About a year ago as the world was settling in for an indeterminate period of telecommuting, we wrote about the wellspring of distractions that is the open-plan office and any possible correlation with a recent trend in diagnoses in adult ADHD.
Originally becoming popular during the mid-20th century among management as being symbolic of collaboration and a flattening of corporate hierarchy, over the intervening decades, open-plan offices have become synonymous with a lack of privacy and being subjected to every cell phone conversation, knuckle crack and sniffle arising out of the 100-odd people sharing the space. Despite the bevy of literature pointing out that open-plan offices sap employee creativity, productivity, and camaraderie, it felt like the genie was never going back into that bottle of an office with solid walls — even though the office management who often make such decisions can go back into theirs.
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About three weeks after that article ran in Medium’s The Startup, worker bees around the world were granted a reprieve. Yet the circumstances that granted what turned out to be an extended sojourn might be worse than getting your thoughts interrupted every two minutes by your coworker’s Outlook notifications left on full blast. Now that the world is approaching one year of social distancing and working from home, the open-plan office has been supplanted by another source of distraction conceived to foster workplace collaboration and productivity: Slack, Microsoft Teams, and other communications tools.
A Harvard Business Review article from November/December 2019 — that is, pre-pandemic — already noted how office messaging tools were beginning to supplant the random conversations that open-plan offices were intended to spark. “Enterprise social media such as Slack and Microsoft Teams are displacing watercooler conversations, making people more connected. Virtual-meeting software such as Zoom, GoToMeeting, and Webex is displacing in-person meetings, making people ever-present,” the article reads. “The architecture of collaboration has not changed so quickly since technological advances made tall office buildings feasible….”
Slack was already becoming that person who, however unwittingly, who interrupted your workflow to spitball ideas. As we remain cloistered at home, managing our family’s virtual learning and attempting to filter out noise from our roommates and partners, that signature Morse code-esque Slack chime is merely adding to the mental and literal cacophony. All the while, your company culture calls for “buzzy collaboration.” Translation: the extroverts in your office need to chit-chat while you just want a block of time for unfettered hyperfocus. Certainly people are starved for interaction. And the corporate powers that be want to keep tabs on their teams. Nonetheless, you want to be a productive employee. And while once upon a time, you were holding an internal grudge against open-plan offices, Slack has become a worthy replacement. Moreover, messaging tools such as Slack have brought these distractions from work into home life: Slack paves the way to fielding calls to spitball ideas at 8 in the evening.
Here are some tips from workplace experts on how to manage the distractions from messaging tools and how to advocate for work-life balance amid the distraction.
Create Specific Time Blocks For Doing Routine Tasks
“It really varies from person-to-person and their ability to focus and tune out noises. Additionally, each noise may be associated with an emotion in our brain. I prefer to turn off the Slack and Outlook sound alerts because I previously worked in a fast-paced, stressful corporate environment before becoming an entrepreneur. The noises naturally trigger stressful feelings in me, and by muting them, I'm still able to take advantage of the tools themselves. If someone finds these noises to be interfering with their work lives at a constant pace, it may be worth looking into cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which can help people learn to reprogram their brain regarding certain ‘triggers’.” - Jolene Rheault, founder / consultant, The Productive Mompreneur
“The best thing I can do for my own focus is to establish a schedule where I'm going to interact with digital media. Let's say, I put in from 9–10 that I'm going to catch up on email and Slack. After that, I shut both down and focus on tasks until the next chunk of time.” - Dan Bailey, president, WikiLawn
Tools that hone focus such as Narbis’ neurofeedback smart glasses can also help. The lenses, which are harnessed to dry sensors that rest on top of your head, can detect when your brain is straying from the task at hand, and change tint to alert you accordingly. Even better, over time, worn 2-3 times a week for 30-minute sessions, the smart glasses eventually teach your brain how to snap to attention at will.
Create Digital Walls
“For me, the highest amount of focus is achieved through getting into the flow state. Noise-canceling headphones, [music focus site] Brain.fm, and a task timer help keep my attention on one task at a time, eventually achieving that state.” - Jake Hill, CEO, personal finance site DebtHammer
“Wear earphones, if permitted. Listening to music helps being focused and productive.” - April Maccario, founder, AskApril.com
Advocate To Help Set Parameters Around Use Of Messaging Tools
“The kind of things leadership teams should think about include: During which hours are staff expected to respond to messages? Without guidelines on this, you risk creating a company culture where people are judged on responsiveness, rather than what they bring to the party in totality. Also, what exactly should Slack be used for? It can be a terrible platform for making decisions and keeping an audit trail. It’s all too easy for decisions to become “lost” in Slack conversations. Slack is a great platform, but used wrongly it can become a distraction and a huge cause of stress. Somebody has to take responsibility for managing its use."- Ben Taylor, remote working specialist and founder of global home working portal HomeWorkingClub.com
“Utilize the Do Not Disturb function! Please! If you’re a software developer, you need this time for head-down, focused coding time. Make it clear in your status on Slack or Microsoft Teams that you have certain times when you’re available to chat as well.” - Rheault
“Employees should record information on how their productivity is suffering. Business owners often want to see numbers, so bring those to strengthen your argument. On another note, at the end of the day, log out of all work correspondence. Shut your work computer down. Walk away completely until the next morning or you’ll always be ‘on-call.’" - Bailey
With the advent of remote work, office messaging tools such as Slack and Microsoft Teams have brought much of the distractions of the open-plan office into the homes of knowledge workers. By establishing windows of availability for use, such as when you’re open for collaboration and when you need to quiet your mind for creative flow, you can help build a better balance between work and life. As the corporate workforce looks down the pike for a possible return to the office, the debate about open-plan offices’ post-pandemic appeal continues on. Whether your company adopts an in-person setting, hybrid schedule, or 100-percent remote work, messaging tools likely aren’t going away. Take a breath and a moment to focus. Now feel free to put those notifications on mute. A calm employee is a productive one.