How to create an environment of focus and productivity in your office, our thoughts on the open layout vs. cubicle argument, and what to do about apps that begin to become a distraction.

A few years ago, open office spaces were all the rage.
Ping-pong tables, hip modern design, stacks of communication tools, and casual dress were signs of this leading edge (even our own office has a contingency for those moments when you just need to go down a slide).
Mainstream media picked up this trend and boasted about how these highly collaborative, open office spaces bore a stark contrast to the beige cubicle culture in more traditional offices.
But now, psychologists and productivity experts are rethinking these advantages.
A recent Economist article confirms that the tide has turned. The title, “The Collaboration Curse,” gives it all away. Research is now proving that these highly collaborative environments are actually counterproductive.

The biggest problem with collaboration is that it makes what [author and computer science professor] Cal Newport calls “deep work” difficult, if not impossible. Deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem.

But working in an overstimulating environment, as the piece suggests, poses significant risks to employee’s mental health state – increasing the chances of stress and work-related accidents. Not to mention, difficult problems are better solved in intentional, focused groups, not overheard conversations in a crowded space.
Collaboration doesn’t have to be synonymous with multi-tasking – nor does it have to be the antithesis of deep work. The best work environment has a healthy balance of both collaborative and autonomous work. Here’s how you can achieve that balance within your own team.

1. Work Alone, Together

Cubicle-free, open office spaces are rarely conducive to deep work.
All it takes is a tap on the shoulder or a joke to interrupt every person in the room. But putting hard-working, driven employees next to the rest of the team can be extremely motivating. It can unite your whole team to work towards a common goal and get team members to take personal stake in the company.
One of our customers – a content marketing agency – resolved this problem by looking to contemporary artist Tom Sachs for inspiration. He’s well-known for his Ten-Bullet video series, in which he refers to workspace as “sacred space.”
That means the space is for work, and it has to be kept clean and quiet during predetermined hours, almost as if it were used for meditative purposes. Non-employees can’t enter, and everyone is committed to respecting each other’s deep focus.
Productive Work Environment | imac programming
At an agency where employees need big chunks of uninterrupted time to get projects done, it is important to provide a quiet place and large blocks of time so people can build momentum. You can offer this creative space by limiting time slots for meetings.
Send a calendar template to employees so that they can easily see and respect each others’ quiet time, work time and collaboration time.
Batch meetings together so that they don’t break up your team’s productive hours, and put a cap on how many hours a week can be devoted to this. That will ensure that only the most important discussions make the cut.

2. Use Tools that Encourage Deep Work

Messaging apps, collaborative writing tools, and project management software have gotten a lot of heat lately for distracting teams from their work.
Whether it’s a “ping,” a pesky red dot on one of your tabs, or a push notification, it’s easy to get pulled out of the zone. But practically all productivity tools come with highly customizable preferences. Your team shouldn’t be getting notifications from five different tools all day long. Instead, they should:

  • Pick tools that can do more. Don’t use one tool for chat, another for email, and a third for document collaboration. Most agency work is highly collaborative, so pick a tool like Teamwork Projects that has several functionalities built into one interface. This will take away much of the communication overhead and keep all your team’s projects and documents in one place.
  • Turn tools off for several hours at a time. Decide when you’re most productive and schedule several hours away from your tools and notifications to get into deep work. You can even have managers integrate this into the calendar template based on hours that their team members produce their best work.

Teamwork Projects GIF
Productivity tools help you manage workflows and help your team stay on the same page regarding clients’ progress. Don’t write them off right away because you haven’t explored all the customization options.

3. Keep Meetings as a Last Resort

empty meeting room
Non-productive meetings plague traditional and modern offices alike. These meetings are used to solve a problem or to communicate information – but they don’t usually result in any actionable outputs.
Sure, more people are brought into the loop, but every meeting happens at the cost of billable hours. If you didn’t make clear progress on or increase productivity, you just wasted money.
Most agencies know that meetings shouldn’t be called on a whim, but few put any kind of policy behind it. Create policies that offer clear parameters for calling a meeting. Do this by defining the right context for communicating information.
Meetings at every workplace are unavoidable. But just like with software and open office spaces, the productivity boosters will turn into productivity killers if you don’t handle them correctly.

Don’t Be Swayed by Fads

Whether it’s in the suit-and-tie finance environment or in a dev shop out of your parent’s basement, balancing autonomy and collaboration for maximum productivity is always going to be a difficult thing. There’s no fad or fashionable work environment that will be a silver bullet to that problem.
But if you’re committed to nailing down how your team makes the best use of their time, you’ll eventually find the right balance that will keep your agency productive.