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Distractions, distractions, distractions! Part 2

Wow! I think I hit a nerve. Thanks to all of you who took the time to answer my first post’s question, which was: What are the top three distractions that keep you from getting work done at the office?

I was amazed by the number of responses and the passion in them! The distractions that seemed to top the list were:

Number One: Loud, disruptive co-workers
With variations on this theme (two of which included co-workers meeting loudly next to one’s desk), this was mentioned in 9 out of the 18 responses.

Number Two: “Emergencies”
This was mentioned three times as something that really drives us nuts—the constant barrage of things that are so-called emergencies (ah, the tyranny of the urgent), but often turn out not to be that big a deal.

Number Three: Technology
Yes! The very thing that makes our work lives function, is also the thing that drives us crazy because it is SO distracting. Those mentioned were e-mail “bings” (that little noise that lets you know “You’ve got mail!” every ten seconds); Blackberries; IM’s that come even when you say you are busy; and the phone.

The phone comments were among the most interesting, ranging from people who use speakerphones for conference calls in an open office (AAARRRGGGHHH!) to general complaints about overhearing phone conversations. I personally use the phone in an interesting way to help me get work done.

Here is a deep dark secret of mine. In the San Francisco office of Gensler it is a big no-no to interrupt someone on a conference call. So sometimes (I hope I am not going to regret this admission), I actually put on my telephone headset and pretend to be on a call so people will leave me alone—and it works! Yes, it’s true. I am that desperate for some heads-down focus time.

The phone issue even sparked a response from Architect Magazine, who sent me a link to a very interesting article about the distraction of overhearing phone conversations, and a phenomenon they called a “halfalogue”. I encourage you to check it out.

So with this article in mind, I pose Question Number Two:

Do you agree with the theory that hearing a “halfalogue” is more distracting than hearing an entire conversation—even if that dialogue (or multilogue?) is happening right next to your desk? If so/not—why?

Please let me know!

Erik Lucken
Lisa Bottom is a Principal in Gensler’s San Francisco office focused on work with law firms and professional practice organizations, as well as participation in the Product Design practice. Her passion is developing a culture of excellence in client service. Contact her at lisa_bottom@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (7)

Another great post, Lisa. I'm delighted that you're getting a good response for your questions. Loved the article on the "halfalogue." And yes, I'm sure that we're all busy spinning telenovelas in our heads....
10.18.2010 | Unregistered CommenterMarjanne Pearson
While I appreciate the other distractions mentioned, the beauty of email, Blackberries, phones, etc. is that you can turn them off when you want to. Not so with people around you. It really is noise that impedes focus work. I wouldn't call my coworkers loud or disruptive, they're simply doing their jobs. But noise is noise.

In terms of conversations, it's hard to say which is worse. I find live conversations around me very distracting and I often wish the participants would just go find a conference room or some other place to chat, especially if it's a drawn out conversation. But while I have more sympathy for "halfalogues" because people are tied to their phones, they are more distracting. That linked article really helped me understand why; I do find myself trying to piece together the other side of the conversation. To make matters worse, people have a tendency to speak louder when they're on the phone.

And noise doesn't just affect focus work. Much of my collaborative work is done via the phone and the same noise issues that affect focus work impact how well I can both hear and pay attention on my own calls.
10.19.2010 | Unregistered CommenterErikL
I actually enjoy background noise - It helps me concentrate -Unless I cant stand the tone of the voice
10.26.2010 | Unregistered CommenterSandy Z
I’m in a rare position for our current times. I’ve moved from an open office to a private office environment. I miss the open office. I often joke that if one of my co-workers on the other side of the floor died I wouldn’t know until someone sent me an email about the memorial. We don’t work on the same projects so does it matter? It matters to me. I am a better co-workers when I know what my co-workers have going on. That being said I sit in my private office with headphones on. It helps me focus and get work done and it keeps people from barging in mid conversation without saying 'hi' first. There is a connection in an open office which adds to porfessional life.
10.26.2010 | Unregistered CommenterSunraycer
I have also been thinking about this issue for some time now and have decided to look into some possible solutions from a work setting scenario and from a technology accessory scenario. I will be developing a series on drawings about the ways of working that will be coming very soon. Looking forward to more dialogue on this subject.
11.27.2010 | Unregistered Commenterdouglas wittnebel
I'm a big fan of the writing of software company 37signals. They have written an excellent book (manifesto really) on the nature of modern work. The book is called ReWork. One of the central tenets of their philosophy is eliminating interruptions and creating more thinking time.

They recently redesigned their Chicago office and have blogged and spoken extensively the design. You can see a short video (3mins) here:


Money quote: "The Modern Office Doesn't Really Foster Collaboration." I think there is a lot of truth to what's he's saying.

You can find more about the office design on their blog:

After 10 years of open-plan I've got a door I can shut again. We're also heavily in favor of telecommuting. I wouldn't trade the newly-regained ability to have deep, uniterupted reflective time for the world.
Hi Lisa,

Great blog. I can so relate to your need for "some head's down focus time;" that describes my personality and work style, too.

When working for firms, I was always in a shared cubicle space (with drafting boards, yes back in the late 80's) and even more recently, the newly designed offices put all project coordinators, CADD operators, and PM's in similar cubilcles that were open to from 4 - 6 work stations. Only the Associates, the Director of Design, and a few other higher-ups had offices with doors. At the initial firm transition to this new space, one guy had decided to leave the firm because he was so unhappy with the open space plan design. He was a big advocate of doors.

I have enjoyed reading everyone's responses here. We seem to be on the same page regarding our shared need for both quiet think time, private places to hold conference calls, and a relatively chatter-free work place.

I was frankly relieved and felt vindicated to read Christopher Parson's post as well. Especially this:

///Money quote: "The Modern Office Doesn't Really Foster Collaboration." I think there is a lot of truth to what's he's saying. ///

I find that incredibly interesting and enlightening. It seems as though there is a need for more privacy to get things done as well as shared spaces zoned strategically throughout the office space plan for specific collaboration- not necessarily stuffy conference rooms, but central conference zones where people can meet and share, without feeling like they have to "be the expert." A place for authentic working out of everyday design challenges.

Thanks for bringing up this topic.
12.9.2010 | Unregistered CommenterTara Imani

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