Maybe the Focus Problem is a Collaboration Problem
Gervais Tompkin in Consulting, Consulting, San Francisco, Workplace Design

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. 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
Article originally appeared on architecture and design (
See website for complete article licensing information.