The Curiosity team works in a very open concept space. It's basically one large room with a collection of desks and chairs, a lounge corner, small kitchen and a meeting space marked by a large shelfing unit. There are no walls except those that keep the outside world out. This makes the space really flexible - we can move things around, use the walls, use the windows, use the floor, use the sides of furniture to post, pin, sketch and noodle. This is fantastic for the kind of creative and collaborative work we do. And it can also be incredibly distracting.
This is the criticism aimed at many open concept spaces - great for collaboration and conversation but not at all well suited for quiet, focused work. This is a challenge for us as it is for many companies who want to enjoy the benefits of openness without giving up on productivity and team sanity.
We Needed an Anti-Disruption Solution
So, we set out to design some sort of solution that would help us know what "mode" different team members were in at any given time. Distraction and disruption can be the enemy of getting things done so the basic question we wanted to be able to answer about each person working in the space at any given time was: are they interrupt-able?
We had an intern on staff at the time and briefed her with this design challenge. She spoke to each member of the team about their different modes of working, what they found most valuable and terrible about the work space and probed them for any solution suggestions they might have. We were keen to have her do some physical prototyping, both for her own skill development and also so we could offer our feedback during the design and development process to ensure that the final solution would be useful, user-friendly and easy to intergrate into our individual/team work styles.
The Solution Was a Short Walk and a Few Bucks Away
To look for inspiration and prototyping supplies, she walked over to the Dollar Store near our office and came back about 15 minutes later with a small, rather empty looking bag. She had a small smile on her face when she came over to my desk and said, "I think I've found the solution". I raised an eyebrow and my internal voice muttered, "Already? You're obviously not taking this valuable learning and development opportunity very seriously." (Not my finest management hour.)
Well, it turns out, she had found the solution. A very cost-effective solution. For less than $10 she had solved the problem. At the Dollar Store she found OPEN/CLOSED signs, the ones that you see on shop doors that tell customers when they can come in and when to come back if the store is closed. That's all we needed. Each member of the team received an OPEN/CLOSED sign and we discussed as a team how we wanted to use these together. The decision was made that the maximum amount of time you could be "closed" was 3 hours - both because it wasn't good to sit longer than that and also because it would give other team members a chance to connect with you on something quick, like a question or clarification. We also decided together that if even one person had the CLOSED sign up, that was a cue for everyone to tone down the noise and activity in the space. And we eventually indicated CLOSED status in our online calendars as well so we could manage the scheduling of work sessions and client meetings alongside the need for quiet, focused, CLOSED time.
It's Not Perfect, but It's Working. Most of the Time.
It's not a perfect system. Sometimes, in addition to posting my CLOSED sign, I have to leave a trail of escalating Post-it Note warnings leading up to my chair, each threatening a worse form of punishment and dismemberment if anyone dares to interrupt. (This is very effective, by the way. Until it becomes a "how close to the boss can we get when she's in Do Not Disturb mode without getting maimed" game.)
So, it seems there are a few lessons here...
- Sometimes we make the problem and the potential solution much more difficult and complex than it needs to be.
- There is a solution to almost any problem at the Dollar Store.
- Treat your interns with respect. Most of them are smarter than you are.
Here are a couple of pictures of our OPEN/CLOSED signs in situ.
We'd love to know how you and your team manage distraction and disruption in your open concept space. Share your experience below in the comments section.
And if you steal this idea, send pictures!
Title photo credit: olga.palma