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“We lose our focus faster than a goldfish,” says a survey of Canadian media consumption by Microsoft. It concluded that the average attention span had fallen to eight seconds, down from 12 in the year 2000. We now have a shorter attention span than goldfish, the study found, prompting Microsoft chief Satya Nadella to suggest, “the true scarce commodity of the future will be human attention.”
Data from Apple shows that we unlock our iPhones an average of 80 times and rack up more than 4.7 hours actively engaged with our mobile device each day. Each glance costs us about 15 to 20 minutes of attention loss according to the growing field of interruption science. Our brains are simply not wired for that level of distraction.
As we set about revolutionizing our buildings with smart technology, these issues should be at the forefront of our strategy. So how can we design our smart buildings and offices to encourage focus and increase productivity?
This topic has risen in profile after the success of a book entitled Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, by professor, scientist, and author, Cal Newport. Constant distraction not only disrupts what we are working on during the distraction but also has long-term implications for our ability to focus at all.
“We have a growing amount of research which tells us that if you spend large portions of your day in a state of fragmented attention — where your regular workflow is constantly broken up by taking frequent breaks to just check in with social media — that this can permanently reduce your capacity for concentration,” said Newport.
The unrelenting stream of social media in the modern world is changing the landscape of our brain’s reward centers. As well as negatively influencing our cognitive ability to get work done, there is also concern in the medical community that modern distraction is increasing rates of anxiety and other psychological issues among college students.
Through his research Newport has been exploring the cognitive impact that social media and office distractions have, and the importance of undivided attention in completing meaningful work. By removing distractions, he argues, we can move beyond “shallow work” to reach new levels of productivity and produce a substantial amount of work.
We are moving into a competitive information economy. Newport argues that it’s one that will reward workers who understand that the currency is work that produces unambiguously rare and valuable output. “Anything a six-year-old can do with a smartphone is not something the market will reward,” Newport says.
“Deep work is what moves the needle. All in all, if you’re excellent at giving things intense concentration, this will act like a super power in the knowledge economy,” he added. Newport envisions a future where people will need to be able to do specialized work to set them apart. That requires the ability to focus, which helps people quickly learn new things, enabling them to work faster and at a higher level.
The idea suggests that both employees and management will be keen to see offices designed for deep work but what does such an office entail? Would it be made up of isolated rooms and cubicles, would it be open-plan to foster collaboration and freedom, would it promote the adoption of more technology or would it counter-revolt to create a minimal technology environment.
Let’s also remember that not all jobs require deep work; in fact most jobs are primarily shallow work. This is an important trend and seems likely to become starker in the future as everything becomes more automated. Most jobs are going to be shallow work with opportunities for deep work limited to some strategy and creativity.
Designing the next generation of offices, “comes down to three things: giving employees physical workspaces they want, having up-to-date technology (the tools they need), and a culture they can celebrate,” says Jacob Morgan, author of The Future of Work.
A dynamic work environment shapes the whole employee experience, according to Morgan, who says the design of a space can greatly influence collaboration and productivity.
“It’s about having some open, some closed, some café-like environments, some isolation—It’s about giving employees a choice,” Morgan says. “You can’t have a house with just a kitchen, and you can’t have a work environment where we tell employees to do everything in one room.”
Smart technology too can be better designed to help people avoid distraction and focus better. Automated smart lighting controls or HVAC systems, for example, already take away the thought of changing the temperature or light levels. Perhaps smart office cubicles could close like a shell when a worker wants to deep work, then open up to the office floor when in shallow work phases.
Whatever the best solutions may be, it is becoming increasingly clear that distraction is becoming a real problem in the modern world. While self-control or stricter rules may be important, ambitious employees and management will be eager to see what our smart buildings can do for our productivity.
“We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us,” said Winston Churchill long before this age of distraction.
So how many times will you check your phone and emails while you read this article?