Distracted in the office? Blame evolution

Mar 1, 2016

Photo credit: Alamy

By Claire Burke

You’re at work, deep in concentration, focusing fully and making good progress. Then a conversation begins nearby and, as much as you want to block out the noise, your train of thought is derailed. Sound familiar?

Of course, not everyone craves quiet to concentrate. Some people need background chatter, while others prefer to listen to music. All this poses a dilemma when it comes to designing an office. How do you create a physical working environment that caters for everyone and enables every member of staff to work to the best of their ability?

Beatriz Arantes, a senior researcher and psychologist at Steelcase, which manufactures office furniture, says we can’t help but be distracted in the office, it is rooted in our evolution. “From a survival point of view, it was important to be attentive to your environment as there could be something that’s an opportunity or a threat,” she says. “We are prewired to notice other things and can’t switch off our attentiveness to the environment.”

Designers at Steelcase studied neuroscientific research around focus and distraction and have identified three different brain modes workers use in the office: focus (concentrating on a task), regeneration (resting your mind, or seeking sensory input such as interaction with colleagues) and activation (physical activity that stimulates the brain). Our brains have different needs during the course of the day so creating spaces around these will help employees work better, the researchers say.

Imagine what you could get done if you focused for eight hours straight. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible, says Arantes. Focus, also known as controlled attention, is a limited resource and is energy consuming.

“We’re choosing to keep something in our minds while simultaneously inhibiting other thoughts from taking centre stage and stopping other things switching our attention.” Our brains use it sparingly. She compares it to a motion-detecting sensor for limiting waste in water usage in sinks, or for the lights in a room – “it turns on when someone is there and needs it, but otherwise switches off automatically”.


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