Is an office more distracting than a seat at the bench?

Could it be that a more closed working environment has more distractions than an open one?

I was reading an article in the New York Times this morning speculating that digital distractions could make us more efficient. The idea is that there are times, when caught in that suspended state of indecision about what to do next in the work we are doing or when stuck in a spot and not seeing a way out, that a fast cruise into other mind-space by succumbing to the call of the internet, twitter or a text message can be a calming influence. For the author of the article, digital distractions have become part of her workflow.

She quotes a consultant at the Altimeter group saying, “attention is the new currency.” She is speaking of social networks and other media, but it’s what she said next that caught my attention. “Maintaining our attention becomes a competitive advantage.”

I have an office that I rarely use, for a large variety of reasons. I sit in the open with everybody else. If I think about the work that I do in my office, I think I am frequently subject, at almost every dip in the pace of my workflow, to the digital distractions that everybody knows about. However, sitting in the open with a bunch of other people engaged in focused work makes me, I believe, more focused, productive, and efficient. I am more engaged and more consistently “in the flow.”

I’ve said many times that I believe the leading organizations of the future will be the ones who “get” the experiences of work. Perhaps this form of working alone together is one of them.

That is, will talented people flock to organizations where they can see themselves in a flow of work with other motivated and focused people? (Note the quote in our last post – after moving into a more open environment at GlaxoSmithKline, decisions were made 45% faster.)

Will leading organizations find competitive advantage and attract the attention of the talented who see that these organizations have more critically understood the design of the environments in which visible behaviors influence and inspire others’ behaviors?

Will the attractive organizations of the future be the ones who’ve broken the paradigms of the office lexicon and who provide a place that authentically supports how work is done now?

It may be that all of our assumptions about “distraction” and defending against it may, in fact, generate workspaces that are less productive. It may be that working together in the open generates an engagement and an attention that is more effective in getting things done.

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