Distractions March 3, 2011

Distractions – Issue 58

It is so hard to get work done these days, particularly when the people who sit next to you are not only distracting, but annoying, such is the case with the person next to me right now.

Did you think I have a problem with my Geyer neighbours Jennifer and Alanya? Good lord NO, those girls are lovely! I was talking about my other office,; a Qantas flight or whatever the heck it happens to be today. Up in the air is where I do my work these days and from the looks of it, I’m not alone. As I peruse the cabin there are plenty of people working away on laptops, meeting with colleagues, reading official looking documents. Looking at them, I intuitively know they share my annoyance at the other traveling population who think planes are for entertainment and leisure.and We secretly hate the shorts wearing, red wine drinking, with love handles over the armrests of their reclined seat smashing my laptop type of passengers.

Most definitely bad behavour, but not as bad as those who have the gall to have conversations with each other. Chitchat yack yack yack what do they think an airplane is, the start of a vacation? You may not agree with my definition of the primary purpose for Qantas flight 530, but if you’re like 48% of workers you would agree that the most time consuming distraction in the office today is a motor mouth co- worker gas bagging next to you. In fact, according to a global survey conducted by the recruitment company Robert Walters, talkative colleagues are the top office distraction for workers; Australians are particularly annoyed as is demonstrated by their ranking this particular distraction at 44% compared to other countries 39%.

Second on the list of office distractions is surfing the Internet, followed by getting personal e-mails at work. It is somewhat disconcerting to note research conducted by Microsoft indicates that employees spend a third of their time reading and responding to e- mails! Talking at work has overtaken our all time old favorite workplace distraction of smoking breaks. Now that we are committed to good health this distractions has fallen to a mere fourth with personal telephone calls at work in fifth.

Interestingly, wasting your time on Facebook has had less of an impact than what many old grumpy people think it has. , oOnly 2.63 per cent regard social networking sites as a distraction. One could even argue that Facebook has helped eliminate distractions, saving us from listening to other people’ss banal conversations about their weekend and what a nasty hangover they had. The reality is that when one appears to be working away like a Trojan, they may be in the midst of an important pet or hairdo conversation, but you don’t need to listen, so who cares. An overall productivity gain for the company.

A trick 46% of workers combat annoying distractions by arriving at work early to wallow in the solitude of no e-mail, no company crises and no co-workers wanting to know if you too developed a lump in your throat watching the Biggest Loser elimination last night. Unfortunately, when others discover the new work pattern, they may cleverly decide to come in early as well in an effort to overlap and pass on important cooking, gardening or fashion tips. It goes without saying that going in early and leaving late does not warrant a happy face for the company’s work life balance report card. , Eemployees may have extended their day, but they have done so at the expense of their personal life.

The ability to shoo away annoying colleagues is a vital skill in today’s workplace. After all, not only are workplace interruptions annoying, but they lead to mistakes and a loss of concentration. When the old trick of not making eye contact fails to appropriately convey the message, the experts suggest simply saying “piss off mate” may not be the best avenue to take. Anna Musson of The Good Manners Company suggests starting with a compliment and then you can safely proceed to tell them to piss off. For example “I really like it when you tell me about your mother, but can you do it tomorrow”. This ‘two–stage let down’ has the benefit of getting rid of the offending colleague, but is meant to also make them feel valued.

Paying attention to workplace distractions is a very smart business tactic. It is estimated that businesses in America lose around $650 billion a year through workplace distractions. I don’t have the figures for Australia, but I imagine that with our love of sport and betting and general jaw wagging it is as high, if not higher.

This begs the question; what can we do about these unwanted distractions? Author Chuck Martin says there is a set of 12 cognitive functions people have including time management, stress tolerance, planning, prioritiszation and flexibility; these are generally unchanging in adulthood. So like being blonde, short or tall, slender or heavy you are blessed with these functions at birth, and they are a factor of how neurons fire in your brain. So sinceGiven the likelihood of your changing is marginal, Martin suggests we improve employees’ focus by acknowledging their strengths and weaknesses and as managers, exercise greater tolerance for people whose behaviours differ from our own.

Many ward off distractions by making adjustments to the physical environment that signal they are not to be disturbed. Interventions such as hanging up a do not disturb sign, or doing what Michael at Studio Pacific Architecture’s does – wear noise reducing construction ear phones in the office – signal the person is concentrating. It is important to be able to distinguish minor disturbances that are good and help build a sense of community and company culture, from those that make the office an impossible place to do work. We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water, particularly today when work is as much about social connections as hard yakka.

It is only a little bit ironic that I am distracted by people on planes that I am traveling on to advise clients of workplace solutions, which might include open environments similar to those I can’t work in myself. It is true that for organiszations wanting to encourage greater connectivity and collaborative spirit we almost always recommend an open office landscape. However, as much as an open environment encourages these behaviours, many argue that collaboration has more to do with how people feel at work than whether they can see others; are they stressed out, threatened, do they feel safe. People’s sense of being treated fairly, having autonomy and knowing what is going on in the organiszation are factors that play into their willingness to collaborate, as much, if not more, than being able to see each other.

Before judging how hypocritical this may be, it is important to note that the workplaces we recommend are very different to the ones we reside in now, or those designed even five years ago. Wireless technology, broadband Internet and smart devices have radically changed our ability to be mobile and this will continue to impact the way we do, and can, work. We are in a technology crossroad; new work patterns are slowly being adopted, and that puts us in a position of stretching our clients today to satisfy the demands of a more dynamic workforce tomorrow.

As we evolve as workers and organiszations to a ‘dynamic workforce’ it is even more critical that designers apply the logic of urban planning to workplace designs, taking care to isolate areas of greater group activity from passive individual workpoints. With the exception of Sydney, most city planning laws would not allow strip joints near schools. The same logic goes for a workplace; we need ample space or physical barriers between passive and active spaces. We must also take care of placing people on the main circulation paths, most of us don’t like living on busy streets, nor do we choose to work on the equivalent of that in the office.

Yesterday I received another article (people love to send them to me) condemning open workplaces as being unproductive and unhealthy. The sender’s intention is ”take that Miss Fancy Pants – we told you we needed offices and big desks and now there is proof.” The problem with these articles is that they are simplistic and tar all open workplace designs with the same brush. It is important to understand that workplaces are systems with parts that rely on one another. Providing one part without the other results in an inefficient and poorly functioning system, like a car without wheels.

As much as it would be easy to blame clients for not buying into the whole system, designers have something to answer for too. The people who forward these articles have been influenced by conditions they experience in their workplace, and someone, somewhere designed them. They are also fearful of changes they don’t understand. Either way it is our job to help them see that new environments can satisfy their needs and we must make sure we truly have satisfied them. This takes thought and courage, as it may require us to pull back on the solution rather than proceed with partial adoptions supporting amenity space, such as a desk size reduction and open office landscape without the right technology – and that’s more than a breakout area, or spatial variety.

Designing modern workplaces is a difficult challenge. Businesses’ today deal with a host of complex issue; the designs we create to address a diverse and dynamic workforce demands attention to areas beyond what we typically associate with design: business changes, cultural and age based preferences, corporate social responsibility. Never the less, it is what we signed up for and it is our job to consider all aspects of the contemporary workplace ‘problem’ and intelligently solve it. Delivering spaces that look good is a given, our designs must delight, inspire and also provide a touch point for an increasingly mobile workforce that offers people context and meaning. At the same time spaces must function, be smart and solve all of the problems, not just the easy ones.


Keller, Emily; Why You Can’t Get Any Work Done; Business Week, July 2007

Kind, Kim; Silence is Golden; The Sydney Morning Herald; February 26 – 27, 2011

Office Chatterboxes Australia’s Most Hated; The Courier-Mail; August 18, 2007

Disturbing the Peace: Work Distractions; July 30, 2010
Rock, David; Office Buzz Cuts Into Deep Thinking; September 8, 2010


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