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Distractions, part 3 or “Knock Twice and Barge In!”

I apologize for the long gap between my blogs on this subject…frankly, I have been distracted working on projects about distraction in the workplace! My fascination (some might call it an obsession) with workplace distractions is the result of surprising observations stemming from a study Gensler conducted several years ago, looking at the work processes of two different organizations. One was a law firm, the other a bio-tech company. We wanted to know where employees did their focused concentration work. Each organization was full of knowledge workers, and the work setting provided for their focus work was individual offices with fully closing, wooden doors.

Makes sense, right? If you need to do heads-down work, then you should have an office of your own, with a door that you can close. Wrong! Reports from the law firm indicated that people could not do their heads-down work in their office, and instead went to the library space on another floor, or off site. Same for the bio-tech scientists, they left their offices to do their focus work on the bus or the train ride home.

Needless to say, we were surprised that workers were escaping the privacy of their closed offices for what would seem to be distracting public spaces in order to do heads-down work. In every case employees cited the same issue: An organizational culture of interruption. One lawyer called it the rule of “knock twice and barge in.”

Our study showed that walls and doors were no longer a barrier in a world where the team had become more important than the individual. If someone was in the office, they were to be available at all times to the team even though the individual was still tasked with being a brilliant contributor to the team. With constant interruption—even when the door to the office was closed (and honestly, can there be any clearer “do not disturb” sign than a closed door?)—people had to flee their personal setting to complete heads down work.

I would love to know if any of you out there have thoughts on this subject. What type of barriers communicate ‘do not disturb’ in your office, and how do you let colleagues know to come back later? Where do you get your focused work done? Do you think we have a culture of interruption in the workplace today? If so, what have you observed?

So…don’t be shy with your feedback! In the following weeks I will be blogging more about this and look forward to incorporating comments.

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 (20)

This is interesting.

I've worked through the shift from workers-with-doors to cubes to open plan desk farms. For me what vanishes with my door is not the ability to "focus", I'd agree with the article on that. What I lost when I lost my door was the sense that there were some square feet that belonged to me.

On the focus question, I've also found that when I take a day away to "focus", I usually only really needed an hour, or maybe two at the most.

The last question is, is it better for you to "focus", or for the person who knocked twice to get the information they needed in a timely manner so they could get their job done? The desk farm says that the productivity of the many outweighs the productivity of the one. Do we agree? with that?
02.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael
Thanks for your thoughts, Michael.

Do you think that it was a bad thing to lose the sense that you "owned" some square feet? I would love to know if that was somethng that you felt strongly about losing in a negative sense. I am dealing with a group right now that is holding on to "their" square feet for dear life!

I agree that the "focus" part of the day is ususally really only part of a day, if not for just hours. However, if I can escape those pesky interruptions, I can get more focused work done in less time (this is the REAL example of "less is more"!).

Finally, I am of the opinion that both focused work AND team work are important--and that the real challenge for those of us designing places for people is to BALANCE the needs of the individual with the needs of the team.

Thanks again for your feedback!
02.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Bottom
The problem I've seen is that money spent on making space livable often ends up creating essentially a museum of designed spaces that are free to everyone, but used by no one.

When four people sharing a bullpen cube squinch closer together to make room for a couch and a coffee table, there is someone on that couch all the time.

Maybe the problem is that we really don't know how to share our toys. So you either need to teach us to share, or give us a way to get things that feel like they are "mine" enough that I actually use it.

I am grumpy about balance. BALANCE is over-rated. If you can do both, great. To the extent that there is tension, I'd rather see an unbalanced plan that does at least something spectacularly well.
02.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael
OK! This is great feedback! Anyone else grumpy about balance???
02.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Bottom
Lisa, about 10 years ago I did an ethnographic study of private offices at Microsoft and a few law firms. What we saw is just what you saw. We called it "Hiding in Plain Sight" because when people wanted to focus, they went to the cafeteria or some other really public place; whipped out their laptop and worked (uninterrupted) for hours. Harder to do back then, of course, before ubiquitous cell and tablets. Our theory at the time was pretty much yours...that as long as someone was "at home" you could "visit" them...unless they were very obviously on the phone or in a closed door meeting with another person. When you sat and worked in the open, you were sending a clear signal of busy-ness.

Some Microsofters at the time would also cover up the lights in their office and work by lamplight or even in the dark...this sort of suggested to a casual passerby who looked for the light under the door that they were "not in"

My current personal favorite distraction-fighter in the workplace is the telephone headset. Sometimes after a conference call..(ah, Gensler), I forget to take it off. Minutes later, I realize there have been few if any interruptions as people think I am otherwise engaged.

I am not grumpy about balance, but I take Michael's point. I get a lot of focusing done in airports, which are decidedly not free of distractions, but I know that and plan around it. I kind of like the challenge of focusing amidst chaos. But of course it only works in anonymous chaos...not if you know all the other passengers.
02.6.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Mulhern
Many years ago, I accepted a senior sales position with a manufacturer that was based a long distance from my home; so, for the first time in my life, my home became my office. Prior to that I had an office, with a door, that was surrounded with others in cubes. The first few months in my new position were, as would be expected, filled with indoctrination activities; however, as things settled down, I found that I was getting my days work completed by mid-afternoon. My first inclination was that I was missing something, "I am not doing my job well", I should be busier. Then, I realized that it was the lack of interruptions, water cooler conversations and 10 minute discussions about where to go for a 45 minute lunch that gave me the extra time. Now, I am back in an office with a door that is rarely closed and I enjoy being part of a team. There is an efficiency in working alone, there is also a lack of interaction and contact that is "disconnecting". Now, the people in my office understand that the door being closed means "focus time" unless a serious fire needs to be put out; nonetheless, I still get the best results when I have 3 uninterrupted hours on a flight.
02.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Fischbach
Hi Tom,

Your experience with Micorosoft is fascinating, and I love the phrase "Hiding in Plain Sight". How perfect! The interesting thing for me is to realize how common this is--and that there seem to be some really interesting cultural ideas and rules in effect that we seem to recognize as rules--such as not bothering someone who is out in the open (as in the library), ubt clearly is working.

The other interesting thing is the "rule" around the "tool", in this case, the headset. I confess I have done this myself!

And as for "Anonymous chaos"...n9ow THAT is something I need to think about!

Thanks for your input!
02.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Bottom
Hi John,

Thanks for weighing in on what is already a very vibrant topic of conversation. I had a feeling that this is something people do think about. I wonder if you might be willing to share with all of us how you work to maintain connection with your team, as you DO have an office with a door. I also am intrigued by your final comment "nonetheless, I still get the best results when I have 3 uninterrupted hours on a flight." Once again, you too are "hiding in plain sight" to use Tom's phrase.

I would love to hear back from you. Many thanks!
02.7.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Bottom
I would be intentionally misleading if I said that our morning meetings were scheduled events with an agenda, they are not. However, each morning our project managers, order management admins and I meet casually to discuss the critical items for the day. It is not a formal gathering, it is an informal conversation; but, it does often address questions and problems and avoids numerous one-on-one conversations throughout the day. In addition, I have done my best to foster a decision making process that encourages that the questioner have three options for solving a problem, not just a "what do I do" blank look that requires a lot of discussion before we get to the decision making process.

As for the 3 uninterrupted hours on a flight, that is more about distractions than interruptions. On a flight my phone does not ring, I do not go to the kitchen for a snack, I don't think about getting a few minutes in at the gym at lunch time, I don't try to find a bulb to replace the burned out one in my task light and I don't think about looking at my competitors ads in the latest issue of Contract that is sitting on the corner of my desk.
02.8.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Fischbach
A while back I was copy-editing legislative drafts for the Office of the Legislative Counsel of the Oregon legislature. This place was utter heaven for a heads-down worker, because phone use was virtually verboten (in fact, all nine session editors shared a single party line for incoming calls). I hate to think how torturous it would have been trying to wade through all that legalese amid a cacophony of ringing phones and animated conversations.

The silence was magnificent! (Not to mention a rare luxury in our modern, chaotic times..)

Clay Lord ('73)
02.8.2012 | Unregistered CommenterClay Lord
So I think I'm weird, because I actually prefer to work in anonymous chaos. In college, I used to go out to the airport to write term papers (long-hand...way before laptops). I am probably a minority. I did not (and do not) focus well in libraries. The silence was, for me, deafening.

I think that what I was onto with this odd habit was that I used space to control time. By putting myself far from the distractions (self-imposed) and interruptions (other-imposed), I was able to control my own time. I do the same trick today sometimes, by heading out to a cafe even when I have a very serviceable house to work from.
02.8.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Mulhern
After Erik Lucken’s post ‘Scenes from a coffee shop’ I had some discussions with friends and colleagues. The questions I was interested in and asked were whether they could focus on their workplaces (in open-plan offices) and whether they could concentrate and work in a coffee shop. Most of them said sometimes got distracted at their workplaces but replied negatively to the question whether the reason for this is the noise. However they expressed no difficulties to concentrate in coffee shops.
Since noise was not distractive I was curious to find out what was the reason my friends can’t concentrate. Most of them preferred public spaces despite the noise. There they could be anonymous, no one would ask questions and they would be able to focus on work. I enjoyed very much this post and would love to read more on the topic because it is very relevant to what I was recently interested in and am excited about at the moment.
Thank you Tom, Clay, John and Rositsa for your input!

Some interesting patterns seem to be emerging. Some of you find noise distracting, and the removal of the telephones from Clay's work environment clearly made a difference in his ability to foucs and concentrate. My guess is that the noise issue is only part of the distraction here. The fact is that incoming phone calls are often a dsitraction because the call cannot be anticipated. I have found that when I am expecting a call, I am waiting and ready for it, so it has a different psychological effect on my ability to focus. It becomes in effect a "scheduled interruption", and that lessens the distraction.

The other pattern is one that both Tom and Rositsa mention, where anonymity seems to be rising to the surface as the important factor. Both of you mention that the noise issue was not a problem for you, and the benefit of anonymity was that people refused to disturb you because they did not know you. I think this is true in many "public" environments, such as trains and planes, in addition to airports and coffee shops. The cultural rule of "do not disturb" is strong enough to form a barrier that is stronger (and perhaps more effective?) than doors and walls.

With regard for those of you who seem to thrive in chaos...well, you may have the Darwinian advantage over the rest of us who might need quiet to focus and concentrate. I cannot even imagine having the mental fortitude of being able to write a term paper in an airport, but if it works fo ryou, you may have evolved to the next level, Tom!

Again, thanks for all the great input. The conversation so far has been fascinating.
02.9.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Bottom
Lisa, I totally agree with the psychological effect and very much like your term ‘scheduled interruption’ (will use it for sure!). What I found out from my research in office environments was people who work in areas with background noise complain less than those who work in very quiet areas including private offices. This made me think sudden unexpected sounds in a quiet environment (from phone ringing, false emergency alarm, people moving around) could distract much more than constant background noise.
02.10.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRositsa Pachilova
I feel that I am in a minority here, but I do not share the same sentiments as expressed in most of these comments. The open-office plan is very distracting to me. As I sit here, I have to listen to a project team on one side of me discussing what perspective view to use in their presentation to the client. The guy in front of me is discussing drawing standards on a teleconference call. The person behind me is having a conversation about her workload with the person next to her; and the person across the aisle is chatting with a friend on the phone. Meanwhile, the clip-clop of someone walking down the stone-floor corridor sounds like the cavalry is coming. I may be old-school, but I find that silence is golden. Without interruption and noise, I can concentrate on and comprehend what I am doing. Trying to work in a public place is even worse.

When it gets to be too much, I escape to an empty conference room if I can find one. My most productive time is working at home.

I think the problem is that one size does not fit all, nor does it fit most all of the time. Sometimes, I am the one making all of the noise.
02.11.2012 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick
Hi Patrick,
My guess is that you are NOT a minority, it's just that you are the only one with your perspective who has chosen to speak up about this issue.
I would love to hear from others of you experience the same feelings about open plan that Patrick has expressed. I find it hard to believe that no one else out there has not experienced the same frustrations.
If you have, where do YOU go for quiet space in order to focus and concentrate? Do you go home? Do you find a conference room, too?
Speak up! (But not too loudly!)
02.13.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Bottom
Hi Lisa,

Although I'm a big fan of bringing meeting space into the team area so that not everyone has to be a meeting to stay aware and contribute only if there is a need, a global firm like ours has many of my team on the phone all the time and talking much more loudly than if they were around the table. As we have packed our space to nearly twice the designed capacity, there are days I literally can not even hear folks on the phone with my own conference call. Stress is just a matter of degree.

Travel brings sanity with the airflight time and focus provided. I'm starting to think about mapping out San Francisco for good thinking spaces. Any ideas?

02.24.2012 | Unregistered CommenterEric McKinney
Hi Eric,

I feel your pain! This morning I was on a conference call and a team right behind me was working together rather loudly, and I struggled to keep up with the topic being discussed on the conference call.

One of my thoughts is to really be more aggressive in our thinking about providing a greater number of "quiet zones", meaning phones are not allowed--ever--or to include more amenities similar to small (and by this, I mean as small as allowable by code) phone booths.

I don't get to travel as much as you do, so I am looking for any sanity-inducing opportunity that I can find right here on terra firma!
02.24.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLisa Bottom
Interesting and relevant to this dialogue. Turns out there's more than anecdotal evidence for the role of noise in helping us focus.

03.16.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Mulhern
While I agree with, and have used both of the major concepts above, I find that I can control most interuptions in my office by several simple steps. One is that I tell the receptionist/voice mail/whoever controls the incoming phone calls, do not interrupt me except for xy or z. I may also partially shut my door to within 1" of the door frame meaning you can interrupt me, but have a real need and keep it quick. When I shut the door completely it means "DO NOT DISTURB", and sometimes i have put an "appropriately" worded sign on the door which may include when I expect to return to the rest of the world.

Another thing I do before secluding myself is make the rounds of those who may need my input, including, if necessary, calling those who may need to talk with me during the time I expect to be secluded. I find that I can work better hidden in my own office because I also have access to all files, drawings, copiers, printers, etc that may be needed.
03.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMike Newman

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