Why most of our work environments are counterproductive?

Recently I have read few articles on how our bodies and brains especially work, and how it affects our everyday living. They described how our environment and our habits affect our lives and our health, both physical and mental. It provoked me to think a bit about my experience and observations and I'd like to share it with you.

The root cause

Our brains. Extraordinary machines, bio-computers, and even more. We use them every day and still don't know exactly how they work. But having more and more studies on it we slowly start to discover some of the principles. One of the things that many studies confirm is that human brain sucks in multitasking. It reminds more powerful 1-core CPUs than modern multi-core ones. Whenever it is pushed to do few things at the same time it switches frequently between the tasks rather than working on few of them at once. And as you may expect, there is significant cost of switching, just like in our computers. Of course that's only tip of an iceberg and there are lots of aspects omitted here (like things you do automatically or unconsciously) but when it comes to main focus of the brain (think of brain's "main thread"), it seems to be pretty relevant. That allows me to safely assume that distractions can significantly decrease our productivity and creativity. Basing on this assumption let's look how our work environments look like and how do they fit into this theory.

Open space

This is the most common and preferred setup in most of the corporate world. It gives a lot of flexibility and is effective when it comes to utilization of the office space. You can fit the biggest number of desks and people in given area with this setup. Other benefits of open space include ability to quickly come to any person within a zone, which makes communication quite easy. But the same things have also lots of drawbacks. The amount of people can be the first distraction. They will be coming and going, moving and talking, constantly nagging your senses. Visual and auditory distractions do not finish on it. People around will be attending calls, speaking aloud, coming to you to have a chat and so on. This noise can kill any productivity and exhaust even strongest people. There are also lots of other things to not like in open spaces (like spreading diseases or aircon setup problems) and probably that's why it is the least liked office setup among all office workers.

Small room offices

Other often encountered office setup is small room configuration, where (ideally) each team has its own room. The amount of people differ quite widely (from 2 to 10+) but the idea stays the same - people working together should be close to each other and separate from other teams. This of course reduces the impact of other people's behaviour to just few of them, but the impact from those sitting close is even bigger. If you're lucky to end up with people who respect each other and are not too distractive then your win - it can be quite productive environment. Still you cannot avoid all the issues which are common with open space setup, but at least you get a bigger chance of having sane environment. It is a lot easier to have some agreement among few people than among tens or hundrets.

Coworking spaces

Usually coworking spaces land somewhere in between open spaces and small room offices. Depending on their setup, amount of people or even time of day they can be more or less productive environment. They can be a good option to change the environment a bit, look for some inspiration or meet other people - all of those can have positive impact on your productivity. But in long term they can have opposite effect, again by too many distractions tempting your senses.

Home office

For many of us this is the "workplace of dreams" - but is it really like that? There are of course many benefits of this solution, such as saving time and money on commute, facilities of your choice (for example preferred chair and desk - if you can afford it) and limited amount of distractions. But there are some requirements for such environment to be productive. You need to make sure that there won't be anyone who will be distracting you from doing your work (think your family, dog, partying students or remodelling hobbyist as neighbours) and you'll have enough strength not be seduced by temptations around (e.g. playing games, cleaning the flat, going to sleep). You should also have some separate space, preferably your own room where you can keep all your required stuff and work distraction-free. And one more thing to consider is health - you limit the risk of getting diseases spread through air, but sitting at home all the time also won't make you healthier, so you should consider doing some exercises and going out to keep you healthy and sane.

Ideal solution?

There is one more approach I've heard about and it's probably very rare and expensive. The only company I know about which provided such conditions is Fog Creek Software (authors of Stack Overflow, Trello and others; don't know if it's still used there though). Their office setup consisted of separate room for each person, which is quiet, separated from most of the distractions and allowed a lot of customization, including desk height, air temperature, amount of light and so on. Until you reach some shared spaces you shouldn't be distracted by other people as well, unless you explicitly want to. Of course you can find some drawbacks of such solution (not only the cost) but it seems to be closest to ideal office space I can imagine. Of course you still need to take care of some common distractions which are independent of the place you work in.

Common distractions

Apart from place-specific issues with work environment you can find some which are common across all of them. One of the most common distractions are emails and communicators. You constantly get bombarded by notifications about new messages and you're feeling pressure to respond to them. If you're in shared space then things are even worse - you often hear other notifications as well, like ringing phones, mails, chats etc. Given that our brains are trained to react to those notifications it can distract you from your work completely. You can try to minimise it by using headphones, but usually you need to keep your music quite loud (often distracting others) or use unhealthy in-ear headphones. Other thing that can kill your productivity is clutter on your desk or around it. I don't think sterile environment is good either, but too many papers, devices, cups and other stuff around you can easily distract you from your main focus. The same applies to your computer - desktop full of icons or too many open applications will work exactly the same way.

How to make things better

So we know that there are a lot of things which are killing our productivity, but can we do something about it? Of course yes - but the amount of impact you can have heavily depends on your employer standards and office culture. In the ideal world you should have flexibility to adjust your environment to fit your requirements to stay productive. Ability to work from different places (so remote work possibility), flexible working hours (and working time as well) and co-workers respecting each other seem to be very important things to consider when choosing the work environment. From the things you can do yourself I would recommend:

  • Getting rid of any not critical notifications during your work time - Facebook, Twitter, private e-mails and chats can quickly kill your productivity
  • Unsubscribe from any newsletters (and other e-mails/app notifications) that you don't read or redirect them to separate e-mail which you'll read when you'll have some spare time
  • Limit the time you check office e-mail account to few times a day, e.g. check and respond to e-mails only before/after your coffee or lunch break
  • Declutter your desk and your computer from anything that is not crucial for your work (but don't go to far with it - keep a bit of cosiness as well, e.g. by nice wallpaper or some small personal accents on your desk)
  • When you're in shared environment equip yourself with good quality closed headphones which will be comfy enough to use them for hours; listen to some relaxing or stimulating music, preferably acoustic (again less distractions), to separate yourself from noisy environment
  • Try to change your environment from time to time - ask to work remotely from home or coworking space if possible
  • Make some breaks during your work, have a walk or even a bit of exercise if possible - it will let your brain process the information it gathered and give a bit of relief from distracting environment

The list for sure can be longer, and if you have any other ideas or experiences don't hesitate to share them with me and others.

Summary

Staying productive at work is not easy and it depends on many factors - from personal predispositions and habits to employer policies and co-worker's empathy. Knowing what can kill your productivity should help you avoid the biggest distractions and stay more focused on your work. It should also help you staying healthier and more relaxed, which is an obvious benefit. Whenever you will feel too distracted and unproductive, take a break, look at your habits and environment from aside and try to fix it, step by step. Every step taken will be step towards happier life!