58% of high-performance employees say they need more quiet work spaces.
Behold the open industrial office space. At one moment, it feels like such a hip environment, bustling with easy communication and collaboration, innovation and headphones just behind every monitor. At another moment, the open office is the loudest, most annoying, distracting and unproductive environment one can imagine.
What if the open industrial office is just part of a larger misguided fantasy? What if this office style is hurting our employees working on the hardest problems—our high-performance employees (HPEs)? What if the open office is causing retention problems, and affecting the quality of our end products?
As I outlined in my HPE article, executives and high-performance employees tend to optimize against completely different trade and life principles—they generally have very different views of the world. This disconnect shows itself very clearly in the environmental conditions of our creative and technical offices.
My latest anonymous survey* shows that 58% of HPEs need more private spaces for problem solving, and 54% of HPEs find their office environment “too distracting.”
(*With over 1,000 respondents from industries like Software, IT, Hardware, Financial Services, Creative, Marketing, Automotive, Architecture and Manufacturing.)
Executive Idealism vs Reality
Without struggling to understand the principles of the HPE, executives risk building the most common environment for potential success, i.e. the easy and unimaginative solution rooted in a detached understanding of innovation as something hatched by fits of random social interaction and illumination—as opposed to understanding innovation as a sustainable and persistent framework that is cultivated, shepherded, maintained and reproduced over long periods of time.
In open environments, executives imagine social collaboration and surreal collision between disparate disciplines. Executives wish for the the next magical idea born from the random chaos of the corporate universe. To executives, easy access means easy sharing and easy success; we should always be able to yell at our coworkers within 25 feet whenever the mood strikes.
Everyday Problem Solving vs Pure Innovation
In contrast to many romanticized narratives, most HPE work involves just showing up every day and being consistent. Executives need to clearly separate everyday problem solving from the seeds of pure innovation.
The average day of the HPE is spent solving really hard problems related to an innovative product, idea or company direction. This means remaining focused for long hours in support of existing and future creatives/hardware/software/designs/narratives. HPEs are usually cranking on a days-long task, following through on a contract they made with peers or executives. HPEs overwhelmingly need quiet and calm space in order to efficiently complete their daily work.
If we can first provide calm, quiet, creative and respectful space — then we can ask the $1M question:
How can we structure our time and internal processes, not our space, to encourage social interaction, innovation and opportunistic product inspiration?
58% of HPEs need more private spaces for problem solving, and 54% of HPEs find their office environment “too distracting.”
What do these numbers mean?
1) Distractions kill HPE productivity.
This is obvious and widely discussed. Distractions have to be addressed as the single largest detriment to high-performance employee productivity. If an HPE requires up to 25 minutes to regain focus after an interruption, and we allow for four interruptions per day for our HPEs, that sets the potential for 100 minutes (almost two hours) of wasted time each day.
Employees who have little need for trade craft and mastery love distracting and social environments because they are fun and entertaining. We get to talk sports and play jokes on people and discuss politics and critique each other’s outfits.
By contrast, HPEs who are masters of their discipline—dedicated to a life-long pursuit of truth in craft—hate distractions because they simply can’t get their work done. These folks then must stay after-hours, or work from home in order to find an environment in which they can be effective. Distractions and interruptions for HPEs come in many forms:
Natural distractions from the space (loud noises, people walking by the hall/desk/door constantly, deliveries, tours, chatter and laughter, temperature swings, office animals, etc)
Personnel interruptions (someone has a question, someone needs feedback, there is an ‘emergency’, someone is upset, someone found something cool to show, executive keeps bothering, etc)
As nicely explained by Andrew Lucker, we can think of distractions as clouding the concentration capacity of our brain, like overloading a computer with too many tasks:
Working memory is full of all the things that you are consciously aware of at any given time. That dog sniffing around, the music your deskmate is listening to, the meeting on your schedule, and everything else that you may be worrying about. These things fill your working memory, and are a huge drag on any attempt to work with the [new ideas] in your head. Too many simultaneous distractions will effectively block any attempt to reach the glorious flow state of mind.
If one’s goal as an HPE is excellence, then distractions will prevent efficiency and end up a source of deep frustration. If distractions/interruptions persist, people will simply find another job—because a corporate culture that doesn’t understand the HPE is supremely dispensable in our hyper-competitive market. In my HPE survey, I found that 65% of people expressed “ability to master my trade” as one of the primary reasons for leaving their job.
If we’re worried about HPE morale and retention, we have to directly address daily distractions and renew our faith in process.
2) Poor productivity hurts our products and time-to-market.
If our most talented employees are fighting an uphill battle against constant distractions and interruptions, our end products will suffer. Simple.
3) Generally speaking, our offices are too open.
There are too many visual and auditory distractions. We need more normalized codes of conduct, thoughtfully walled space, visual partitions, alcoves, private work rooms, and vastly more sound suppression. We need space where our HPEs can engage and retreat as needed. We need fluid space with an emphasis on predictability and calm.
To be blunt, most of our office implementations are just downright lazy. We spend untold thousands of dollars on free coffee and meals, gym memberships, creative perks of all kinds, yet our modern office spaces end up so similar, with so little functional creativity.
4) We need to slow down and listen to our people.
Our high-performance employees are already showing us what they need, but are we really listening? Sadly if we are unable to tune in, their need for calm space and ethical process will often become clear only in hindsight. Similar to customers choosing to shop elsewhere, our HPEs vote with their allegiance and are quite comfortable finding new jobs—leaving us to pick up the organizational tab which is vastly more expensive than we might think.