I Can’t Get Any Work Done At Work!

The open office design movement was intended to increase and improve collaboration. Evidence suggests that it has had the opposite effect. People are increasingly hiding behind their noise-cancelling headphones to concentrate. When we hear, “I go in early so I can get some work done before everyone shows up,” we know something’s gone awry with the office design or the culture, or a bit of both. You should be able to work at work. Obviously. But so many people can’t!

Whether you are in an open office or just have a lot of interruptions throughout the day, try a couple of the following tactics to improve your concentration during work hours.

1. When can be as important as what.

Dan Pink shed light on the scientific evidence supporting the concept of “night owls” with 21% of the population (and almost all teenagers) falling into this category. While most people find early morning and later afternoon the best times for work that involves high concentration, night owls experience the reverse. Most of us instinctively know our chronotype – just schedule your work into the most productive time of day for you.

2. Use office hours or do not disturb hours.

University professors have used this tactic for years. In a world of publish or perish, they found their students were interrupting their productive writing time. To solve this problem, they declared certain hours on certain days to be “office hours” – hours when they would be available to answer students’ questions or just get to know them better in their office.

You can borrow from this concept by setting certain times where interruptions are welcome. For example, “I’ll answer any questions between 10 AM to noon and 3 PM to end of day. Other than those hours, please let me concentrate.” You can also set office hours for your whole open environment – time devoted to quiet work and time devoted to more collaborative efforts. If the team buys in, everyone wins.

3. Train your team.

If you need quiet to concentrate and you don’t tell anyone, it’s possible they’ll leave you alone. You improve the odds dramatically, though, if you just tell them. Your team cannot read your mind no matter how much you wish it were so. It’s not “obvious” that you are concentrating. They are not “idiots” for interrupting you. The office hours idea above is an excellent way to set expectations – but you must set them for it to work.

A Word On “Being Nice”

Managers often want to help people who “just need a sec” or have “a quick question”. After all, they’ve already been interrupted, and it will only take a few seconds to answer the question. Try to avoid this tendency. If you’ve set clear expectations about when you can and can’t be interrupted, and then don’t follow your own rules, no one else will either and you’ll falsely conclude it doesn’t work (even though it’s because you didn’t follow through). Implementation is hard, but the rewards are sweet!

Bellrock is a process benchmarking and change management firm based in Vancouver, Canada. If you enjoyed this article, consider sharing it with your networks.

Written By:
Tara Landes

Tara Landes is the Founder and President of Bellrock. She has spent over 20 years consulting and training in small to medium-sized enterprises. A sought-after speaker on a wide range of business topics, Tara has delivered workshops and seminars at conferences and industry associations across Canada. Tara obtained a BA (Honours) in Political Science from the University of Western Ontario (UWO) and earned an MBA from UWO's Richard Ivey School of Business.

More By This Author