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”.

IMG_5523
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.

We Need To Promote Outcomes At Work Not Presenteeism

“Presenteeism is the biggest threat to UK workplace productivity. Workers coming in and doing nothing is more dangerous than absenteeism” – Professor Cary Cooper

A full car park and people appearing busy at their desks is zero evidence that any meaningful work is taking place.

UK productivity, our output divided by the hours spent producing it, is a problem.

Almost every company will measure sickness absence: being away from work and doing nothing. Very few measure the hidden costs of presenteeism – being at work , but still doing nothing. 

We need to start setting principles that promote outcomes rather than reinforcing cultures of presenteeism.

With that in mind Bromford Lab have been setting some new principles for how we work. It’s very much a first attempt as we envisage we’ll change it as we go. It drew quite a lot of attention on Twitter so I thought I’d outline the thinking behind the initial principles.

Focus on outcomes not hours 

It’s time to abolish the 9-5. In a digital age and with increasing congestion on the roads, why do we insist on our employees all rocking up, and leaving, at the same time?

We want people to focus on the quality of their hours not the quantity. Accordingly we’ll set our own schedules and work patterns that boost our mental and physical being – whilst being focussed on the outcomes we need to deliver for our customer.

Design your own unique day

 ”Most offices are the average of what works for everyone,” says Mike Del Ponte, the founder of the water filter company Soma. “But they are perfect for no one.” Mike established an approach to encourage people to work from anywhere –  giving employees an opportunity to find inspiration in new places.

Accordingly we are encouraging the team to be intentional about where they work and to seek out places they’ve not been to, are unusual, or provoke thought. We’ll be getting the team to blog about this and the effects on productivity – good or bad – at least twice a month.

Work out loud 

We can underestimate the challenges to working out loud. The gravitational pull internally is to communicate internally. We are defaulting to make everything publicly accessible , including our job profiles, our weekly meetings and our resources and toolkits.

Kill meetings 

untitled-presentation

What if every meeting had kept a real time counter of the salaries in the room, increasing minute by minute?

If you’re brave – try running this meeting calculator at your next one. Even if you run it based on the average UK wage the results are eye watering.

We expect to put some more guidance around our approach to meetings such as:

  • We’ll only have one team meeting each week and it’ll never be more than an hour.
  • Never schedule a physical meeting when it can otherwise be accomplished by video or phone.
  • We won’t schedule meetings before 10 or after 4. Sleep in when needed, go to the gym or do something with your family and friends.
  • Leave space between sessions for reflection and after-work.

Use open tools 

So many of us , right around the world , are working on solving exactly the same problems Digital can connect us in ways never before possible – yet whole sectors are still just talking to themselves.

Accordingly we’ll default to openly accessible Google tools and will not hide information or thinking away on intranets.

If we are truly committed to social outcomes we need to stop hiding our organisational intelligence. We have a moral duty to ensure our work contributes towards change.

Get work out there 

Slow decisions and no decisions are harming our productivity. So our final principle is about being happy with less than perfect. We are committed to high quality work but we want to avoid obsessing over detail or waiting for approvals.

That means you might spot typo’s in our content, links that don’t work or poor formatting. As a team we’ll watch for each others mistakes and correct it as we go.

The priority is on getting work shipped and moving forward.


This is Version 1 of our work principles and we’ll amend our publicly accessible document based on what works and what doesn’t. A number of people have said they’ll try some of these out themselves – let us know how you get on!