Not long ago, Citicorp announced they were going to implement an open floor plan at headquarters. That meant no employee, including the top brass, would have a door to hide behind at the company's home office in Manhattan. The Wall Street Journal ran a photograph of Citicorp's CEO amidst the ruins of office walls that had been destroyed.
Certainly, the idea of an open floor plan has been embraced by other companies, with mixed success. A recent book by Georgetown Professor Cal Newport sheds new light on the concept. In his book, "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World," he acknowledges the good intentions behind the idea of an open floor plan, namely, that it is meant to encourage teamwork and serendipity. He also believes that subjecting workers to continued attacks of disruption and distraction represents "an absurd attack on concentration" that creates "an environment that thwarts attempts to think seriously."
Mr. Newport suggests that if an employee is expected to operate at top efficiency, and become indispensable, then it is critical to expand one's capacity to do "deep work." He also maintains that most corporate workers don't have clear direction about how to spend their time. Therefore, they use "busyness as a proxy for productivity", which Newport describes as "doing lots of stuff in a visible manner." Examples of such unnecessary efforts would be blasting out random emails or calling a meeting on superficial progress on some project.
Professor Newport maintains that such factors present an opening for people who are willing to tame such distractions and not allowing "the twin forces of internal whim and external requests to drive your schedule."
Such people take anything that can be outsourced and give it "to a smart recent college graduate with no specialized training" and create rituals of delving into "the wildly important goal" of one's trade. This is regardless of whether it is solving some complex proof, discovering a new cure, or producing newspaper copy. Mr. Newport does not care what the job is. He maintains, "You don't need a rarified job; you instead need a rarified approach to your work."
How is one supposed to go about finessing "deep work"? Among other things, he argues that you should never surf the web for mental breaks. For example, such browsing destroys one's ability to concentrate. What about the endless emails that pour into your inbox? Mr. Newport offers strategies for slashing time on Outlook, where company value is seldom created. For instance, don't answer it "if nothing really good will happen if you respond and nothing really bad will happen if you don't." Or, when sending off emails, try to make it clear and concise and avoid the endless rambling that characterizes many email messages and basically encourages a continuing back and forth.
As for Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc.? He says if you're trying to work, ignore them, period. He isn't suggesting that they're completely worthless, but he is saying that it's all "a lightweight whimsy, one more unimportant distraction among many threatening to derail you." In fact, he recommends a 30-day fast from social media.
Yes, a 30-day fast from social media. Those who have such a fast have had varying results. Some feel it was a life-changing experience for the better. They felt free and no longer strapped to the popular habit of ritually checking every random communication that came their way. Others, particularly those who have grown up in social media world, have been known to feel serious withdrawal symptoms in less than half a day.
So, where does all this leave us? Perhaps the concept of work works differently for different people. Some need complete concentration. Others find the limited distractions and noise of a Starbucks coffee shop to provide company and even inspiration.
To each, his or her own.