The top killer of productivity in the office

When investigating how to improve productivity in the office using Smart Building solutions we started to wonder what the main killer of productivity is in the office. There are plenty of articles about productivity with headlines like ‘the 10 productivity killers that you need to avoid’ or ‘the 7 things that kill your productivity’. On closer reading most productivity killers can be grouped into one main thing: distraction. 

Deep Work versus Shallow Work

According to Cal Newport in his book “Deep Work: rules for focused success in a distracted world” there are two kinds of work: highly focused cognitive deep work and logistical-styled non-cognitive shallow work. Examples of deep work are analyzing data and preparing a presentation. Shallow work examples are responding to e-mails, discussing with co-workers and making phone calls. When you are doing shallow work it seems not a great problem to multitask and being disrupted often. Although interruptions come at a cost: they ultimately make you more stressed and disengaged with your core activities. Interruptions when you are doing deep work are more damaging, it will cost 23 minutes to get your concentration back. And it is not unlikely that you perform the new task poorly as well because of task residue: your brain is still processing the previous task even when you are working on the new one.

Concentration Peak Time

Your brain has peak performance capabilities at a specific time of the day. It depends a bit on your own circadian rhythm, if you are a morning or an evening person. For most of us the best time to concentrate is a couple of hours after you’ve started your day. And this higher level of attention will last for about 2 hours or until lunch. After that it will be much harder for your brain to concentrate and focus on a single task. So, deep work is better done in the morning and shallow work can better be planned after lunch.

Continuous Distractions

The hard part for many office workers is that the office is full of distractions and the number one distractor you carry with you all the time: the smartphone. Being connected all the time and with constant access to e-mail, social media and the Internet it is difficult to stop yourself of continuous checking and reading and browsing. When you are doing shallow work it might actually be beneficial to constantly monitor email, connect with colleagues and find new information: you may find new solutions for problems you are working on. When you are doing deep work than all this distractions will only make you have to spent even more time on the job.

TIme is scarce

And time is becoming a scarce resource for many knowledge workers and professionals. With a lot of tasks becoming automated and a growing expectation that the powers of IT will make more low-level office workers redundant, skilled professionals take on even more tasks and also have to manage their own work through Outlook and other apps. New ways of working introduce flexible workspaces where you have to be in the office early enough to get a decent desk and have to compete with your colleagues to find some peace and quiet. And when you come home at night you have to login to your work again to show your commitment.

The perception of never having enough time is actually dangerous for your performance: it has a proven negative effect on your cognitive capabilities. This works in two ways: first, you’ll never find the time to engage in the deep work mode and that makes you have to work more hours to get your tasks done. Second, you do not feel like you have the hours to do your job and to get something accomplished you do more of the shallow work. Shallow work that doesn’t require much cognitive skills. Research on scarcity by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir show that the people who think that they never have enough time (or food, money, attention) will focus even more on what they do not have to the point that they are so pre-occupied with, in this case, finding time that they cannot make good decisions anymore. Distractions make you dumber.

The power of willpower

Not giving in to distractions asks for willpower. Willpower is a mental strength that comes with some limitations. The main limitation is that you can deplete your willpower during the day. Which means that each time you exercise your willpower you will have less to use later that day. And you only have one source of willpower to use fighting all temptations you’ll encounter during the day. Temptations that can make you spend time and attention on an interesting article, that can make you have another cup of coffee, that can make you have some cake as well and that can make you watch that interesting TV-series that everyone is talking about. If the environment you are working in is full of distractions of all kinds than your willpower energy will be depleted by lunchtime.

Empowering professionals

When your job is mostly about interacting with other people and responding to all kinds of notifications, you do not need the level of concentration that is needed for cognitive tasks like analyzing data, writing reports, making decisions. If you do need that level of concentration then distractions will be your main enemy. Working in a corporate or professional environment there is only so much you can do: you can use your willpower to deal with the distractions and you can search for a place that allows you to concentrate better. And you can start a discussion within your company or organization on improving the circumstances to help professionals to concentrate better and getting more work done. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Mornings are better for deep concentrations, so allow professionals to work first on the tasks that require these levels of concentration. Block mornings for deep work and plan for shallow work in the afternoons. Meetings can better take place after lunch. The same goes for phone calls. Wouldn’t it be nice when you do not have to expect a phone call for a couple of hours?
  2. Open offices are great to meet and collaborate, but are killers for concentration and getting work done. You better have office spaces that are divided between collaboration spaces and concentration spaces. In concentration spaces phones are to be on silent and interruptions should be at a minimum. It might be a better idea to design offices around activities and have staff go to the specific spaces to perform their tasks instead of having a set workplace and doing all activities at your own desk.
  3. You read a lot that e-mail is a productivity killer, but that is a bit unfair to the tool. The use of e-mail and other messaging tools can be improved. It is that sense that you have to read an e-mail when it arrives in your inbox and you hear the notification that is the problem. Creating a policy on how to use e-mail, WhatsApp, Slack and all these other useful messaging tools can be much more productive. Maybe you can create a rule that new e-mail will only be delivered after 1pm. That will make it a much better and efficient time to deal with reading and answering.
  4. Another important tool that helps productivity is to create routines around decisions that need to be made. Since people have a limited amount of decision making capacity (reserve of willpower) you want them to use this capacity wisely. When certain decisions can be made for you, you have capacity remaining to make other and more relevant decisions. When you want to increase productivity in your office, you might want to investigate these small decisions that your staff has to make each time when they have to do their job. In a flexible and open office finding a place to work can already be a major decision that people have to make at the start of their day.

Technology can add an additional element to improve the productivity in the office. In a lot of cases it can also achieve the opposite. A good design for the office includes technology and integrates the office tools with the actual office space. The concept of Smart Buildings is only relevant when it increases productivity through supporting professionals in getting their work done. An additional app to control the workspace environment will only achieve the opposite and create a new distraction.



The following articles were used for inspiration::

Can Deep Work really work (Knowledge @ Wharton, 8 June 2016):

The cost of Interrupted Work: more Speed and Stress (Gloria Mark , 24 January 200):

Why your brain likes it when you multi-task (Claudia Hammond, BBC Future, 19 February 2016):

The Inspiration Paradox: Your best creative time is not when you think (Cindi May, Scientific American, 6 March 2012):

The Open Office Trap (Maria Konnikova, The New Yorker, 7 January 2014):

The science of Scarcity (Cara Feinberg, Harvard Magazine, May/June edition 2015):

How Cal Newport’s Deep Work concept will influence Office Design (Strong Project, 28 January 2016):