If you are working in an office today you will be interrupted – or you will interrupt yourself – every 3 minutes.
And what’s worse is it will take most of us up to 23 minutes to recover from that distraction.
If your boss lets you, go home. Walking out the office door is likely to be the single most productive decision you’ll make this year.
It’s not hard to see why we dislike our workspaces and what they bring us:
- About 11 million meetings are held on average every single day, with employees in the US attending about 62 meetings every month.
- British workers spend 492 days of their lives travelling to work, spending over £800 every year.
- A survey of British workers, published in June, found that those in a hot-desking office took an average of 18 minutes to find a seat.
- The average professional spends a third of each work day reading and answering email, according to a McKinsey analysis. And 62% of that email is not even important.
On top of this the actual design of our workspaces is mostly poor. Whilst the technology we use is unrecognisable from 15 years ago, the places we work from haven’t really developed.
How The Open Office Came To Rule The World
In 1958, an art professor named Robert Propst set out to design the office to rule them all. He had researched the habits of office workers, including what made them inefficient, what they liked and disliked, how often they moved from their desks.
He monitored every wasted second—in the hope that he might save us all, not by leadership, but by design.
Typically, he observed the the manager in a corner office and the majority of workers at open desks that were arranged in static lines, with very little consideration for any form of privacy, storage or intrusion.
The ‘action office’ he invented was intended to take us away from the distractions of open environments, and give us a semi private space we could decorate with photographs and other items. It was an ‘office’ for those of us who were not important enough to warrant a real office of our own.
It wasn’t the fault of Propst, but his original designs came to be dumbed down and the mutated into the cubicle, which came to visually represent the office silo, banks of workers not talking to one another.
We needed a solution, an open office that made us collaborate and communicate with our colleagues.
The pursuit of increased workplace collaboration led managers to transform cubicle offices into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing spaces with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries. However, research by the Royal Society shows that open plan offices do not build teams or increase collaboration.
The reason why we don’t collaborate is far more complex. If we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen. Office design is only a miniscule part of that.
Equally, office design has done little to improve our productivity. UK workers are putting in the longest hours in the EU, but this isn’t translating into improved productivity. In fact, the research shows employees in Denmark put in over four hours less than UK workers – whilst productivity in Denmark is 23.5 percent higher than the UK.
It doesn’t look like the innovators can save us either. The latest office disruptor – WeWork – appears to have stalled too. WeWork’s fundamental business idea — to cram people into cool looking spaces and give them snacks — puts lipstick on the problem, but wholly fails to address it.
The cost of all this is measurable, in employee disengagement scores and the costs of our locations. The average annual property cost for a British office worker is £4,800 ($6,000), according to Investment Property Databank.
Can the death of the office come soon enough?
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 and managers (the next biggest inefficiency tax), and they set an unhelpful precedent for the expected hours that people are meant to work.
Rising travel costs, advances in technology and the climate crisis are cohering to guarantee that working from home becomes relatively commonplace. And a new form of remote work has emerged: working from anywhere , in which employees can live and work where they choose.
After over a century of trying to solve the productivity problem with physical design we need to ditch the idea of the office as being the answer.
We don’t require new workspaces but new cultures.
There is no unique formula for productivity or creativity. It’s now the role of the leader to work with others to find out what their own unique formula is.
That might mean:
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.
When and where we are productive is as individual as our genetic code. That’s why getting people to agree on what workspaces should look like results in them being the average of everyone.
Yes – 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”.
It also means getting to know teams, actually listening to people as individuals, and letting them become the designers of their own unique workday.