Has anyone seen lone working? The UK has developed an obsession with collaboration and it’s taken lone working hostage.
Everyone is talking about the need for greater collaboration in order to spark innovation, build company culture and drive productivity and we’ve certainly perpetuated this hype too. However, with all the noise about co-operation and communication, the power and importance of lone working has all but been forgotten.
All employees need to be able to work quietly, perhaps alone and even confidentially, yet the world of work is increasingly described as a team sport, where everyone is working together in scrum and huddle spaces, sat around a kitchen table or carrying out a three-way video call with remote colleagues. The truth is that most businesses, particularly those in the knowledge economy, require plenty of lone working too.
Dr Nicole Millard, an expert in data, analytics and emerging technology, has reportedly said that large offices are inefficient, especially for introverts who work better when they are not disturbed. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, the effects of noise and distraction, are far-reaching and widely acknowledged. Distraction costs physical and mental wellbeing. It can affect hearing, posture, mental health, sleep patterns and the ability to handle stress. It costs process efficiency, productivity and therefore profitability.
Such is this widespread focus on team work and consequently the open plan work environments that support it, that we’re increasingly finding clients asking for dedicated areas where employees can work without distraction.
Over the last few years there has been a boom in furniture products and design finishes to meet this need and remove the need for make-shift solutions such as using meeting rooms to find quiet. Phone booths and acoustic solutions were some of the first products to appear to reduce the transfer of noise in open plan spaces. Now, mini meeting rooms, high-backed chairs, alcove sofas and mobile sound-proofed pods are amongst the many options for those wanting spaces for reflection, focused work and quiet study. Even simple ‘silent’ desk areas are proving popular in some organisations.
What’s interesting here is that these spaces already exist in many workplaces. In many instances there is not the culture in place to encourage and empower employees to leave their desks and use them, there is a lack of etiquette to engender respectful workplace behaviours and there aren’t enough of these spaces to meet employee demand.
The recent move to activity-based working is helping to support this shift, as it educates employers and employees about the collective value of empowerment and offering a variety of workspaces to suit different tasks. Some spaces are deliberately designed to spark innovation and support group work, while others are smaller, private spaces away from the throng for more focused and detailed tasks.
The quest for concentration leads requires the same starting point – organisations that understand the actual rather than perceived needs of the business and employees. It is only with this detailed knowledge about expectations, habits, behaviours and culture that employer can be sure the workplace fits the bill. One size does not fit all.
For a gaming company whose fortunes lie in the strength of its ideas for new product launches, collaboration is likely to be a huge part of its culture, working style and success. For an intellectual property law firm, the likelihood is that quiet work and concentration is more the order of the day.
Some may think that this renewed focus on lone working and concentration means that open-plan collaboration isn’t working. However, it’s really that the balance needs to be redressed. As Dr Millard puts it, we need a balance between we and me. With employers putting so much focus on trying to improve productivity from the same assets and an increasing spotlight on the importance of employee wellbeing, it’s clear that minimising distraction should be a critical business objective.
The workplace narrative has been hijacked. We must remember the value of variety and discuss the plethora of different and ever-changing workplace styles and behaviours that the mobile age has given rise to. It’s time for lone working to be firmly back in the workplace conversation.
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