Flexible and ABW workspaces can be ideal for procrastinators – but also for achievers

By Anetta Pizag


Many organisations have moved or are moving to more flexible workspace environments. Whilst it is easy to establish the reductions in real estate costs and the increases in density, it is harder to quantify the productivity gains or losses. Nonetheless, the difference between workplaces that are buzzing with engaged, proactive, productive workers, and workplaces where employees can’t wait to get through the day, with their eyes fixed on the clock, is very tangible.

While the physical environment is only one of the many factors that can shape employees’ habits and relationship with their jobs, it is an important one. It can nurture champion achievers, as well as champion procrastinators – depending on the sophistication of the design.

Procrastination is rampant in most workplaces. Employees often struggle to get started with tasks that are in some way daunting and challenging – especially when there’s a lot at stake and they don’t have all the answers yet. In addition, many of them easily abandon what they are doing as soon as they hit a minor block.

Procrastinating today is all too easy and enticing, as employees have an abundance of choices to keep their ‘Monkey Mind’ entertained, often at the click of a mouse. They may jump to another task, check their mailbox, or reach for a snack … the opportunities for self-distraction are endless.

A flexible environment can also be an ideal setting for procrastinators, allowing people to move from place to place, acting as if they were busy without ever actually completing the tasks that need to be done. By ‘bumping’ into colleagues as they move around they can easily engage in interesting impromptu conversations, but those conversations will rarely support effective teamwork and knowledge sharing if members are unable to bring the fruits of deep focused work to the table.

Procrastination is a huge productivity killer, and can also become exhausting and dispiriting. Those substitute activities only offer some momentary half pleasure to procrastinators. Nonetheless, without external support, it is difficult to resist the temptation to fall into this destructive habit, which is deeply rooted in human psychology.

Of course, if employees all felt fully confident and passionate about their work all the time, procrastination would never get the chance to creep in. The reality, however, is that knowledge work can be hard going. Leaders and employees on all levels need to solve unique problems and create new knowledge every day while dealing with complexity and ambiguity, and so they can’t really get too comfortable.

 

Let’s break the cycle – with a well-designed workplace

Productivity experts shower us with good ideas about how to overcome this human tendency of self-sabotage, but then even the most committed employees can procrastinate about putting these ideas into action (unfortunately, it’s very difficult to rely on willpower alone to fight procrastination. Willpower is a limited resource – you might feel strong and disciplined at the start the day, but as the hours pass, you find it harder and harder to resist temptations).

This is a vicious circle, but thankfully there is a way out. The physical work environment can play a significant role in this strategy, encouraging employees to approach difficult tasks in productive ways. Here are a few suggestions for setting up a work environment that makes it easier for you and your people to stay focused and tackle challenging tasks, and where taking an escape route ceases to be an attractive option.

 

1. Provide opportunities for your people to easily switch their body posture or work area

When we get stuck with a task and can’t immediately see a solution to a problem, we are inclined to change something about the way we work. We are looking to find new avenues for progress – any kind of progress – and so switching to another task can seem compelling.

While taking a break from a difficult problem can at times help, we are often impatient and drop what we’re doing way too quickly.

Changing our body posture instead, or moving to another suitable spot to continue with the task, can be much more productive ways to respond, as these strategies allow us to stay on task and may also help us get unstuck. When we change the way we hold ourselves, or move to a new environment, our thinking shifts – we start to see things from different angles, with a fresh mind, and to look for solutions in new places.

Design suggestions:  To support these productive habits, make sure that your workplace offers a range of carefully selected and designed work settings that your team members can access and set up easily, at any time. Use different types of seating and desks throughout the office, allowing people to work in different postures. Provide sit-stand workstations that operate with the push of a button, and create chair-free spaces for standing meetings and workshops.

 

2. Leverage the power of ‘task association’

Getting into the habit of using different work settings for varying types of work can help us focus better. When we only do one type of task in one location, we will eventually start to associate that space with that specific task.

For example, we could go to a quiet and secluded work area to do all of our analytical work, a library-type space to do research, a casual lounge space to work on creative tasks, and a work booth to clear our mailbox. After a while we will lose the temptation to distract ourselves with irrelevant activities, or to switch tasks impulsively. Doing the ‘wrong’ sort of work in a space dedicated to something else will not feel quite right.

(This strategy may appear to contradict the suggestion above – i.e. trying to continue with our task in a different location when feeling stuck. But just like in other areas of life, sometimes we need find a balance between opposing ideas, picking the one that works for us at that moment.)

Design suggestions:  The activity setting model, incorporating a broad range of diverse purpose-designed spaces, offers employees a great opportunity to learn to associate different tasks with different spaces. The workspace should cater for individual work as well as teamwork, quiet and noisy activities, formal and informal meetings, analytical and creative activities, and so on. Most work settings should be non-bookable, allowing people to access them any time and to stay there until the task is completed.

Technology also plays a huge role here, as different devices, pieces of software, and apps could be used for particular work (and social) activities. For example, you may decide to use your laptop for report writing and your tablet for emails. Or you may use Chrome for business related searches and Firefox for social and fun activities.

Technology solutions:  Consider giving your team access to a range of applications and devices – whether ‘bring your own’ or provided by your company. Having the opportunity to work differently on various tasks will not only make them more productive, but will also help them establish clearer boundaries between work and leisure.

 

3. Reduce sources of distraction, stress and overwhelm

Stress and overwhelm are among the greatest triggers of unproductive habits. When feeling stressed we tend to think more short-term and make less rational choices. And when we feel we are out of control, why would we bother starting what we need to do in the first place?

Distressing news in the workplace can come in many forms – a phone call from an upset client, a wrong delivery from a supplier, or a confrontation with a colleague. Most of us are overloaded with information, and given more responsibilities than we feel we can handle. Just because these issues are parts of everyday reality, we are not necessarily immune to the anxiety they create.

The physical work environment can also contribute to stress. When we feel uncomfortable, perhaps because of bad lighting or unpleasant temperatures, the tension in our body also affects our mind. Frequent distractions and interruptions only add to stress and overwhelm. And when myriad forces in the workplace pull us away from what we are supposed to be doing, our motivation to stay on task can quickly evaporate.

Design suggestions:  It is important that you make your workspace physically comfortable as well as strategically zoned, allowing people to move away from noise and distraction as needed.

Discuss with your team members what kinds of distractions and stressors might stop them from getting into the zone, and give them the opportunity to protect their headspace and confidence. Of course, no-one can escape ‘bad news’ forever, but having safe spaces to go to can really help people focus. Consider creating phone-free rooms, and you may also dedicate some areas for internet- or email-free work.

 

4. Create a break space that actually helps people recharge

Our mental energy and attention span are finite, so to keep our mind fresh throughout the day, we need to take regular breaks from work. When we try to push through mental exhaustion without taking the time to recharge, we inevitably slow down, make worse decisions, and may become irritable and impulsive.

However, not all activities that we enjoy doing in our break time are actually restorative. Many of us choose to surf the internet, chat with friends online or clear our personal mailbox when we have the chance. These activities can in fact be quite draining, as they tend to impose the same sorts of demands on us as our work does: dealing with distractions, taking in new information, making decisions, and juggling between tasks.

Design suggestions:  Create break areas in your workplace that invite your people to take quality breaks. These spaces should be easy to access, comfortable, pleasant and safe, so that people feel compelled to leave their desks. A relaxing break space feels a long way away from the place where hard work happens. It shouldn’t be physically far, but it needs to have a different style and ambience, and the views and decor should divert people’s attention away from their duties.

Provide opportunities for your people to engage in restorative activities such as exercise, meditation, socialising, or reading a book. Watching a movie or playing games can also be good restorative activities after engaging in intellectual work, along with listening to music, or simply allowing the mind to wander.

Emerging state-of-the-art technologies are now available to provide rapid, immersive virtual reality experiences to employees, supporting their emotional and mental recovery during work days. The application of such technologies in your workspace might be worth exploring.

 

Creating winners

Well-designed, flexible workspaces that offer a broad range of attractive and functional settings tick essentially all the important boxes when it comes to supporting immersive work. These environments allow people to move around when they need to, or to work in the same location for an extended period of time when this helps them work more productively. They also support people to stay mentally fresh throughout the day by minimising distracting or stressful situations, and by offering them opportunities to effectively recharge.

To sum up: Make sure that your people have access to the type of spaces and technology they need in order to master productive work habits and so put an end to procrastination. Discuss these productivity hacks with your team members, and perhaps develop your workspace together, as well as a clear plan for improving the way you work.

When the environment is geared towards effective work, people know how to use the space to its full potential, and they are willing to put some effort into adopting new work practices, their whole work experience can transform.

People feel more focused and energised, and find it easier to get into flow. They get more work done, and at a higher standard. This not only feeds the success of the company, but gives people a sense of achievement and progress, making them happier and more engaged. Nobody loses here, apart from the procrastination monster.

 

(This article has been adapted from the original Linkedin post by Anetta Pizag)