In an ideal world, employers want their employees to be working consistently and productively every single minute that they are on the clock to maximize the gain they get for the money they are spending.
Unfortunately, many employers either don’t seem to know or are unable to provide the other side of that equation for employees – in other words, they don’t offer the best possible environment to get the kind of productivity that they want.
What does this mean?
Well, environmental scientists who study the way we work best have long said that our external space greatly impacts our ability to be productive. Give us what we need as human beings and most people will be far more effective and efficient at their jobs.
In general, the kinds of things that affect us can be broken into four categories: psychological, territorial, physical, and collaborational.
This may seem like a strange comparison, but if you’ve ever heard a star athlete talk about a great game they had, often they will speak about being “in the zone” or feeling like they were “flowing”.
It’s not just athletes that can experience this phenomenon. Musicians, actors, writers, and other artists have mentioned it, and all of us have the ability to get there.
What they’re talking about is that moment when they are so intensely focused on something that all external activities and distractions fade away. You may lose track of time, even forget to eat because you are so engrossed in your work.
Unfortunately, it’s not easy to “force” flow, but the best way to get closer to it is to minimize distractions.
Distractions come in many forms – surfing the web, turning on the TV, checking our emails. Most of the time when we do these things instead of working, and it is often simply due to habit. If distractions are around and we notice them, their mere presence acts as a trigger to our brains telling us to use them.
Thankfully, this problem has a fairly simple solution: out of sight, out of mind.
When working, turn off or put away your phone. Get away from the TV and game systems. And if you have to use the internet for work – which you most likely will – try dedicating a single browser to work and another to personal use. That way, you won’t be tempted to stray. Concentration is a lot easier to maintain if the temptation just isn’t there.
And you’re not fooling anyone by just pretending you are great at multi-tasking.
Some people also call this ‘functional’, because the first part essentially says that the things in your environment all have to have a practical use in allowing you to work on your task. For example, you have a computer that’s powerful enough to handle the job you’re doing, headphones to block out external noise, and a fan that you can use if you get hot. These are all things that function together to make your work experience better.
But it goes beyond this to become territorial because by giving you control over these objects (“I turn the fan on when I want it and off when I don’t”), the space is essentially becoming “your own”.
Why is this important?
Because it gives us a comfort that we don’t have in shared spaces, where anyone might feasibly change anything at any time.
In this way, personalizing a workspace can be quite important, because the extent to which we feel at home may increase the safety that we feel in the space and our perception that it is “ours”.
Functionality dovetails with territoriality when you bring in personal items that are also functional to your job; a water bottle so that you don’t have to constantly refill a tiny styrofoam cup, the one stapler that doesn’t ever seemed to get jammed, even having a plant has been proven to help keep your productive. Having these things at hand provides a sense of home.
When a space is “ours”, even if it is ultimately owned by the company, we are less guarded and our ability to focus on the task at hand increases.
How good is the lighting in your workspace? What about the temperature? Is it too noisy? Too quiet? Does the design seem open, or make you feel trapped? Is your chair comfortable?
That’s the key word – comfortable. Each of these elements has to feel comfortable to you for you to work at peak efficiency.
Workplaces have improved over the last few decades, but it still seems like two steps forward, one step back.
Open space environments are a great example. Much research has shown that people don’t like to feel closed off and isolated, so there has been a movement to creating larger, airier workspaces where people can remain connected.
Unfortunately, few designers seemed to think about one incredibly detrimental end result – shared open spaces mean shared open noise.
Most people tend to work better with low noise – or none whatsoever. In fact, noise has been shown to reduce productivity substantially due to its ability to lower discipline and willpower, and even cause fatigue. Companies that allow or even provide earplugs or headphones for their employees report sharp increases in productivity.
Even the quality of air has shown to reduce productivity, and dissatisfaction from visitors.
Teams are the new paradigm in many businesses. The thought seems to be that if one person can come up with a good idea, two people – or more – will produce an even better one. Research, however, doesn’t really support this.
It is quite the opposite, in fact, and productivity can be damaged.
Many people seem to be far more productive and creative when they are allowed to work privately and free from interruption.
Well, one theory is that the collaborational paradigm doesn’t seem to think about introverts, who often have difficulty speaking up in group settings, but excel when allowed to work in solitude
For many of them, being alone is actually the thing that propels them to forward innovative ideas that might otherwise be shot down as too outside the norm when working with others from the beginning.
It also goes back to how psychology affects productivity, because solitary workers are more able focus, rather than getting distracted by social and sexual dynamics that inevitably crop up in group settings.
This isn’t to say that collaboration does not have a role in business.
Some people work better in groups, and even lone geniuses have the ability to “spark” off of other people. The difference is that not everyone needs to have their hand held throughout the entire process, and for some people, this can even hurt their ability to get the work done.
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