Deep Work In Open Offices?

Written by Holtby Turner

In his book Deep Work, Professor of Computer Science Cal Newport points out that taking set periods of time for deep work – that is to say thinking deeply, imagining, innovating and creating – has set apart some of the world’s greatest thinkers. Today, this is something we all need to master. 

Contemporary work increasingly demands the ability to focus intensely on cognitively demanding tasks, or as Cal Newport calls it, “deep work.” Newport notes that many workers find themselves in “distracting open offices where inboxes cannot be neglected and meetings are incessant; a setting where colleagues would rather you respond quickly to their latest e-mail than produce the best possible results.” He later continues, “in an ideal world – one, in which the true value of deep work is accepted and celebrated, we’d all have access to something like the Eudaimonia Machine”. 

Greek philosopher Aristotle’s concept of eudaimonia relates to the epitome of human capability, and to Newport it describes “the highest state of flourishing”. So what do you think – are open offices really the enemy of deep work?

Baby boomers created the open plan life with best intentions – connecting people after fifty years of work being boxed into cubicles. However, what no-one knew in the 1980’s was what happened when the promised benefits of the open plan office met the cold, hard reality of contemporary office work. 

Looking at what actually happens when offices go from closed to open, we can see that deep work isn’t necessarily supported. Rather than supporting idea sharing and collaboration, open offices can actually lessen the volume of face-to-face interaction by around 70%, according to a Fortune 500 study by Harvard University’s Ethan Bernstein, published in August 2018. If you have actually tried to talk to a colleague in a wide-open, too-quiet office you’ll know why. We have all either received – or given – that polite glare that reads, “HALT co-worker! Do not think about asking me a question and show me up for not knowing in front of everyone!” #funnynotfunny maybe, but these moments cause anxiety rather than creativity. 

Let’s be clear about what we’re talking about here with ‘open plan’. We do not mean a sea of desks, with no spatial breaks for as far as the eye can see, and which offers workers absolutely no privacy. Those are proven to be a disaster. What we mean are large working areas that have been designed to be open, airy and flow. Generally they house upwards of seventy-five people in one space, and shape the design of most modern offices today.

In their efforts to make work more collaborative, transparent and ‘creative,’ has the built environment as a global industry underestimated the value of focus-based work and its impact on productivity? Not just in our own working environs, but those we design and build? Have we built offices for deep work, or created open offices that encourage isolation through headsets and emailing? 

The root issue lies in our assumptions. What goes for a tech company in a one-room, open office does not translate everywhere, especially to global corporations. Interior designers and architects created a story that we picked up from startups which looked ‘oh so creative and connected!’ and turned this into an inspiring tale of how modern offices should be if they too wanted to focus on creativity and innovation. The truth is that startups don’t have money for much other than a room where everyone sits, nor necessarily the time to engage in deep work. This is where alternatives to the open office may well shine, and where the industry for the built environment can step in and help in the renaissance of deep work in modern offices. 

An atmosphere and interior design that fosters collaboration is commendable. However, it is a false economy to think that less space = less cost, if that space comes at the cost of focus and concentration. According to a survey by UniSpace in 2018, with over two thousand global occupiers, leaders are introducing open-plan working believing they enhance productivity, without looking at the data. Survey data spanned four continents and multiple sectors, and consistently showed that the level of collaboration across the leading professions (including most in real estate) was less than 25% of an average workday. 

UniSpace’s data revealed a very clear pattern: two hours, per employee, per day of face-to-face collaboration was all that workers needed. “Organisations that plan for more than the two-hour average are unknowingly facilitating an overly-collaborative environment that is potentially disruptive” reported Unispace’s Sam Sahni, Regional Principal, Strategy. Firms that tend to ‘over-collaborate’ he found, frequently created environmental barriers between various teams and departments, and ultimately created silos. They also lessen the amount of time in which people can engage in thinking of the kind that can engender the next great innovation.

This is not to say that the open office is a modern hellscape, nor that they cannot be made to work. However, we must become better at understanding the data we can gather about productivity and communication in different office setups, as well as become more appreciative of what is required for productive deep work. Only if we truly look to the data regarding workplace engagements before we design our work environments can we ensure the best fit between different kinds of work, different kinds of people, and different property cost centres.

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