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How to turn your office into a distraction-free zone

Establishing a new business is seldom a five-minute job, but it’s easy to think that once a company name has been decided on, a VAT number secured and an office leased for 12 months you’re good to go.
While that may be true on one level, on another equally important one you’re about as ready as a Sumo on his first day at ballet school.
Long before you’ve screwed your polished brass plaque to the front door, it makes sense to stop and think how you want your working day to play out. By having simple processes in place, you can maximize your chances of a distraction-free day – and also make sure that your team knows what’s expected of them from the get-go.
By blindly bumbling into things with a “let’s see what happens” attitude, however, you may well find yourself struggling to undo multiple things that rapidly become bad habits – and annoying the staff with your capricious dithering.
Is it too late to undo things if you already up and running? Definitely not. Just be prepared for some tutting and muttering behind your back for a few weeks, but it should be worth it in the end…

Start as you mean to go on

A distraction-free day starts before you get to work. Ask yourself what are the things you can get done before you’ve even left the house? Is now a good time to plan this evening’s cinema visit rather than doing it later at the office? Do you have personal emails to send that you might be tempted to do when you really should be working? If you can set aside just 15 minutes every morning before work to do jobs that may otherwise distract you later, you’ll be off to a flying start.

Press the ‘on’ button

An inefficient office can take some time to “warm up”: everything from booting up old computers to heating the room with a creaky fan heater can all waste valuable work time. When planning your new office, think carefully about what systems you’re going to use and how they all fit into the grand scheme of things. Try and ensure that software applications are integrated to avoid doubling-up on things like scheduling, and give some thought to the little things such as lighting: it might be better to invest in a few timers instead of fiddling with a dozen light and lamp switches every morning. The goal is to have an office that is ready to go the moment you and the team arrive.

Bums on seats

One of the biggest decisions you will have to make is where to seat the staff. If you were working in a lively creative industry like PR or advertising, the consensus is that open-plan and convivial is the way: Steve Jobs famously encouraged people to bump into each other and chat in the Pixar and Apple HQs.
In finance, however, that’s less likely to be appropriate: indeed, studies have found that private offices are about 1/3 less likely to result in interruptions. And interruptions are something you do want to avoid: according to a 2011 study in the journal Organization Studies, face-to-face interruptions are around 33 per cent more intrusive than phone calls and email because employees feel more compelled to respond to them. Interruptions are bad, incidentally, because they derail a worker’s train of thought. Erick Altmann, a professor at Michigan State University, states that even “Two seconds is long enough to make people lose the thread.”
Evidently it takes around 15 minutes to get back into the zone after being interrupted.
Another point to consider: staff generally don’t like to be seated next to the boss. A 2013 survey conducted on behalf of Ask.com discovered that more than a third of people find the very act of being sat next to a senior employee deeply off-putting – so remember this when devising a seating plan.

Make life comfortable

The entire team will be distracted by an office environment that is too hot, too cold or too noisy, three things which crop up regularly in polls about annoying office environments. The smart thing to do is to make sure your workplace is comfortable, so that employees aren’t shivering or fighting to hear themselves over the roar of the motorway outside. If its appropriate for your workplace, headphones – especially noise-cancelling ones – might be a cheaper alternative to triple glazing, and games developers and coders swear by them.

Set rules

To Facebook or nor to Facebook? That is the question – and whether or not to allow access to social media during work time is one pondered by multiple businesses. It’s certainly true that many thousands of employees around the world are forbidden from Liking, Tweeting and Instagramming at work – but is that right for you?
There are two ways of looking at it: quoted on Entrepreneur.com in 2013, Angelo Kinicki at the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State University said that: “Time spent on Facebook might seem like time wasted and banning it makes sense on the surface, but when people go to work, do they sit and concentrate and work for eight hours straight? No, our minds can’t take that level of concentration.”
It’s ultimately your call, but you wouldn’t be alone in stamping out personal internet, phone and social media time, and it’s wort pointing out that a 2015 poll from CareerBuilder.com found that 52 per cent of office managers thought that mobile phones and texting were a major productivity killer, with the internet not far behind.
A compromise might be to allow people to get their social media fix during lunch hour and perhaps short designated breaks mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Just make sure you apply the rule to your own working day, too!

Go off-grid

Or, more specifically, don’t be available to answer emails the second they come in. According a joint study by two Scottish universities, office workers check emails 30-40 times per hour, which can’t be a very good use of anyone’s time. An easy solution is to set up an automated response to incoming emails that states you will respond later if possible, and that you only check emails twice per day in order to improve efficiency. If this system wouldn’t wash with your clients, an alternative would be to set an hourly alert on a calendar app and only check your email then.

Make meetings work for you

The easiest way to lose time at work is to allow a meeting to ramble on. In some workplaces, meetings can be quite a fun distraction, a chance for some lively social interaction and irrelevant blather about who’s doing what tonight. But according to a report by software developer Atlassian, people waste an average of 31 hours a month in “unproductive meetings”. To make the most of your time, arrive with a clear agenda, goals and a time-limit, and if it helps, dispatch one of the team on a course to learn how to be a rod of iron-wielding facilitator.

Keep it clean

The last thing you want to do in a small office is to waste precious, billable hours mopping floors, tidying desks and shredding documents. Ask around for a reliable person to come in and do this for you, and impress upon the office that the whole team has a responsibility for keeping their workspace tidy.
Mike Peake is a journalist and has written for the Sunday Times, Harrods magazine, the Daily Telegraph, Reader’s Digest and Country Life.
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