09/25/2023 • 4 min read

Can’t Focus at Work?

Here’s why we can get distracted in the office

by Christine Gritter

The modern workplace is a destination for collaboration and connection, but it also needs to support focus work. With hybrid work models, many people are going to places outside of the office for focus work. But, sometimes, employees need to collaborate and complete focus tasks. How can we make the workplace a destination for both collaboration and focus?

In this article, we’ll examine the challenges of focus work in the office and discuss potential solutions.

Understanding the Challenge of Focus Work

Not being able to focus at work is a top employee complaint. Why can't they focus? Different work activities often compete with one another, specific tasks can differ, and people may focus differently. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem: each person knows how they work best.

For organizations, it’s important to realize that focus work is task-specific and person-specific. That realization can help you create a workplace—including culture, policies, and workspaces—that meets your employees’ needs.

How Our Brains Work

Focus work can be difficult to define. It’s more nuanced than simply doing work by yourself. Luckily, cognitive science helps us pull apart how we all do our best work. Let’s look at how our brain works to better understand how focus work gets done in the office and what can sabotage it.

Attention and Familiarity

To complete a task, we need to control our attention and direct it toward the information we need to guide our actions. How much attention we need may depend on how familiar we are with the task. The more we know about it, the more automatic it feels. Our brain uses existing knowledge and doesn’t need outside information to complete that kind of task. Conversely, if we know less about a task, our brain will need to process new information.

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Distractions, Interference, and Interruptions

It’s very important to control our focus and be deliberate with newer or more complex tasks.

Whenever we’re around noise or activity, our brain processes it to understand whether we need this information. If it’s unexpected, we’re more likely to notice. Unanticipated noise or activity like a fire alarm or ambulance siren are good reasons to shift attention from a task.

Unfortunately, our brain can't distinguish between emergencies like this and irrelevant information. There are 3 main ways that we can be pulled away from the task at hand:

  • Distractions: When unexpected off-task information captures our attention. Just because it's unexpected doesn't mean it can’t be beneficial, but it makes focus work more difficult.
  • Interference: When off-task information gets confused with task information. This can be unhelpful, but it might prompt switching to a different, more important task.
  • Interruptions: When a distraction or interference pulls us off a task entirely to start a new task. A few seconds to a full minute is how long it takes an average person to re-engage with a task.

Creating Boundaries

In a work environment designed for collaboration, it can be harder to find places that minimize audible and visual distractions. Acoustics solutions reduce unnecessary noise that might carry throughout the workspace.

Creating visual boundaries controls interruptions and shows where there are designated areas for focus work. Fully enclosing unassigned individual spaces allows employees to choose these locations when they need to completely focus on a task at hand.

Workplace Design to Support Focus

Well-designed workplaces offer choices to employees who spend the day engaging in various activities, from individualized problem-solving to intense teaming to moments of restoration and connecting with colleagues. A holistic approach can boost employee satisfaction and productivity by incorporating variety, choice, control, and the ability to restore for well-being. 

More on Acoustics and Design

Excessive noise is a common employee complaint, and it can cause distractions that hurt productivity. To learn how sound travels through the workplace and which techniques can improve your office acoustical performance, visit our Acoustics page.

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