5 Ways to Improve Focus at Work

Help people perform their best at work

by Lynn Metz

Lynn Metz, LEED AP, is a registered interior designer and Vice President of Sales, Architecture, and Design, for Haworth North America. With her expertise in space design and demonstrated history of working in the furniture industry, she engages in the understanding of human behavior and realizes the importance and impact it has for a successfully designed environment. As a member of Forbes Business Development Council, she is a contributing writer to Forbes CommunityVoice™, a digital publishing platform that connects experts directly with the Forbes audience by enabling them to create content and participate in the conversation.

Following is her article, Five Ways to Help Improve Focus in the Office, which first appeared on Forbes.com.

How big is the problem of a lack of focus in the workplace? A study called "The Next 250K" from Leesman, a firm that measures workplace effectiveness, indicated that individual focused work at their desks ranked as the most important work activity for respondents aged 35–44. But only 57% of workers said that their workplace enables them to work productively.

I believe that generational workstyles, agile work programs, the cost of real estate, and corporate demands for attraction and retention have all led to more open office solutions. While these are designed to meet a variety of needs, they may have affected individuals' ability to do focused work.

The inability to focus on work is such a problem that attempts to solve it often include “helmet-like” inventions ranging from The Isolator in 1925 to the Helmfon in 2017 to the Panasonic Wear Space that emerged last year. While these options may seem overboard and impractical, it does show how desperate many workers are to focus at work.

It seems like there are a few top issues that make focusing difficult:

  • Other people pull you off-task or do things that can interfere or distract.
  • People walking by your workstation or talking on the phone can be a distraction.
  • Stress or internal things like fatigue or hunger can disrupt your focus.

Bottom line: A lack of focus can lead to lack of productivity. Ultimately, this can affect both employee and employer satisfaction.

So … what can you do to help people perform better? As the Vice President of Sales, Architecture and Design at a workplace furniture company, I've found that the following elements can help improve focus and productivity:

1. Give people autonomy over how they work. The amount of concentration people need for focused work can vary. Some of the factors include how skilled a person is at the task and whether they and the task can tolerate disruptions. Some workers may need quiet places away from distractions, while others may not—even for the same task.

2. Create quiet zones or spaces. You can make these with partitions to block visual distractions and with sound-masking products to cover speech and absorb noise. Quiet zones should be set away from areas with a lot of activity, like cafés, lobby areas, or other social zones. Instead, they should be positioned near an intermediary zone. I have seen companies provide a library-like space where talking on the phone is not allowed. The design of these spaces can give a clear indication that they're intended for focused work with minimal distractions.

3. Offer a choice of workspaces. Give people different kinds of spaces where they can do specific kinds of work. Make sure there are enough rooms—whether they're private spaces or unassigned offices. You can also create quiet zones in an open area for people to do heads-down work. It's important to provide the correct ratio of these quite rooms, as they are frequently in high demand.

4. Provide time flexibility. In his new book, When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing, author Daniel Pink explores how biorhythms impact focus and energy levels throughout the day. People hit their peak periods at different times of the day. And they need to be able to take breaks, whether it’s by daydreaming or getting out of their seat to move around or step outside.

5. Allow for some individual control. Lastly, give people some say over how they adjust to their surroundings. This can range from letting them wear headphones to using slide panels that can block access or act as a social cue that says, “I'm busy right now.” It beats the option of putting a handwritten piece of paper on the back of a chair that says, “Do not disturb.” Yes, I have seen people do this.

There are some things all of us can do, too. In order to make sure you are creating focus, try the following:

  • Block off time on your calendar for tasks that require focus.
  • Consider a shorter work week so that you, and potentially your team, are more efficient with time. Some companies do this in the summer so employees can take advantage of the beautiful weather, and it can be a great way to attract and retain employees. This does mean you'll need to carefully manage your team to ensure that you achieve greater efficiency.
  •  Always set an agenda for meetings. Not only does this help attendees focus on the purpose of the meeting, but it also helps set boundaries and expectations. Meeting attendance may benefit from this, too.

The first step is recognizing that the workplace must allow for focused work so employees can do their best work. A flexible environment, together with both small changes and significant cultural considerations, can absolutely help people escape distractions and improve focus.

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