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Driven to distraction

7 October 2015 | Martin Read


I’m sorry, what? A leader comment column? Damn it, if only I could hear myself think over all this talk about offices not allowing people to think.


Ah yes, autumn – the UK’s unofficial office design season, at least for those close to London. Any FM tasked with a fit-out project should make the most of this period between late September and November when most office design events occur, along with a slew of office productivity surveys. It’s worth identifying the broad trends determined by those taking part in this autumn’s conferences and exhibitions, and we’ll be reporting more on these as the season progresses.


Already we’ve an early contender for top topic, one suggested by furniture manufacturer Steelcase – and it’s that of distraction. Specifically, the ease with which office workers are distracted by others in the workplace, and the effect all that distraction has on both personal and organisational performance.


Steelcase’s research specialist Veerle De Clerck says that working in a surrounding open environment “can hinder productivity”. He explains how employers and employees alike have “a poor understanding of what attention is, let alone how it can be managed. This phenomenon is being caused by a poor understanding of how to manage attention in the workplace”. But is it a case of managers ‘managing’ attention? Seems to me that any attempt to provide the perfect knowledge work environment can only ever be a snapshot in time. People of all ages still desperately want to work in offices, for the social and corporate cohesion functions the office fulfils. But the work itself? How it’s produced is an increasingly personal choice.


One of the key elements of the open-plan office – its very openness – surely makes distraction more likely. So are we back to cellular offices and silos? Not likely.


The evidence from offices I’ve seen over the past two years suggests that we’re all seriously underplaying the value of a magical and cost-effective piece of personal productivity equipment. Those seeking to isolate themselves with whatever they’re tasked with doing just turn to - a pair of headphones. Who needs a meditation room when your choice of music in your headphones can fulfil that function? Or how about the other extreme, total quiet in the office (a steadily rising trend)? There are apps that can pump coffee shop ambience into your ears if that’s what helps. The point is that many knowledge workers, particularly millennials, are today micro-managing their own hyper-personal working environments, technology enabling the extreme customisation of whichever audio and visual stimuli they require to attain required productivity levels. And it’s a personal working environment that can move with us to whichever first, second or third spaces we see fit.


So if contemporary knowledge workers are as uniquely individual as this in the way they work, surely fit-out priorities from an FM’s perspective eschew fleeting furniture fashions and fabrics and instead come back to the basics – the right temperature, the cleanest washrooms, the best focused lighting etc. – so that when workers do break out of these personal performance bubbles they have everything they need.


Martin Read is managing editor of FM World