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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Tackling a Biden Challenge with Artificial (and Human) Intelligence

February 10, 2021

Managing Partner, NBBJ

Editor’s Note: This post initially appeared on Architect’s Newspaper. It was co-authored by NBBJ Managing Partner Steve McConnell, Yale University Professor Phil Bernstein, journalist Cliff Pearson and senior AI researcher Dr. Mark Greaves, Ph. D.

 

Tucked within President Biden’s year-one legislative agenda on climate change is a call to build “zero net energy buildings at zero net cost.” This is a bold challenge that resonates powerfully in both the architectural profession and America as a whole. Like many great challenges, it will require a transformation in the way a broad range of disciplines work to shape the built environment.

The benefits of meeting Biden’s challenge are huge. According to the nonprofit organization Architecture 2030, “The urban built environment is responsible for 75% of annual GHG [greenhouse gas] global emissions: buildings alone account for 39%. Eliminating these emissions is the key to addressing climate change and meeting the Paris Climate Agreement targets.” So, the ability to cost-effectively produce zero net energy buildings would over time make a massive positive impact on our climate problems.

The root of the challenge’s difficulty is that designing and building great buildings is already a classic “wicked problem.” Wicked problems are defined by imprecise goals, incomplete knowledge, deeply interconnected subproblems, and the need to continuously make “best guess” tradeoffs. Instead of right or wrong answers, wicked problems require us to think in terms of better or worse solutions. Biden’s challenge adds substantially to the difficulty of these tradeoffs in architectural design, and further requires that we do this at zero net added cost.

Good architecture emerges from successfully balancing the interests of all stakeholders in a building project, while simultaneously optimizing innumerable decisions about structure, mechanics, economics, and aesthetics. Adding a zero net energy requirement will likely result in either increasing the cost of design and construction, or cutting back on space or amenities.

We think it is critical that the zero net energy buildings envisioned by President Biden also make positive contributions as works of architecture and valuable parts of the urban fabric. Otherwise, we could end up with super-insulated, faceless boxes that reduce our carbon footprint and are cheap to design, but undermine the vibrant character of our neighborhoods and towns. The Biden challenge sits at the intersection of some very big issues, from energy efficiency and environmental justice to advanced building materials and lively urban communities. It’s inspiring, but daunting, to confront.

Fortunately, the design profession is evolving, as society demands more from the people in charge of our buildings, neighborhoods, and cities. Architects now work in cross-disciplinary teams and handle an expanding spectrum of tradeoffs involving environmental factors, complex client needs, elaborate regulatory requirements, and constantly changing prices and availability of building materials. Architects also routinely balance less quantifiable factors such as the health of impacted communities, societal goals for the built environment, and justice in labor practices across the supply chain. To achieve this, they rely on a combination of deep design knowledge, extensive experience in how different designs will ultimately function, and powerful computational tools that can illustrate the impact of various tradeoffs. Meeting Biden’s challenge in a cost-neutral manner, though, is beyond the capability of current tools and practices.

We believe that new developments in artificial intelligence (AI) are the key to conquering Biden’s zero net energy challenge. Just as AI has revolutionized fields as disparate as drug discovery and self-driving cars, new AI-driven architectural tools can provide the support needed to cost-effectively design inspiring zero net energy buildings. Modern machine-learning algorithms don’t blindly follow a set of preprogrammed rules, but instead develop their capabilities by analyzing large sets of examples. With more and more data and feedback, they perform better and better. The latest AI language models such as GPT-3 are trained on billions of sentences from the web and can generate astonishingly fluent essays from a simple prompt.  AI software can produce well-rounded stories from just a few pieces of information, competent poems and pictures from a few prompt words, and even satisfying music from a few snippets of melody.

Could an AI tool produce compelling zero net energy building designs at zero net cost all by itself? No. Architects wrestle every day with wicked problems that are essential to creating compelling building designs, and many of the important design tradeoffs they make cannot be defined tightly enough to train an AI algorithm. However, AI promises to free them to focus more on what they can uniquely do: bring that hard-to-explain flair and creative spark to solving difficult design problems.

AI will make it possible for architects to cost-effectively address the enormous complexity inherent in the Biden challenge, by analyzing huge amounts of data to rapidly present options for design teams to consider and refine. This is essentially what Spotify does when it recommends music we might like. In architecture, AI can accelerate the design process by identifying subtle patterns that are likely to satisfy a set of design requirements. It can rapidly generate plausible zero net energy configurations, accounting for a broad range of factors and constraints. Finally, AI can work with advanced simulation technology to help architects assess the effectiveness of various design solutions to satisfy the diverse constituencies for a building project.

AI promises to be a disruptive technology for architects, but it is not a total solution. In the end, design requires understanding and evaluating a series of tradeoffs and picking the best ones. Designing great buildings that inspire their stakeholders is a task that people do better than any algorithm. The art of architecture requires a creative spirit behind it, even as designers apply increasingly sophisticated digital tools to tackle the wicked, fantastically difficult problems of delivering compelling, zero net energy buildings at zero net added cost.

President Biden, we in the architecture and computation fields accept your challenge and look forward to working with your administration to transform buildings in America.

______________________________________________________________________________

Steve McConnell is an architect and managing partner at the global design firm NBBJ.

Phillip Bernstein is associate dean and professor adjunct at the Yale School of Architecture.

Mark Greaves is a senior AI researcher.

Clifford Pearson is a journalist who covers architecture and urbanism.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of their employers.

Image by Silvestri Matteo / Unsplash

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Cities Should Be Planned for People Before Cars. Here’s How It Can Be Done.

Five Lessons From Asia and Europe to Create More Human-Centric American Cities

January 21, 2021

Design Partner, NBBJ

This post was co-authored by Jonathan Ward and Phu Duong.

 

Throughout the world and especially in America, modern cities are operating from a mentality organized primarily around automobiles – not people. Since the introduction of Henry Ford’s automobile, the percentage of America’s population living in urban areas has jumped from 46% to upwards of 80%, global carbon emissions from fossil fuels have increased tenfold and income inequality has ballooned to an all-time high.

Therefore, it’s worth asking if there’s a better way to imagine our districts, neighborhoods and cities to reflect what we want the world of tomorrow to look like. If 20th century planning + design was defined by how we plan around the car, 21st century planning and design can be defined by how we plan around people and healthy communities. Here are five ideas as to how that could happen:

1. First, Look Beyond Our Shores
While we’re at the beginning of this journey in America, cities across Asia and Europe already demonstrate what re-envisioning cities and districts looks like. Forward-thinking mayors like Ann Hidalgo of Paris and Ada Colau of Barcelona shape their cities’ long-term thinking through movements like the 15-minute city (where all necessary day-to-day amenities and services are concentrated in walkable neighborhoods requiring fewer car trips) and superblocks (where concentrations of blocks become pedestrianized except for essential and emergency vehicles).

In Asia, ambitious commitments by cities and companies push the boundaries of car-free, human-centric planning. For example, we’re currently working with Chinese technology company Tencent on its new districtwide Net City project in Shenzhen as an urban lab for testing ideas that put people ahead of the car. The project is a tabula rasa site with one main public space and connected nodes, all centered around a pedestrian-friendly framework. While coming from a considerably different cultural, political and geographic context, there’s a lot to learn from these projects that can be applied here.

2. Make It Slightly Inconvenient (and Safer) To Drive
Convenience is a motivating factor for day-to-day choices. So if we want to pivot away from a car-dominant mentality, we need to encourage cities to make it at least slightly inconvenient to drive. And while it’s unrealistic to expect a wholesale shift away from automobiles in cities, there are a host of solutions we can explore to make it easier for people to opt for alternative modes of transportation.

For Tencent’s Net City, traffic engineers are exploring interventions such as streets with acute corners so cars can only turn certain directions, ensuring traffic routing and pacing in a way that privileges pedestrian mobility over car movement. By changing street and traffic patterns and reorganizing blocks and functions, it’s possible to repatch the city to force drivers to slow down – something that is safer for both pedestrians and those in the car. It also makes the city quieter, an added benefit.

And in Oslo, making walking, biking and public transit the more convenient transportation option has meant removing over 700 parking spots from the city’s Downtown.

Note that while we want to shift the mindset of private automobile use in metropolitan areas, we need to double down on inclusive design and ADA accessibility which offers a new opportunity when traffic congestion is reduced and the competition for the curbside seeks new activity patterns.

3. Consider the Benefits of Wide Roadways
In the U.S. we tend to veer away from wide street and road patterns that are more commonly found throughout Asia. But there’s actually a way that we can adapt this model for US cities to plan dynamic people-centered environments. For example, the Tencent Net City requires a wide roadway right-of-way to meet the current planning regulations. But micro mobility strategies are also layered side-by-side: pedestrian walkways, protected bike lanes, bus lanes and space for scooters, e-bikes and green infrastructure buffers. Designers must envision intermittent uses that flex over time to support community creation for city dwellers and small businesses.

In addition, right-of-way width of roadways preserves daylight exposure onto the streets and sidewalks and it allows the urban fabric to ventilate. These fundamental provisions date back to the public health performance of streets in history that remain paramount during the pandemic. A hot steamy summer in New York with piles of garbage bags sharing the sidewalks with people is a picture that convinces many to want to redesign street spaces. As cities densify, daylight exposure becomes a right as well. Wider streets means more ample sunshine for everyone and even the urban forest that survives all year long inhabiting the street. Even an accommodation of three more feet to expand tree and plant beds offers a more humane streetscape to offset carbon emissions in our cities.

We already see this happening in an informal way during the pandemic in both big and small cities throughout America, which have introduced outdoor seating on sidewalks, moved walkways into the street and turned medians into hangout areas. The wider roads can provide space for both temporary and tactical urbanism interventions and programming as well as more permanent adjustments. This also allows for spaces where greater intergenerational and social mixing can occur.

4. Transform Roadways to Pedestrian Ways Across Scales
Wherever possible, we should look for opportunities to transform roadways for cars into pedestrian ways that can accommodate recreation and active transportation. We’ve already seen the popularization of car-free streets, where multi-street corridors are turned into walking and biking zones.

But there is also an opportunity to look across scales – whether it’s at an individual block level or across entire districts and neighborhoods. With the Denny Substation in Seattle – a project that turns a public utility into a community park and amenity – walkability is improved with the inclusion of community space including a quarter-mile walkway lined with public artworks, a dog park and gallery space and areas for food trucks. We also see this at the district level with Dallas’ Arts District which seeks to turn one of the most notoriously car-centric cities in America into a walkable central hub for culture and recreation.

5. Expand the Pool of Stakeholders Committed to This Work
The process of reshaping cities away from 100 years of car-dominant planning and design will take a wide and committed group of stakeholders. While this work has often been led by local government, a widening group of private and corporate firms – including a number of forward-thinking companies – are taking on this work, especially at a neighborhood and district level. These initiatives are even more impactful when new industry and local government work together in tandem to imagine, fund and maintain this work. And with city budgets constricted by the ongoing pandemic, it’s going to take additional vision and commitment by the private sector to move toward this vision.

In Summary
The reprioritization of city planning to focus first on humans and later on cars is central to the values we want to see – cities with a smaller carbon footprint and lesser climate change impact, healthy cities with cleaner air, less noise pollution, more opportunities for active transportation and more inclusive and equitable cities with quality transportation access for all. The challenge and task at hand is immense but it is achievable if the collective wisdom and commitment to bring together city planners, developers, corporations and the wider design community is realized.

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