actually want to ‘do work’. We might choose a place – the shower, a deck, a café, the library. Or a time – on a train, on a bus or on a flight. Common to all of these choices is the reason why work is the last place we want to be to do our best work. It’s because we just don’t want to be interrupted.

Interruption is the worker’s everyday nightmare and prevents us from being productive. Fried likens the process of getting down to work as being similar to the way we go to sleep. We don’t just go to sleep. We go through stages until we fall asleep.

In the same way, we go through stages at work before we get down to the really serious, productive stuff. If we get interrupted, we can’t get down deep enough to do anything meaningful. I like that analogy – imagine being interrupted every 15 minutes while trying to get to sleep.

The two biggest culprits of interruption are 'M&Ms' – managers and meetings. Fried has much to say on this, but let’s skip to his solutions to start banishing this menace of interruption.

  • Try 'no talking' Thursday afternoons to give people at least one block of four uninterrupted hours per week to do thinking work
  • Move to more passive forms of collaboration (ie Basecamp, instant messaging and email) where people's workflow is not interrupted
  • Cancel the next meeting in your diary and see what happens

We might all try those, of course. But the one solution that’s not talked about is how the workplace can be planned to help people get down to serious work. 

First up, I think we need to start from a position of believing that most people actually like coming to work. They can feel part of a business, a tribe or a community, call it what you like. We’re social beings and being with people is more natural than being alone.

Secondly, it is absolutely in the business’s interests to make sure the workspace works for their people. Property is the second largest cost behind salaries so failing to create a productive work environment is a terrible waste of money and opportunity.

Thirdly, we need to ask why our work spaces are distracting people or not working for them. I believe it’s because most people don't have a choice of where they can work while at work. If they are expected to work at a workstation located with their team or go to a meeting room to collaborate with others, then they might have two spaces in their working life. That’s no choice. At a workstation. you’re almost always open to being interrupted. In the meeting room, you are being interrupted!

Deep, thoughtful, meaningful work cannot be done in those environments so other spaces are required. Here’s a checklist of what you should consider – at the very least – for every workplace. This is based on what’s called ‘smart working’. In other words, think of the ideal space for every different kind of activity people need in a day.

  • ‘Do not disturb’  places to concentrate uninterrupted and finish that report
  • Brainstorm spaces that allow collaboration and inspire individuals to think differently
  • ‘Creative time’ spaces for individuals to think deeper
  • Spaces with up-to-date AV technology to allow easy sharing of ideas
  • Café space for informal catch-ups
  • Personal workstation located with their team
  • Free workstations near someone else they need to work with
  • Bookable meeting rooms PLUS free, un-bookable meeting rooms

Imagine how productive we could be if we could choose to move between these spaces as needed and have the technology to make it easy.

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Planning these spaces is what we do for our clients. We know, however, that workplaces which incorporate all of these spaces are rare in New Zealand. Will we see more of them? For sure, because the battle to attract and retain talent is the biggest hurdle facing many businesses. 

If people can’t be as productive as they want to be, they’ll experience dissonance and disengagement and find somewhere better to make their contribution. Note the use of the word ‘want’ in that last sentence. I haven’t met many people who don’t want to be productive. We have and we do. Which is why we hate interruption and crave for a space we can call our own. If only for four hours per week.

If you’re ready to start thinking about really getting your workplace work for you, call me. That’s an interruption I’d love.

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About the author

Lives on Asian food. Listens to music that sounds like a washing machine. Once played the clarinet! Dreams of lazy days sailing. Rides a mean mountain bike. Predicts the weather. Avoids crowds and dancing.

Duncan leads our Wellington team and has been the driving force behind our workplace strategy practice since 2003. He continues to challenge how the workplace (physical environment, technology, people and process) can best support organisational performance.

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