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Chapter 4 - Find focus at work

All everyone needs is love… and much more focus time to get stuff done.

How do you make your team members work better? By giving them modern tools? More gadgets? Better perks? Fancier desks or chairs? Yes, maybe. But I’d say the most important thing you can do as a team leader is protect your people’s focus time.

Why is focus so important these days?

People are hired by companies to do great work, to really contribute to the company’s bottom line. And to do that, they should deliver amazing results.

But how do you want people to do this if they’re interrupted all the time?

It’s not that people don’t have enough time; it’s that they don’t have enough focus time.

People who work as knowledge workers are there to use their brains and their professional expertise to deliver great work.

Yet they are doomed to fail if they’re stuck in meetings, bombarded with emails and notifications or interrupted by fellow colleagues “for just a minute.”

What’s worse is that many managers aren’t helping them at all! They invent status meetings without agendas and come up with creative ways of getting people’s attention when they should really be shielding them and helping them find focus. That’s their job!

How to find and protect focus at work?

As a manager, make it one of your primary goals to give your people long stretches of time of uninterrupted work. Here are a few ideas:

Question each meeting or one-on-one session

We’ll deal with meetings later in this book, but I already want to prime you on what’s to come. Before you want to call a meeting or add it to someone’s calendar, make sure it’s really necessary. If you just want to make a quick point, ask yourself if it’s enough to send them in a message instead. Why does it have to be a meeting when a brief message would suffice?

Ask for permission to talk

If you really need to speak with someone, don’t just walk over to them to chat. Send them a message and ask for their availability. Let them finish what they’re working on and talk to them then. Better yet, explain to them in a brief message what you want to discuss so that they can actually show up prepared for a meaningful conversation.

Protect holes in the calendar like the Swiss do with their cheese

Swiss cheese is known for having big holes throughout, and these holes are what make the cheese great. The bigger the holes, the better the cheese.

Likewise, make sure your team’s calendar has big holes between meetings. Give your team some breathing room to do meaningful work in between. Don’t do “back-to-back meetings.” You don’t want to be swamped by meetings, and you don’t want that for your team either.

Cut the team some slack and allow them some time so they can either wrap up work from one meeting, prepare for the next, or even just complete other work that’s on their plate. It’s important to give your colleagues an opportunity to contribute something valuable to their workday before they get pulled into another meeting.

Meaningful work first, meetings second.

Create a focused environment

If you have a say in the office layout, make sure people don’t sit too close to one another. Disable unnecessary notifications and create a culture where ASAP (As Soon As Possible) is not the default feedback requirement. Hardly anything requires immediate reaction. Don’t demand it from others, and don’t contribute to the culture.

Set expectations and communicate them clearly. At Nozbe, when you’re done with your part of the work, you communicate this in a comment within the task and, if necessary, delegate it to someone else. Then you choose another task to work on, as you know the other person will get back to you when they finish what they are currently doing. It’s OK to wait a few minutes.

Don’t be the ASAP person – don’t demand immediate attention from everyone else. It’s toxic and disruptive. It doesn’t promote great work: it promotes stress.

Maximizing every team member’s focus time should be a manager’s top priority.

“Open” offices suck the focus out of a room like a vacuum cleaner

The new definition of a modern workspace is the “open floor” office, where everyone sits next to each other. No walls. No barriers. No private space.

Many managers and bosses love this concept. They believe that ideas flow like airwaves between people and that creativity skyrockets when everyone can have serendipitous conversations.

Silicon Valley is a massive promoter of such offices. Facebook has supposedly built the largest “open office” in the world with the help of a very high-end architecture firm. Apple has built a spaceship office with many open floors. So if Apple and Facebook and all of Silicon Valley is working this way, it must be great, right?

The truth is that such offices are built to cater to the bosses’ egos: “Look at my amazing, creative, office-worker factory!”

Then why do bosses at these companies have private offices instead of working in the open space?

It’s a typical “do as I say, not as I do” moment. An “open” office layout doesn’t allow people to focus on their work, but it lets their bosses see what’s going on and perform “management by looking around.”

Now ask anyone how much they like working in such an office… People hate open offices! They struggle to find focus there. They can’t get any meaningful work done. They’re forced to work even harder to do their jobs in an unproductive environment!

The bosses say it’s all about “random chat,” “collaboration,” “serendipity,” “the casual exchange of ideas”… and that’s great, but even if your work breeds all of these great ideas, then when in the hell would you find the time and focus to write them up? To prepare your work? To look at it from all angles and analyze it in peace? Well, not here…

The reality of “open offices”

I’ve seen these offices, seen people using noise-cancelling headphones, using multiple monitor screens, putting cardboard walls around their space or even hiding under their fancy stand-up desks.1

This is terribler. And the worst thing about it is that the myth of an open office was already abolished in the 80s! Yes, this concept was quashed in the much popular Peopleware book!2

If you want people in your office to work efficiently and with maximum focus, avoid “open offices” like the plague.

  1. Don’t design your office in an open way.
  2. When in doubt about whether to go with a more “open office design”, see point 1.
  3. If you really have to go “open office” for some reason, you’ll find a few guidelines below.

Guidelines for offices that are serious about focus at work

When designing your office, try to incorporate these ideas:

  • Space people out so that they can have some breathing room from others and find some peace and quiet to think and write up their brilliant ideas.
  • Use natural barriers like furniture, whiteboards and walls so that people don’t see each other at all times.
  • Get a waterfall and put it in the middle of an office. The sound of water is soothing and helps drown out many conversations.
  • Create separate rooms for meetings or conversations. This ensures that necessary conversations don’t interrupt everyone else.
  • Introduce “library rules” where people know not to speak in the common open office space.
  • Design “common spaces” in a more attractive way – such as a cafeteria or a kitchen. This is where people should meet for a casual coffee or conversation.

How one of my friends rebelled against the “open office”

A friend of mine works in a traditionally big office with more than two thousand workers. There was an expansion project and the company built an additional wing in their office. In this new wing, they designed the entire office floor in an “open” way.

The problem was that my friend’s team was spoiled. They were all used to having their own private offices – and their work requires that! They spend most of their workdays analyzing and preparing long and complicated documents. Focused work is what they do. And now suddenly their bosses were telling them to move to this new “open” environment.

They flat out refused.

They said “no way” to their bosses, and because their department is the biggest revenue-generating part of the business, they had the leverage.

After much debate and discussion, their bosses caved. They left my friend’s team alone and moved other people to the “open offices.”

The sad part of this story is that the bosses didn’t take the hint. If the most important department in the company doesn’t want to work in an “open office,” maybe it’s not such a good idea in the first place.

The one thing: guard your people’s focus time!

If work is not a place to go, but a thing you do, make sure you and your colleagues really do it. As a manager, do everything in your power to maximize your team members’ focus time. As a colleague, be mindful of other people’s work. Let them finish. Let them find focus. Let them do their best work. And you can do the same.

To learn more about focused work and how to find focus at work, I recommend Cal Newport’s excellent book, Deep Work3

  1. I’ve posted on my blog about Silicon Valley’s disregard for remote work, the embrace of the open office floor plan and particularly Facebook’s office and most recently the Modern Workplace documentary. 

  2. Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Tim Lister, originally written in 1987 and later updated in 1999 and 2013. 

  3. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World (2016) by Cal Newport. 

Next: Chapter 5 - Write stuff down

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