01st February 2018

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Ravi Bhatnagar, an Account Director at Anabas, looks at attention management in the workplace and how to achieve peak performance from your employees…

I’m desperately trying to work through my inbox. But I can hear Peter approaching at a distance. He’s got a new joke and he’s going to tell the same joke to everyone in the office – one by one. By the time he reaches me, I’ve already heard it five times. Peter sees himself as a team builder and his humour is the glue that he intends to apply throughout the open plan office. For him, the open plan environment is a place to socialise and make his presence felt. He’s put aside Friday as his ‘sociability’ day. The rest of the week he works from home without distraction. Unfortunately for me, Friday is definitely not my sociability day! And I’m not sure that Peter is thin-skinned enough to understand.

Facilities Managers see this kind of conflict played out every day. But perhaps we don’t know exactly what is happening. What are the consequences of working in an open plan environment? For people like Peter, anyone who has chosen to come to work and sit in the open plan space is fair game? After all, why else would you sit there other than to declare yourself available for a chat?

When we had our private office space it was easier to indicate that we were busy. We would simply shut the door. When an office conversation was eating into our time, we would stand by the door.  Most people would get the hint. Now that people work in exposed open plan environments, expressing our ‘availability’ has had to become more subtle.

Why should Facilities Managers worry about this dilemma? Put simply, if people are continuously distracted, they will work elsewhere. As a consequence, the pristine new office environment will become an uninhabited wasteland.  And what is the greatest cost to an organisation? Property costs come second to salary costs by quite a margin in most organisations. And what is the most precious commodity in organisations? It’s not land or space, and it’s definitely not information (which many organisations find they are awash with). The most precious resource in organisations now seems to be ‘attention’. The challenge for Facilities Managers is to create an environment that allows employees to focus on company goals. That means engineering an office landscape that minimises unwelcome distractions.

The battle for attention is already being played out on the computer screen in front of people. It seems that a new intranet project is championed by organisations every day. Added to this are external websites and social media that are carefully engineered to consume as much of your time as possible. Many organisations are attempting to reduce ‘information overload’ and ‘project fatigue’ by cutting out some digital resources. But attention is not only being eroded in the digital world. The physical world also threatens to overwhelm organisations.

So what does the Facilities Manager have in their armoury to protect the precious resource of ‘attention’? The clue to this can often be seen by watching how office occupants use subtle cues to show their availability. If they want to be left alone they might wear headphones or assume a body posture that tells others that they are not ‘available for business’. The greatest tool that the Facilities Manager has is ‘Activity-Based Working’ (ABW). In other words, an office worker can ‘shout out’ to others whether they are available or not simply by where they are. If you are in the coffee area or standing by the photocopier then you are happy to be approached. If you are in the open plan area then you are saying ‘approach with caution’. Someone in the quiet study area is very definitely holding the ‘unavailable’ card. Perhaps the important thing about ABW is not the capacity to furnish people with a different working environment, but simply providing office workers with the ability to signpost to others just how available they are. Certainly it beats the traditional method of an ‘open/closed door’ policy. It’s also preferable to standing by the door and waiting for your guest to leave.

For those without the luxury of an ABW environment, perhaps you might consider the ‘beer mat’ approach that is used in some Latin restaurants. Simply turn the beer mat green-side up to show that you welcome the arrival of a waiter with roasted pineapple or meat on a skewer. Alternatively, turn the beer mat over to the red-side to show that you have had more than enough!



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