Open plan workplaces have been in the media spotlight recently. The oft-expressed sentiment is that creating a variety of settings for individual and team work enables employees to focus, and as such is the key to employee happiness. This idea is reasonable, and certainly prevalent in workplace design strategy. Focus sounds pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Just give me a place to be heads down and shut out the world, and I’ll perform my best at work. It’s those noisy colleagues who are distracting me from achieving my optimal performance level.
This isn’t a new assumption, as work once was understood to be that way. Our parents worked that way. From the middle of the last century through today, there has been a growing prevalence of open workplaces. Recently, there’s been a lot of chatter about giving employees spaces without distractions. This includes articles and books about the importance of quiet and data suggesting coworkers need to get away. From this you would think that we’ve really lost something important in the workplace. Perhaps we’ve lost our ability to focus. Or perhaps we’ve left traditional ways of focusing for something far richer.
With a more complex, knowledge-based economy, there’s a growing interdependence between coworkers. Some tasks are simply too complex for one person to tackle. That’s when the idea of focus becomes exceedingly interesting. For companies that are at the forefront of innovation, truly trying to capture the ‘pre-wave’ of that next best thing, focus often means leverage. Leverage comes when employees thrive from the mutual interdependence of a shared goal. Psychiatrist Jean Baker Miller called this zest. In her work, she emphasized the richness and mutual benefit that comes from leveraged relationships. She termed it ‘Relational Practice’ and launched an entire stream of research around the importance of this exchange at work. She advocated that the richness of zest generates its own interest, a sort of positive pull toward something that is both intellectually stimulating and that drives innovation. Companies that really want to ring the innovation meter tend to be more interested in this type of interdependence than traditional focus. And that’s very, very exciting because this approach challenges tradition for what tradition often is—an older, codified way of doing things.
Instead of simply tackling ‘focus,’ we find ways to bounce ideas and knowledge to our coworkers so that the entire team benefits. In one organization, this translated to designing agile working environments, embeddedness, and scrums. What the heck was that? It was the creative act of moving the workplace from a series of settings [heads down here, teaming there, learning in this room or at this desk] to a series of activities [drive, pull, delve, reflect] that drive interconnected relationships and resources that build zest. My favorite outcome so far was in hearing one software developer describing how he solved a problem faster by his immersion with his team. But wait, weren’t developers supposed to be heads-down with uninterrupted focus to maintain flow, a la Csikszentmihalyi? Nope. This developer was jazzed about the problem solving but also about the way the problem was solved, through a mutually interdependent team that was thriving in its own juice. It wasn’t quiet at all. Just the opposite, in fact; it was buzzing. It had zest. We want more of that because the level of personal engagement, team energy, and company innovation were mutually intertwined. They were winning.
So while it’s important to support traditional work modes for companies working traditionally, it’s also essential that we jump a bit higher and see these complexities for what they are: innovation streams looking for the right synapses, the right way to connect. The real opportunity for workplace strategy is to challenge traditional modes of thinking about focus and to find a means to build zest, bounce ideas and drive innovation. That’s the key to making workers happy.