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« Best of Both Worlds: Quiet and Collaboration at GSA’s Headquarters | Main | Vertically Challenged: Stairs, the Final Frontier »

Maybe the Focus Problem is a Collaboration Problem

In order to enable focus at the office, meetings need to be run in a more effective manner. Image © Gensler

Every week it seems a new article hits newsstands condemning the open office, a system supposedly designed for extroverts which allegedly squanders the potential of introverts. We can all identify with this feeling: the sense that our individual work is under siege by distractions. That’s because it often is. But articles about this subject tend to have a sense of fatality or nostalgia, as if business operations and the economy have condemned us to suffer this loss of focus along with other emotional indignities. That feeling of fatality has been bothering me.

Maybe we are looking at this problem backwards.

About a year ago I started contributing to a research project that involved talking with individuals whose job required them to work through incredibly complex problems, problems that needed one smart person’s sustained attention. We learned that each person has their own unique cognitive style and therefore the ideal conditions for focus vary. This makes sense; some people are impatient thinkers, others fragile focusers, etc. Each person also had strategies that mitigated distraction.

The surprising finding for us? Those we talked to agreed the main focus killer was not ambient distraction (our original hypothesis) but tangible interruptions to their work in the form of emails, meetings, coworkers and informal collaboration. This was as true for workers in private offices as those in open plan seating. Employees felt it was impossible to protect against these interruptions because they came in the form of team meetings or a culture where everyone was expected to be accessible to everyone else.

Sloppy, undisciplined, collaboration and communication are eating focus work for lunch.

Our obsession with communication and collaboration over the last 20 or so years was merited given the increase in globally distributed companies and enabling technologies coupled with the advantages of group work processes. It is likely, however, that these benefits have lulled us into a culture where more collaboration feels better to leaders and managers. More, though, is not always better. With so much attention being paid to the average worker’s inability to focus, we should also be talking about making collaboration and communication more effective and efficient. Agile and lean processes purport to help solve this problem, but unfortunately most meetings don’t accomplish tangible collaborative goals, and unresolved issues spill out into workspace, generating a day of interruptions and distracting chatter.

So the issue is not just the time we are spending in ineffective meetings (which is significant) but these sloppy communication and collaboration vehicles are dumping a load of distraction on top of the scarce time we have left to focus. The objective is not to eliminate the advantages of impromptu collaboration and accessibility but to clean up our collaborative act.

The design industry has also been enabling collabortiv-oholism. Meeting rooms are largely shaped and furnished in a format that encourages reporting. Open meeting spaces consistently are one of the most underutilized and vilified space types out there, but somehow they keep showing up on plans. We create rooms intended for focus, and these rooms get overrun by people doing phone calls. A better understanding of how to balance collaboration and focus will change the way we design, and hopefully it will build more optimism that we can once again reclaim time to have our own thoughts and to do our own work.

I am looking for examples of hyper-effective meeting and collaboration practices. If you have any suggestions please send. One of the best books I have read on the subject is Moments of Impact by Chris Ertel and Lisa Kay Solomon. http://www.momentsofimpactbook.com/ I love their point that traditional, tactical meeting habits can mow down important moments. Hopefully we can find ways to structure our meetings and our spaces to achieve truly impactful outcomes that foster effective collaboration and don’t distract people trying to have a moment to themselves.

Gervais Tompkin
Gervais Tompkin chooses to be optimistic. He thrives on collaborations with others and is more likely to diagram it than talk about it. His practice as a leader of Gensler’s consulting practice allows him to work with interesting people on worthy problems globally. Contact him at gervais_tompkin@gensler.com.

Reader Comments (6)

Nice post. Thank you for sharing your views.
03.17.2014 | Unregistered CommenterNicola Cantafora
Coming from a programmer linked with a dust did support background, this article hit home. I can multitask yet the focus on a project or specific action item is critical for quality in my experience.

My solution was first to not answer my phone or visit email and to simply place a hand written note on my "office guest chair" and turn it towards the cubicle opening, this gave me blocks of focused time. The note stated, " Disturb only in an emergency." The CEO walked by and raised an eyebrow to question me, I smiled and said I had no door. He lifted the corners of his mouth and walked on. Quality output must have been my luck.

Thanks again for the article.
03.22.2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Edwards
Gervais, thanks for sharing and for redirecting the conversation on focus. Curious as to what practices the authors of 'Moments of Impact' suggest?

My own inquiry: How much design can influence the behavior practices needed for authentic (true, direct, simple, focused), conversations? Using an analogy, is like a couple with troubled relationship, move into a new house hoping all their breakdowns will be solved!!

thanks again!
03.27.2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndreas Andreou
Thanks Gervais to not taking a side on Open Plan VS Private Offices street battle! What a relief.
Having more effective collaboration is the key, but in collaboration time one size doesn fits all.
I would describe 3 kind of collaboration: Informative (Sharing information), Generative (Taking decisions) and Co-creative (Create and innovate).
Each of this kinf of collaboration would need different design application.
Just my input!
03.31.2014 | Unregistered CommenterCharly Vanhaecke
Hi Gervais - I see the words "lean" and "agile" together in this article. Have you explored Kanban, a system some agile tech teams use? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kanban_(development)
04.8.2014 | Unregistered CommenterMegan Lubaszka
Couldn't agree more Gervais. Wanted to pass along a link to a recent HBR article on the subject, in case you missed it: "Balancing We and Me": https://hbr.org/2014/10/balancing-we-and-me-the-best-collaborative-spaces-also-support-solitude
The article cites some research results around the subject of redefining privacy at work that Steelcase and Susan Cain (author of "Quiet") have conducted on the topic. We are in the process of installing some co-branded "Quiet Spaces" at our SF showroom, utilizing these concepts and our V.I.A. architectural walls system; I would love to host you for a visit in January when we're ready for prime time.

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