Deep work office: creating a flow-friendly workplace

Last updated on 
February 6, 2020

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Deep work is becoming increasingly rare just as it’s becoming increasingly valuable, so businesses that prioritize it stand to gain a huge competitive advantage. While the practice of deep work falls to the individual employee, managers have a huge responsibility in enabling it to happen. Without the right environment, toolset and culture, deep work can’t take place. To that end, here are just a few practical steps every business can take to create a flow-friendly workplace.

Deep work culture

If you want to access the full benefits of deep work, you need to create the right workplace culture to support it. Encouragement alone won’t cut it – managers need to support each employee’s unique habits and workstyles, and introduce policies to keep all collaboration thoughtful.

1. Schedule your availability

Deep work requires undivided attention, but a slew of notifications, emails and Slacks mean most of us perform our work in a state of continuous partial attention. So to make collaboration more productive, we need to rethink how we communicate. That starts with removing the expectation of immediate availability: instead of scheduling time for going off-grid, employees should be able to set availability hours – effectively, the times when they can be disturbed. During this window, they will respond to email, get back to colleague questions and deal with distracting shallow tasks. This ensures everyone can isolate themselves when they need to, and no one gets interrupted on a whim.

2. Minimize the impact of meetings

While meeting in-person will always be valuable, meetings are a notorious form of shallow work and can quickly drain your team’s productive potential. They swallow an average of 15.5 hours of each employee’s week – or 23 hours for each executive! When poorly planned, meetings can also completely carve up your schedule, creating small bubbles of time between events which are insufficient for deep focus. Adopting a meeting opt-out policy is a useful first step – whether that means letting people decline low-value meetings entirely, or just attend the agenda point relevant to their work. Beyond that, use smart technology to automate meeting scheduling and always try to solve problems using asynchronous forms of communications.

3. Offer work flexibility

While removing distractions from your environment is essential for deep, it doesn’t necessarily follow that continually working from the same distraction-free place will help you tap into it. Instead, having the autonomy to regularly change up our workspace can pay in dividends – a 2016 Gensler survey reported that employees who are able to choose where and when to work are more productive and innovative. Offering flexible hours and remote work opportunities lets people manage their work according to their individual productive needs. It can also help satisfy a basic psychological need for control and autonomy, which motivates people to produce their best work.  

Sharing physical spaces

Deep work can happen in big offices with hundreds of people – you just need to design the right space and ensure everyone understands how to share it.  

1. Create an inclusive workspace

In a bid to be more collaborative and transparent, many businesses have embraced “community-based” open plan offices. But unless your office offers a high degree of segmentation for different tasks and individual choice, these environments can completely impede deep work. While some companies are already channelling resource into open plan’s successor – cellurized spaces – designing an inclusive workspace doesn’t have to be overly complex. Just use the principles of activity-based working, where employees can access a variety of different work areas for specific activities. Making sure you create spaces for both quiet and collaborative working is a given.

2. Signal your availability

While booking out a meeting room and physically removing yourself from a collaborative space sends a clear message that you’re not to be disturbed, you need more practical rules for ensuring people can still focus in open-plan spaces. Headphones are a simple and effective equipment here – clearly communicating you’re not free to engage. Just make sure people respect headphone signalling!

3. Save music for social spaces

This is a contentious one, since shared office playlists are a great way for getting everyone to shape their environment and express themselves. But not everyone can focus while listening to music – indeed, many people wear headphones without listening to anything, just to try and block background noise out. While music is only one part of the equation, research shows that workplaces are already too noisy – 65% of people in one 2019 survey reported that noise impacted their ability to complete work, with 44% stating it had a negative impact on their wellbeing. While you should definitely keep music playlists democratic, consider limiting them to social spaces, so you don’t create a jarring environment for those trying to concentrate.

Lean digital workspaces

Culture and physical environment aside, the digital space where your work happens also needs to be conducive to protracted deep focus. This concerns all the devices and apps you use to do your work – everything should be optimized to minimize distraction, prioritize value and connect you with the right information.

1. Use anti-distraction tools

From stopping social media procrastination to muting distracting desktop pings, there are a ton of different anti-distraction apps to help you lock your focus. They’re a great aid for employees brand new to deep work who need to build up their concentration stamina, and allow you to easily disconnect from your hyper-connected digital workspace. A particularly useful choice for those who can’t completely cut out distracting work tools from their work practice.

2. Outsource or automate shallow tasks

It’s a no-brainer: removing low-value admin tasks from your employees’ workflows protects space and mental energy for important deep work. From time tracking to inbox management, think about the unproductive daily tasks you can free your team of – most can be streamlined or completely automated with smart tech.

3. Keep a selective toolset

Given that a typical company uses 1,472 different cloud services and 64% of employees feel they have more desktop apps than they require, it’s good practice to routinely revisit your digital toolkit. Questioning the value your tools and streamlining your apps will help you minimize workspace interruptions and demands on employee time. Likewise, investing in tools which help your team structure and measure deep work will help employees improve its quality.

4. Signal your availability digitally

Setting your Slack status to “do not disturb” is the digital equivalent to putting headphones on. It signals that you’re deep in the zone and not to be disturbed, and adds a useful extra layer to communicate when you can and cannot be approached with requests. To save yourself an extra task on the way to deep work, get smart tech to automatically toggle your status for you whenever you enter a flow state.

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