Focus time doesn’t have to be alone time. But even as a small group, you have to get away from the buzz of activity and interruptions to engage in focused thinking and conversation.
I started my career in the cubicle farm. Admittedly, it wasn’t very conducive to collaboration but wow could you focus. As workplace trends evolved, I found myself sharing a pod or office with three other people. Same cubicle walls around the perimeter, everyone facing away so you could do focused work, and collaboration was as simple as turning around. I really liked that setup – it worked and you could flow between focus and collaboration with ease.
Then Open Concept arrived and the workplace design world lost its collective mind. Now your collaboration with three people involved everyone within 20 feet (whether they wanted to or not). The race for breakout rooms heated up. Booking systems for “focus booths” were contemplated. Carpets were torn up to expose polished concrete and funky colours were splashed on walls and ceiling tiles. The number of people wearing noise-cancelling headphones or shifting to work-from-home jumped. Heads were scratched and strategies were formulated to increase in-person collaboration amidst decreasing on-site presence.
With the arrival of the COVID-19 health pandemic, people found themselves in a (really spread out) cubicle farm. For two years, focus time regained prominence. Through the day we rode the Zoom/Teams/Meet collaboration bus but we could carve out time to focus. As return-to-office plans were put in motion, people were forced back to Open Concept and something incredible happened: they resisted. For anyone paying attention to the conversation about where and how work gets done, this should have come as no surprise. For everyone else, it was back to head-scratching and ham-fisted return-to-office mandates.
The conversation we should now be having within our organizations should be about work outcomes and how best they can be accomplished, not what days people have to be in the office. On a podcast, I heard the ways of working described as a 2×2 grid with where work happens on one axis and when work happens on the other. As an example:
Before the pandemic, when and where work happened was heavily concentrated in the upper-half of the grid. With COVID-19 moving to being endemic (at the time I’m writing this), the reality is that work can occur in all four quadrants. The subtlety is that not all quadrants are appropriate for all work.
Exploring this nuance with employees, listening to different perspectives, and coming to a shared understanding around expectations for your organization will be key. Could this lead to the timely death of Open Concept? Sadly, I doubt it. But, if you’re going to have office space, it couldn’t hurt to invest a few dollars to remake the environment to better support the flow of people between collaboration and focus time. I’ve always envisioned a mix of hubs, small group, and individual spaces. That way people can choose where and how to be most productive based on the desired outcome.
Header image credit: Khusen Rustamov