How The 9-5 Saps Our Creativity and Harms Our Productivity

From ten to eleven, have breakfast for seven; From eleven to noon, think you’ve come too soon; From twelve to one, think what’s to be done; From one to two, find nothing to do; From two to three, think it will be; A very great bore to stay till four.

A Day At The Office – Thomas Love Peacock, published in 1852

Nearly 10 years ago, Professor Gloria Mark of the University of California conducted a study into workplace interruptions.

Observers literally followed people around all day and timed every event that happened in the office.

What they found is that the average amount of time that people spent on any single event before being interrupted – was just three minutes. And it took on average 23 minutes for the person to regain their focus.

More importantly, after only 20 minutes of interrupted performance people reported significantly higher stress, frustration, workload, effort, and pressure.
A decade later – how many companies have considered this and what it means for design?
How many of us truly consider how environments and work practices are conducive to productivity and fulfilment?

pablo

The office is the biggest inefficiency tax that organisations layer over themselves.

They cost huge amounts to procure and maintain, they become an all too convenient base for meetings (the next biggest inefficiency tax), and they set a precedent for the expected hours that people are meant to work.

Offices promote lengthy commuting which has consequences for both the environment and our own mental health. A recent study found that just a 20-minute increase in commute time is equivalent to getting a 19% pay cut for job satisfaction.

Most importantly – and this is the focus of my piece – they presume that there is a unique formula for productivity or creativity.

There isn’t.

One of the reasons is that we all sleep differently – and our internal clock shapes our energy levels, ability to focus, and creativity throughout the day.

This is known as our circadian rhythm and it has a profound effect on our creativity. It doesn’t work how you’d expect – for instance many morning people have more insights in the evening with night owls having their breakthroughs in the morning.

Each day on average we take a few hours to reach peak performance – at around 10:30am. Soon after lunch those levels start to decline before hitting a low point around 3pm. The “very great bore to stay still until four” that Peacock wrote about – over 150 years ago – has gone largely unaddressed.

Our second performance peak, at around 6pm, is reached after most offices have closed.

As a result, very few of us spend time in a state of flow. Flow, a state of consciousness where we feel our best and perform our best, is the most desirable work state on earth, but it’s also the most elusive.  According to Steven Kotler , the average person spends less than 5% of their day in flow. If you could increase that to 15%, overall workplace productivity would double.

That’s why at Bromford we have no specific start or finishing time. As Philippa Jones writes , we need a radical review of the purpose of offices and that means having to think very differently about what it means to “go to work”.

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Nintendo and Google Home – My office space last week

Acceptance of the need to reimagine the world of work isn’t everywhere though.

Last week I badly needed to focus to hit a deadline. Focus comes to me not from sitting in silence but from short 30-minute periods of concentration accompanied by music, and punctuated every half an hour by rapid pacing, a quick video game or Twitter catch up.

Interestingly – it was commented on, fairly negatively, by a colleague, even though it was having no impact at all on their work.

That’s an entirely normal response for people – because it doesn’t look like the world  they are used to.

  • Sitting at a desk doing emails looks like work.
  • Playing Mario and shouting song requests at a virtual assistant – doesn’t.

It’s incredibly difficult for most people to imagine a different future, which is why getting people to agree on what workspaces should look like results in the average of everyone.

New buildings need to be designed for networks – and organised to maximise a meeting of minds.

At Pixar for example, Steve Jobs created environmental conditions that promoted novelty, unpredictability, and complexity in the environment. As a result of this flow, creativity and productivity increased.

Traditional office buildings were built to isolate people, so forcing people to meet each other leads to different operating systems.

The challenge is that this won’t work for everyone. Most of us don’t work at Pixar and have to balance the needs of colleagues with very different working styles.

A good place to start would be better understanding our people.

Your next conversation with your team could be about how much sleep they are getting, when they feel they are most creative, and what the optimal conditions are to get their full concentration.

A world of work that’s in tune with your own circadian rhythms sounds like a more productive, more creative and infinitely happier place.

  1. Hi Paul
    My own work habits are the product of my work/life balance in which I try to run my business while actually spending 60% of the traditional working week caring. This causes lots of difficulties but also means I’ve developed the knack of getting a lot done in short periods of high energy focus, typically at 6 a.m. or 7.30 p.m. Interestingly, I’m nowhere near as productive when I do actually get a full day in the office. I can manage this because I’m in control of my work and my work environment. I regular visit organisations when as many as 20-30 people are all crammed in one room in rows of adjoining monitors. They are all trying to do high quality work and have work phone conversations in a 9-5 day. Often there are only 2 or 3 meeting rooms which are fiercely gatekept and people (if they are senior enough or the culture is positive) frequently go to the local coffee shop to have the sort of conversations we all need to plan a project. I have no idea how they do it or why anyone thinks it’s an efficient way to worl.
    Russell

    Reply

    1. Thanks for the comment Russ. Your point about people crammed into one room in rows of adjoining monitors resonates. I think that in twenty years time we’ll look back on practices like this as being the equivalent of battery cages for hens. In no way can it be conducive to quality work and must surely play its part in our productivity problem.

      Your point about caring – something that is only going to increase in coming years – is also very relevant. Few people have the kind of flexibility you are able to have simply because they are not in control of their work or environment. The cost of that in terms of people’s well being and mental health alone must be staggering.

      Reply

  2. Hi Paul,
    A possible solution for open plan offices is the provision of break-out rooms (with do not disturb signs on the doors) to prevent interruptions to the flow of thoughts/creativity in getting a job done.

    Reply

    1. I’d agree. However, the provision of rooms is just one aspect of tackling this – it needs a more strategic reflection on what counts as work.That means encouraging people to evaluate their lifestyles and identify their unique productivity rhythms, needs, and flow states.

      And that means flexibility around hours, locations, annual leave – all sorts of things!

      Reply

  3. Recently we have changed our office set up to be a more collaborative area, encouraging conversations, designed to help stimulate fresh ideas, open door drop in policy. Great, we are lucky to have this space however in reality it means constant interruptions, people dropping in, “Have a look at this thing I think we should do” conversations. So much so, I have found myself seeking the battery hen style white noise spaces to get work done.
    I’m sure we are just finding our feet and our rhythm and it will all play out in the end. In the meantime, productivity will remain a victim of the creativity desire as well as the 9-5 dictate.

    Reply

    1. Thanks – I certainly don’t think open-plan offices are the solution. Research has shown shared working spaces can increases distractions, lack of cooperation, distrust and negative relationships.

      Ideally, we’d have a mix – hot-desking, bookable offices, collaborative workspaces, breakout workspaces (relaxed couches and low tables for spontaneous, informal collaborative work). And let’s remember our homes, cafes and community spaces!

      Reply

  4. […] you want to read more about this subject, check out this great post from Paul […]

    Reply

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