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Mindful Places: Doing Away with Distractions by Design


Photo of a mindful workspace

Convene offices, Los Angeles

Image: Bilyana Dimitrova, 2018
Work isn’t working. At a time when many organizations report struggling to find and retain highly-skilled talent, people on the job are stressed out and their physical and mental health is paying the price.
We can see this in results from an in-depth study of more than 3,000 U.S. workers conducted by Rand Corp., Harvard Medical School, and UCLA. The survey found that:
  • 50% of employees work off-hours to meet the demands of their jobs
  • One in four perceives they have too little time to do their job
  • 78% must be present in their workplace during working hours
  • 55% work in “unpleasant and potentially hazardous” conditions
People are the chief currency and greatest asset of any business. With up to 80% of a company’s expenses being attributable to staff costs, it’s vital that the workforce is productive, engaged, and empowered. Global statistics report 87% of workers are disengaged, according to the latest edition of Gallup’s annual engagement survey. Social inclusion impacts engagement. We are duty bound not only to address mental health and well-being in the workplace but also to go beyond that to create physical environments that enable mindfulness.
Distractions Derail Mindfulness
It's getting harder to focus, concentrate, and think at work. There seems to be no relief from all the distractions. Noisy coworkers, visual distractions, and the constant “pinging” of our technology are adversely impacting our ability to concentrate or get to deep meaningful thought.
Studies show that it can take up to 15 minutes to get deep meaningful thought, yet on average we are interrupted every seven minutes in the workplace. And, if you’ve got social media or email open, you may be interrupted every two minutes. Once interrupted it can take 20 minutes to get back to deep meaningful thought because you have to rethink where you were in your thought process. Hence, many environments today, coupled with the constant “pinging” of technology, are making it difficult to fully engage.
We are seeing the coming of age of the first generation that are true digital natives and have been multimodal since early childhood — Gen Z. As we welcome this new generation into the workforce, we must have a heightened awareness that many require additional stimulation — such as YouTube, streaming news and music, or monitoring social media apps, while at work. This Gen Z norm can create an adverse effect on others.
Distractions are leading to a loss in productivity, but not all distractions are created equally. The usual suspects — phone calls, chatty coworkers, ad-hoc meetings — cause a reported 43% of interruptions. But 53% of interruptions come from our digital technology — instant messages, pinging of our phones, web searches, etc.
More than two-thirds of people have said that acoustical distractions are their number one concern when working in a space. Intermittent, unpredictable noise is particularly stressful. People have varying tolerances for sound. What is music to one is noise to another.
Often today the problem isn’t that the office is too loud, rather it is too quiet. With quieter keyboards, more texting, and fewer people communicating via phone, there is no background noise, or ”hum,” that muffles general office sounds. If you’ve ever worked at a coffee shop, you know you can concentrate in those noisy environments quite well. The real problem is when you are in an environment where you can hear what people across the room are saying clear as a bell. That is far more distracting then general background noise. Studies have shown that hearing one side of a conversation is far more distracting than hearing the complete exchange, the reason being that we try to fill in the blanks for what we aren’t hearing and that takes more effort and investment and, therefore, is far more distracting.
Sound can be very useful in helping direct people to difference zones within a space. People who are visually impaired use changes in the sounds that their feet make as they move across various materials and echoes produced by materials and architectural forms, for example, to navigate successfully through a space. One of the keys to worker satisfaction is to establish the optimal noise level that is favorable to our senses.
Designing Away Distractions
To mitigate distractions by others, we need to design spaces with options and choices that allow employees to pick the environment that’s best for them. If we are going to empower our workforce, we have to give people a sense of control. Creating areas for focus and concentration that balance out the collaborative spaces enables people to determine the right level of engagement for the task at hand or their disposition. It allows them to minimize distractions and mitigate sensory stimulation as needed. Smaller focus rooms provide space for more concentration, either by an individual or for small-group work. Some of these spaces should be equipped with technology while others are set up as tech-free zones. The assortment accommodates individual preferences while serving as areas of respite for all within the space.
To help people function at higher levels and feel refreshed, some companies are creating quiet zones, tech-free days, or blocking emails from passing through their servers during off-hours. Designing environments that allow for a buzz to be created while balancing it with quiet zones affords people the opportunity to connect and engage in deep, meaningful thought so they can function at a higher level, refresh, and be mindful. Consider these tips to decrease distraction at work:
  • Work in a quiet room or from home when you require intense concentration.
  • Use flex hours to minimize distractions.
  • Be active and move around. Be sure to walk and exercise on your breaks.
  • Ensure assignments that spark interest and engagement.
  • Use private or semi-enclosed spaces to block out distractions.
  • If working in an open space, sit in a low-traffic area.
  • Decrease clutter on work surfaces.
  • Use headsets to tune out background office noise.
  • Use white noise to muffle noise.
  • Turn off email and text message alerts and instead set aside 10 minutes of every hour to check.
  • Provide active areas to release energy.
We need to make work work again.