distractions

Open Plan offices not good for you. Now they tell us?

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I was involved in office landscaping in the early 1970s, moving hundreds of staff into a new civic building.

It was thought that it would give us more flexibility and improve communications between teams. There were still private offices for senior staff and meeting rooms but for 80% of staff they were in the open plan areas.

The irregular arrangement of desks separated by screens and potted plants was quite a contrast from the old offices in the Town Hall. There we still had a bell-call system for when you were summoned to see “Sir”. But this was a new start.

I didn’t realise at the time that the idea of office landscaping or bürolandshaft had been developed in the late 1950s, partly as a reaction to scientific management, and by the time we were adopting it it was almost over in Germany where it started.

And over the next couple of years there same thing happened in this project. More and more screens appeared and it became like a series of cubicles. People created signals  such as flags to say “do not disturb me” and the noise was a problem at times.

To make it worse the council had not installed the air conditioning system as a cost-saving initiative and the windows weren’t designed to be opened so in Summer everyone sweltered and tomato plants proliferated.

One of the purported advantages was that people would communicate more easily.  But with the advent of personal computing people were more likely to text each other or send an e-mail than actually walk across the room to have a conversation.

Now researchers at Karlstad University in Sweden have found that workers who share offices have lower job satisfaction.

They looked at ease of interaction among employees and their general well-being and thought that in open-plan offices of between 3 and 20 people workers reported lower levels on both these factors.

The open plan office may have short-term financial benefits but these may be substantially lower than the costs associated with decreased job satisfaction and well-being. 

Decision-maker should consider the impact of a given office type on employees rather than focusing solely on cost-effective office layout, flexibility and productivity” said Tobias Otterbring the lead author of the study.

Open plan offices have become significantly more common in the past decade in place of cubicles say the authors (ideas just keep recycling don’t they).However the study supports other research that shows that they interfere with an employees’ ability to concentrate on their work.

It’s been suggested that employees can lose almost a third of their productive time because of interruptions and distractions at work. To get round this some employees started work earlier or worked later to complete tasks without interruptions.

Another expert suggest that we are interrupted every three minutes in such an environment and that it takes up to twenty minutes for us to refocus.

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Make better use of your brain

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High achievement has little to do with your IQ but to a partnership between your brain and behaviour.

So say Drs Brown and Fenske, regular contributors to the Harvard Business Review, in their book “The Winner’s Brain”.

They also believe that the brain retains the capacity to change throughout adulthood (also see “Old doesn’t mean stupid“).

They say if you put in the work you can enhance brain function which in turn will help you become more self-aware, more resilient and with better control over attention and emotional responses (some of the key aspects of emotional intelligence).

Using neuro-imaging techniques researchers can now see which parts of the brain are active when people are engaged in specific tasks and also what impact certain activities have on those areas. They believe that those functions can be enhanced –  literally fine-tuning the brain.

They suggest a number of strategies to help us perform better.

  1. Meditation for stress relief can affect visible changes in areas of the brain which in turn have an impact on our ability to control attention and our emotional response
  2. The bigger the task the more likely you are to procrastinate. Therefore you nedd to reframe the problem and break it into small, concrete steps (bite size chunks as trainers might say). It is the ability to change the way you look at a task or problem that is important and the more you do it the more success you have.
  3. Brain functions that provide focus break down when you are multi-tasking or have distractions. To work optimally you can’t multi-task because the brain has limitations when doing multiple things (see “Multi-tasking makes you stupider than smoking pot“). So eliminate distractions but not all of them. To be at your best you may need to reduce activity in parts of the brain involved in self-monitoring and self-criticism. So us a gentle distraction like background music or ambient sounds just enough to keep your critical self-conscious occupied so you can focus and work more easily. But avoid abrupt distractions like phone calls or e-mail alerts.

Source: HBR September 2010

Updated 5 November 2010: Neuroscientists at the University of Oxford have discovered that passing electricity through the brain, from the right parietal lobe to the left, improves mathematical ability. If you pass the current in the opposite direction however it reduces your ability.

The research was looking for ways of treating dyscalculia, the numerical equivalent of dyslexia, which is thought to affect 6% of the population. Such a treatment might also be useful for people who have suffered a stroke or brain injury.

Of course there would be nothing to stop people with normal ability in maths using such a treatment to improve their ability eg when taking exams. This could replace the smart drugs such as Ritalin and Provigil used by some people as cognitive enhancers by improving attention and alertness. (See my earlier post; “Keeping up with speed“).