Focus in the Workplace

How to Support Individuals and Teams for Success

February 17, 2021

Principal, Workplace Strategist, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a six-part series on five different work modes. The first piece outlined a framework for each work mode, while subsequent posts explore a single work mode in greater depth — including focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest.

This post was co-authored by Kelly Griffin and Alyson Erwin.


One of the most valuable assets in the creative economy is the ability to focus — to deeply concentrate and immerse oneself on a task at hand — and have the time to do so. Yet as new information and data is produced, disseminated and shared 24/7 — and an infinite array of technology makes people more connected than ever before — carving out the time to focus can be a challenge. Interruptions and distractions decrease productivity. Studies show that after an interruption, it can take an average of 25 minutes to refocus, and multi-tasking is bad for the brain.

To help achieve the ideal mental state for heightened creativity, innovation and productivity, one of the most critical factors is having the right space for focus work. While the pandemic has shown the benefits of focused work at home (with potentially fewer interruptions and more choices about where to focus), as employees return to the office, the workplace can utilize a design framework to support focus work so people can make the most of their time. Below are three ways to optimize this essential work mode.

Define the amount and type of focus work needed.
First, determine the percentage of focus work needed for employees, departments and the organization as a whole. In some businesses, such as accounting firms, many people conduct a majority of work heads-down. Yet other fields, such as IT, require more time for collaborative activities. Note that focus work encompasses a variety of tasks: at one end is more routine and repetitive- work that requires concentration and accuracy (for example, data input) and at the other is creative flow-oriented focus work such as drafting a presentation or developing a strategy.

Focus work can also be solo-oriented or team-based. Individual focus work is typical for roles such as a software developer, financial analyst or mechanical engineer. Yet focus work can also be conducted as a group, where multiple people are creating or producing deliverables in real time. For instance, this could be in a workshop session, common in creative fields like entertainment and advertising. It can also be a quiet group study zone: these spaces are typically found in libraries.

Group focus is distinct from traditional collaboration, which is more interactive and broadly includes conversations, planning discussions, debate and critiques. Group focus is required when a team is working together to solve a specific problem or are working toward a deadline and would benefit from no distractions or interruptions. Workplaces that enable a full spectrum of focus work can boost productivity and innovation for individuals and teams.

Identify areas that could be repurposed or created for focus work.
Next, it can be helpful to evaluate the existing spaces in which focus work occurs. Where are employees most productive, and what are the elements that make that space successful? Do focus workers always need to present in the office? How can staff adapt offsite? Answers to these questions can help pinpoint opportunities to redefine and build focus space.

Focus activities should take place in areas away from distractions, so individuals, teams and companies can foster healthy focus habits for solid chunks of time, ideally in 50 to 90 minute chunks. Spaces that eliminate and reduce interruptions from technology, smartphones, and other people, can set the foundation for successful focus work so new ideas can be developed and implemented. Read on for a few ideas below.

Implement strategies to heighten focus work.
To tailor environments for focus work, it can be helpful to consider different planning and design elements, such as location, acoustics, adaptability and access. Below are a few attributes to consider.

  • Consider where singular and group focus work should take place. How much real estate for focus work is needed? Are there several locations that can serve different types of focus work, or one or two core spaces that can flex for different focus mode requirements? Consider visibility and accessibility and how this might this shift for solo and group focus modes. In observations of employee work patterns, individuals will travel far from their desk and team’s space for focus work, while teams like to conduct group focus sessions in the immediate vicinity.
  • Seamlessly enable people to check distractions at the door. Create a space that is irresistibly welcoming and energizing, where focus time is sacred and acknowledged. Areas for focus work should reduce visual and acoustic interruptions: this could include additional acoustical dampening, as well as comfortable, inviting furniture like couches and lounge chairs, soft floor coverings and flowing drapes. If available, face furniture toward views of green space and natural light to help boost mood and productivity. Even the ability to have music piped in, from soothing nature sounds to upbeat rock-and-roll anthems, can help set the right tone.
  • Develop responsive problem-solving and “thought” zones. To help staff foster creativity and ideas as a group, flexible innovation-hubs can enable people to come together for distinct bursts of problem-solving in a way that is productive and engaged for each team member. This means providing enough personal space for each person to feel comfortable, but not crowded. Customizable elements, such as dimmable lighting and temperature controls can adapt spaces to different team members’ needs. Movable partitions can allow space to expand or contract as needed, while adjustable ceiling heights can be tailored to the task at hand: research shows lower ceiling heights support route tasks while higher ceilings foster creative work.
  • Indicate availability. The ability to easily reserve focus areas online and/or through a smart keypad immediately outside a space can facilitate and streamline planned and impromptu sessions. It can also be helpful to indicate when focus sessions are underway, perhaps through a red light at the threshold that turns on when the space is in use and changes to green when the space is available.

In Summary
The design of physical space is just one part of the picture. Organizations can build cultures that embrace focus work and recognize how integral this work mode is to create knowledge and generate insights. This can be accomplished by setting aside specific times each day for people to be “off stage,” effectively giving them permission to create the conditions they need to concentrate. In a hyperconnected world that runs on innovation, the right space for focus work can kickstart the foundation of creativity. The above strategies offer guidelines to help modify and develop these spaces in the workplace, while boosting staff agency, so focus work is maximized for employees and teams returning to the workplace following the pandemic.

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Focus, Collaborate, Learn, Socialize and Rest

How Five Work Modes Can Redefine the Return to the Workplace

January 14, 2021

Principal, Workplace Strategist, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in a six-part series that outlines a framework for five different work modes. Subsequent posts will explore a single work mode in greater depth.

This post initially appeared on CoreNet Global.

While the pandemic alters how and where we work, employees still need to create new ideas and advance the work of their organizations. The physical workplace they return to will look a lot different, likely providing them with more agency to move between different types of work and the settings in which to complete them.

For knowledge workers, teams and organizations to flourish in a post-pandemic world, work environments must nurture the ability to focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest. These five work modes can provide a balanced framework for increased creativity, health and productivity for organizations pursuing knowledge work. To help bring people back to the office and strategically deploy investments, it is critical to identify these work modes and also understand how organizations and design can shift to accommodate them.

Origins of Work Modes
Different modes of work originated within the fields of knowledge management and creation. In the 1990s, organization experts Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi identified four knowledge-building activities that drive business innovations. These include socialization, externalization, combination and internalization. The most innovative companies, they argued, combine these work modes to launch a continuous cycle of knowledge.

Outside of business management, organizations have adapted and augmented these work modes with social science studies and research findings to apply them to the changing nature of work. They’ve also been able to utilize a set of tools — including the physical work environment — to enable their success.

For over a decade, we have crafted our workplaces to enable the modes of work critical to knowledge creation — focus, collaborate, learn and socialize. Based on recent research and the information it reveals about what humans need to be successful, we propose an additional work mode — rest. While the original four are critical to developing new ideas and sharing knowledge, the fifth enables individual reflection and further clarification of ideas and concepts that benefit the shared knowledge of teams and organizations.

Below is a look at the five key modes that organizations and companies can promote in the transition back to the physical office, not just for improved innovation, but for wellness too.

Create zones for distraction-free work that power company success on an individual, team and organizational level across distributed environments, from the workplace to the home office.

Focus work — what we typically think of as heads down or solo work — is a core element of most knowledge work. This work is essential to efficiently absorb and process complex pieces of information so it can be effectively used. It is the “super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy,” writes Georgetown professor Cal Newport in his book, Deep Work. Focus work encompasses tasks such as contemplation, strategizing, research and idea-generation. Think of jobs such as the coder, the accountant, and the writer.

Central to focus work are spaces that enable the ability to concentrate without interruption for chunks of time. Two factors can help unlock successful focus work: physical separation that offers a quiet zone and the ability to control the environment.

In conversations with clients, including tech companies like Google, employees are known to wander far to find the best place for heads-down work. At the company’s office in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, a variety of home-like focused work areas are integrated throughout. There are booths near windows, darkened lounges, a library room, private seating niches and more, so staff can easily find a place for the right level of seclusion if needed.

Offer places that harness team synergy and serendipity to drive creativity and innovation.

Collaboration — working with others — is required to advance ideas and is the backbone of the world’s most innovative companies. Critical to an organization’s success, it fosters creativity, increases bigger-picture thinking and aligns team goals. Most important, it expands initial ideas by welcoming a diversity of perspectives. Collaboration involves discussion, active listening, brainstorming and co-creation. Almost every knowledge worker collaborates in their work, although certain creativity-driven roles employ collaboration more than others, such as consulting, human resources and media.

As we may see more heads-down work completed at home after the coronavirus, workplaces that provide a range of easily accessible and inviting areas for collaboration is key. This could include flexible spaces for 1:1 touch bases and small team huddles to larger tech-equipped places for strategy sessions. Dedicated team areas situated near work stations can provide a hybrid digital-analogue space to collaborate. These areas could feature tactile digital walls for brainstorming and project check-ins, as well as space for teammates to pin up posters and leave behind analogue messages. Equipped with video cameras, remote team members could video conference in, and collaborate in real-time on the digital wall with distributed teams.

Yet as much as it is essential to offer areas that facilitate planned collaboration, enabling serendipitous moments are critical too. At the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, staff shared how before the pandemic they loved standing in line at the foundation’s café: they said it was wonderful to not only catch up with friends, but a perfect opportunity to exchange “half-baked” work ideas with colleagues.

Create spaces that celebrate mentorship and learning across all levels of an organization to improve business performance and growth.

Lifelong learning and mentorship are essential at all stages of life, but especially at work for the acquisition, transfer and application of ideas. Learning expands perspectives to help individuals, teams and companies grow so they can rapidly adapt to changing circumstances and deliver high-impact services and products. Learning includes activities such as training-by-doing, conversations with advocates and group lectures. It can also encompass unintentional connections with colleagues or even overheard conversations, which are nearly impossible to have at home on Zoom calls. To foster learning, organizations must provide effective environments in tandem with the right policies and practices.

It’s essential to create workplace conditions that make learning a priority and a positive experience so knowledge can be easily shared. Offices can provide opportunities to accommodate pop-up learning moments, library-like reading nooks and multi-purpose rooms that change with ease to support different learning environments. Learning spaces can also provide a place to remove everyone from the demands of their day-to-day work to immerse themselves in new information and new ideas.

Organizations can also foster greater knowledge by opening themselves up to the community. Classrooms in office buildings and corporate campuses can help activate underutilized retail space both during the day and evening via partnerships with outside organizations like community colleges. As learning is active and adults learn by doing, providing places that offer a balance of instruction and application enables the development of new skills.

At the F5 Networks headquarters, a 28-story continuous stair spirals up through the tower to heighten connections between employees, clients and visitors. It encourages unique opportunities for them to more easily interact and informally exchange knowledge, exponentially expanding the sphere of learning to colleagues across floors and departments (and to even get in some brain-stimulating and stress-reducing exercise!).

Foster opportunities to build culture and social connections through environments that grow trust, meaningful work and mental wellness.

People feel less stressed and happier with more high-quality relationships at work, which helps foster risk-taking and innovation. We think the areas where social capital — the social bonds and shared values that enable trust and teamwork — is formed, is evolving. Before the coronavirus, the office as a shared physical space became an increasingly important place to build social cohesion and meaningful connections.

The pandemic is challenging work relationships, with social distancing hindering our ability to gather in shared spaces. In a post-pandemic world, workplaces that allow for formal and informal socializing can set the groundwork for stronger collaboration, learning and compassion, which in turn can drive greater creativity and wellness. This could include café areas where staff can gather around the kitchen during meal prep to niches facing windows with comfortable couches for casual conversations. Yet socializing is also about connections outside an organization. Welcoming ground level amenity spaces can draw the community inside and employees out of the office to intermix. Public spaces, like art galleries, cafes and outdoor lounges, can also be dispersed throughout office buildings and campuses to better facilitate social opportunities.

When the renovated headquarters of a coffeehouse company opened, the former CEO noted that the design of the new interior space seamlessly reflected the culture and human connection-focused mission of their organization. Before the coronavirus, staff relayed how much they enjoyed discovering new places to sit and connect with colleagues, especially in the multi-tiered lobby, which allows for unique intersections between employees and the public.

Provide purposeful spaces for respite, engagement and positive distractions that encourage relaxation so people can let their minds wander.

Working smarter, not longer, may be the key to better performance. Numerous studies show rest is essential to creativity and productivity, and as such, it must be considered an essential work mode too. A short break — ideally every 90 minutes — is helpful to reduce work errors, improve productivity and prevent burnout. In addition, a 26-minute nap can dramatically improve alertness by 54% and performance by 34%, a NASA study found. Rest can also take the form of other deep breaks, like daydreaming, walking and mindful meditation.

It is helpful to create policies and appropriate spaces — from simple to more advanced — to encourage rest when needed. Calm, peaceful areas in the workplace away from digital screens can enable rest so staff can better reflect and absorb ideas, skills and knowledge. This can range from cozy high-backed chairs in a quiet corner with restorative nature elements to full-fledged napping rooms with gentle circadian lighting, cooler temperatures and sound-reducing features.

Rest is an important component to the Google work experience. In their South Lake Union workplace, a relaxing jellyfish lounge with dimmed lighting provides a peaceful place to rest, while a dedicated nap station and a “treehouse” lit via circadian lighting help mitigate Seattle’s darkwinter days.

In Summary
Organizations that incorporate these five modes — focus, collaborate, learn, socialize and rest — into their work environments may achieve greater innovation and wellness. As the pandemic accelerates these modes in different types of settings, it’s crucial we apply these insights to help shape a real estate and workplace strategy now and for the future so we can enable the best work experience possible.

A workplace can help support a company’s business goals by fostering greater knowledge-sharing, and as a result, set staff up for success on an individual and team level. The time is ripe to plan, experiment and try something new.

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How to Design Commercial Buildings to Meet Demand for the Life Science Boom

December 15, 2020

Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s note: From research to discovery, science buildings can be designed to encourage talent attraction, community and future flexibility. In the final edition of a three-part series, NBBJ’s Tom Sieniewicz, Jonathan Wall and Mark Bryan share key tenants to keep in mind when converting commercial space to life science use, or designing new lab structures from the ground up.


Like many industries, the coronavirus pandemic has injected uncertainty into the commercial real estate sector, especially in the short term as a vaccine is slowly distributed that will bring many companies, including Netflix, back to the office in 2021. Where the traditional commercial property and office market present challenges for some tenant types and geographies, the life sciences sector — encompassing pharmaceuticals, biotech and others — represents an industry of opportunity for commercial developers.

Life sciences has been on an upward trajectory over the past decade, with billions of dollars of investment accelerating activity and employment growth. Now with Covid-related research, activity and demand for new lab and R&D space is further catalyzed. And while some jobs within the overall economy can be performed from home in the lead up to a vaccine, life sciences still depends largely on in-lab and in-person work.

Time-sensitive demand for appropriate lab and office space — and a notably low vacancy rate in life sciences — is seen in markets across the US, from Boston to Philadelphia to New York to San Diego, as well as across Europe.

This juxtaposition of an unexpected surplus of vacant commercial space in the near-term and growing demand from life sciences presents an opportunity for developers to buffet their portfolios by repositioning existing buildings into spaces suitable for both light and heavy life science use. Meeting demand for life science over the long haul will also require new building development — projects that are explicitly designed for life science and for buildings that are designed with flexibility in mind, that can accommodate either life science or general business tenants.


An Opportunity to Develop More Dynamic and Kinetic Life Science Environments

With a shift away from blockbuster drug development and the simultaneous growth of personalized medicine, considerable growth in life sciences is now generated from incubators, startups and other early stage companies. Just like with tech and other sectors dependent on knowledge workers, demand and competition for talent is central to the continued success of these life sciences companies. And space – whether repurposed or built anew – is a key part of that strategy. Place matters, both to attract and retain talent and to create the conditions that lead to innovation and breakthroughs.

Thoughtfully designed buildings can create the kind of atmosphere and community that is demonstrably proven to spur innovation by allowing staff to work creatively, connect with colleagues and recharge throughout the day. Traditional approaches to laboratory planning and design often silo research teams and work modes. But with new life sciences projects, both adaptive reuse and ground up, companies have the opportunity to develop more kinetic and generative life sciences environments by encourage people to cross paths, create places to connect, integrate communal space that brings the outside in, optimize visibility to peers and blend workspaces together. All while balancing privacy and transparency.


When Time Is of the Essence, Adapt Existing Commercial Space to Meet Demand

Because the process of designing, permitting and constructing a new building can take years, quickly converting existing commercial space to meet the needs of life science companies is increasingly popular. It’s also achievable if designers and building owners bring a detailed understanding of the technical and spatial considerations that life science requires. While these considerations will vary depending on the specific needs of each tenant, there are overarching principles to integrate. Primarily, planning for air changes since science work depends on higher than average air changes. One way to assist in this regard is to boost the amount of fresh air circulating through the space. And labs can be moved closer to the core of a building where it’s easier to install hood vents. Floor to floor heights and riser locations are also critical — building owners should look for ceiling depths where systems like air handlers can be installed. Building owners can also mitigate vibrations within traditional office spaces by using localized stiffeners in targeted areas as opposed to throughout the entire building.

These ideas of both next generation, kinetic life science design and strategically adapting existing commercial space to meet sector demand for space is exemplified at The Works in Cambridge, UK. Recently completed, The Works accommodates the growing demand for appropriate office and R&D space of South Cambridge’s booming biomedical and biotech cluster.

The Works adapts an industrial warehouse into a contemporary, reimagined idea of an office park. Tailored to meet the needs of life sciences startups, it creates 72,000 square feet of space adapted from the building’s original historic pre-cast concrete frame. The openness of the original warehouse provides a modern and airy multi-use campus that feels more like a tech or creative campus than the institutional office stock typically available to the sector, with ample natural light, open work spaces, and a central atrium ‘street’ open to the public. The campus is also closely knit with the surrounding community and linked in with biking and public transit.


To Meet Long-Term Demand, Futureproof New Life Science Environments Through Flexible Designs

There is clearly an immediate need for inspiring and appropriate life sciences environments, but life sciences is also a long term opportunity for the real estate sector. This is why many developers are recognizing the continued strength of the sector and are investing in ground-up buildings accordingly.

There are four areas developers can focus on in creating dynamic and effective new environments for life science tenants: designing for flexibility and planning for the future from the outset; designing for community and finding opportunities to bring the outside in; designing for both environmental and human health; and designing for employee and team well-being.

Science and technology companies evolve quickly and need their spaces to be built for future flexibility. Evolving research needs can radically alter space requirements, which requires a new, flexible way of thinking about offices and labs and speeding space to market. This can include the use of pre-fab and modular systems and movable partitions that allow rooms and areas to be quickly and easily converted for different uses and the use of kinetic lab equipment, mobile conference rooms, flexible floor plates and reconfigurable workstations.

Recognizing that innovation and breakthroughs don’t happen in a vacuum, new life sciences buildings should be designed to foster community — both with other companies in the sector and with the wider neighborhoods they’re a part of. Developers and designers can work together to create campuses that find the right mix of transparency and privacy, where the community can engage with research and can be brought in with dedicated public amenities including co-working spaces, restaurants and retail, parks and greenspace, convention centers and public plazas to host farmers markets and other community events.

In addition, research buildings are incredibly energy intensive. Therefore developers should look wherever possible for opportunities to integrate self-generating and renewable sources of energy like solar, geothermal, biomass and others that both reduce onsite energy costs and feed power back into the grid. Eco-friendly features that promote sustainability and benefit employee wellbeing like green walls and rooftop gardens can also be considered.

While always critical to future human and environmental health, this year demonstrates more than ever before the integral role that science plays in our world. Breakthroughs — whether tests, treatments or vaccines — happen because of the talent, ingenuity and collaboration of scientists and experts. And the environments in which they work, from wet labs to dry labs, from social spaces to the lobby, have a critical role to play in supporting their best work. This moment provides an opportunity to better tailor spaces to meet the needs of scientists and for developers to ensure their buildings are financially viable despite an unknown future.


How are you and your organization dealing with the coronavirus? We’d like to hear from you. Drop us a line at

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