Why it’s time to cut the employee-office leash

March 2, 2012, 3:55 PM UTC

By Georgia Collins, guest contributor

It seems everyone is talking about collaboration these days, and in particular, collaboration as a business tool. There is no denying that the two are connected, but the recent debates have sidelined the other equally critical side of the equation — concentration.

For the record, I’m a big fan of collaboration. And despite the relatively recent spate of articles knocking brainstorming, I’m a fan of that as well. But the idea that collaboration is some sort of business cure-all does feel one-sided to me. Just as we spent the better part of the last century harping on the needs of individuals rather the needs of teams, we now run the risk of letting the pendulum swing too far the other way. We must not forget the important role concentration plays in getting (good) work done.

But before you run out and reconstruct the walls of your office’s cubicles, consider that a shift in behavior might do more to support concentration than the construction of walls ever will.

That cubes aren’t good for concentration most people already know. Panels give the illusion of privacy because you can’t see your neighbor, but anyone who has sat in one for more than an hour can tell you that the fabric between you does little to protect you from hearing your neighbor.

Offices aren’t much better. Even if you have a private office, chances are that you don’t get that much focused work done in it. Why? Because when you’re there, everyone knows where to find you. Of the 10,000+ workers we surveyed last year, “pop-ins” ranked first (of 18) in a list of the most common workplace time-wasters.

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It’s no surprise that when we ask people in interviews and workshops where they get their best work done, we usually hear at home, in the café, at a coffee shop across the street, essentially any place where other people can’t find them. We learned from the thousands of space utilization studies we’ve done that individual workspace is occupied an average of 35% of the core working day. People just don’t spend a ton of time at their desks.

Now, that doesn’t mean they’re not working. Indeed, most of them are working very hard, but instead of sitting at their desks, they are in conference rooms, at customer sites, travelling, or…wait for it…concentrating someplace else.

No time to think at work

“Home” is a frequent answer to our question about where people get their most focused work done not just because it can be a place free from distractions but also because, with our days so scheduled, the only time most people have to concentrate is early in the morning, late at night, or over the weekend.

I met a software engineer recently who referred to this as “the problem with managers.” By the very nature of their roles, managers are almost constantly in meetings. As a result, their schedules are packed so tightly that when it comes to scheduling internal meetings, people are slotted into whatever time is available. No matter if it is right in the middle of a two-hour slot designated for concentrated work, that is the only free time the manager has. And he is the manager.

As a manager, I think this could just as easily be called “the problem for managers.” I am constantly challenged by my calendar — it fills up and I’m left with 15 and 30 minute slots of time that are only good for returning emails. Even on days that are not filled with meetings, the ones I do have seem to be scheduled just far enough apart to make sitting down and really focusing on something extremely difficult.

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What is the solution? We all need to have fewer, shorter, better meetings. (Microsoft, can you please change the Outlook meeting default length?) But short of that, we need to send a message that concentration is important by giving it a place in our core work day. Some individuals I know have put a limit on how many meetings they will accept during a day. Some teams implement “meeting free” days or portions of days. Whatever the approach, we need more considered scheduling.

Cutting your employees’ leashes

Assuming you get that right, where will people do this focused work? Having a variety of places in the office for people to concentrate when they need to is important. Equally important is giving people enough flexibility to make use of the places outside of the office.

Many managers worry that if their people are out of the office, they won’t be available for others when needed. But if you’ve solved for the time issue, having people out of the office every now and then should not come at the expense of collaboration. Indeed, when we survey people about the ideal amount of time they would like to spend working from home, the average preference is for 1-2 days a week (1.3 days to be exact). Most people feel they benefit from being office, but they also benefit from not having to be there all the time.

A no-walls, no-cost solution

Next, consider what you might achieve with a few good protocols. Think back to college and how and where you studied. I went to Penn. My favorite place to study was the Fischer Fine Arts Library. There are no walls in the main room — it is just a wide-open, high-ceilinged, well-lit, beautiful space. Even when every chair at every table is occupied (which happens regularly), it is so quiet in there that you can hear a pin drop. It is quiet in there because that is the protocol. People who like chatting to their neighbor, want to study in groups, are hoping to meet their future spouse “while studying,” whatever –they all go somewhere else. Everyone who studies in the library knows this. No one has to police it because no one needs to.

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Now, this doesn’t mean that your office needs an expansive library, but what it does suggest is that you can create spaces for concentration without the expense of construction. In our office, people who need to get focused work done during the day simply pick up their laptop and move to the quiet zone. Some people stay there all day long. They send a signal to the rest of us that they need time for focused work.

Yes, collaboration is critical at work. But we’ll have very few good ideas to work with unless people have time to think on their own about the conversations they’ve had with others. In order to strike the right balance, we must spend at least as much time on thinking about how we behave at work as what our office looks like.

Georgia Collins is the managing director of North American business for DEGW, a strategic business consultancy that helps clients improve their workplaces.