How to design space to maximise focus

When we spoke to our Creative Director, Jeanine Goddard, recently about zoning the office and maximising your workspace, one of her key points was that any space, small or large, needs to be designed with purpose in mind.

In today’s office environment that purpose can often be collaboration, creativity, and relationship building, but at other times, we really need a place to zone in and focus on a specific task or individual challenge. And creating that space requires careful thought and consideration to make it work, says Jeanine.

“Designing an environment to allow people to truly focus is not as simple as you might think,” she comments. “If we look back at the traditional office design that we were all used to before the pandemic, they’re actually very counterintuitive to completing ‘head-down’ tasks. The way they’re set up, with large banks of desks, people facing various angles, and lots of noise or multiple teams in one space, makes it incredibly difficult for individuals to concentrate.

“For people to be able to focus on a task, particularly if it’s complex, detailed, or requires them to use skills that they don’t often practice, they need minimal distractions – and to be able to create a sense that they’re in their ‘own world’.

“That might sound a bit strange, but you see people trying to create it all the time. They might put headphones on to help them block everything else out and concentrate or choose a seat that’s in the corner of the room, with a good view of the exits, or in a little nook that feels cosy and secure.

“It’s actually a very basic, age-old human need: to be able to switch into concentrating mode, you need to be able to feel safe and secure, without worrying about what’s going on behind or around you. It’s a protection instinct, but it forms a core part of the age-old practice of feng-shui and basic space planning.”

If, then, spaces intended for focus need to give people a sense that they’re in their ‘own world’, how can we design them effectively with that in mind?

As a starting point, says Jeanine, there are some key things you need to make sure not to do.

“Scrap the idea of banks of desks that mean some people have their backs to corridors, or to doors and thoroughfares. Those people are unlikely to be able to concentrate on what they’re doing – you’ll find they turn around to see who’s passing or what’s going on. If everyone can see their screen whenever they walk past, too, it creates a sense of unease – and it does nothing for privacy, so wouldn’t be appropriate for some sensitive tasks, like dealing with colleague or customer data, for example.

“It’s much better to seat people so that they’re facing a corridor or can see it side on from their peripheral vision, which helps to retain a subconscious sense of control.

“Consider the types of people and teams that are working in the shared focus space too – and try to keep clusters as small as possible. Some of it is simple – if you’ve got Sales or Customer Service teams that are always on the phones, it doesn’t make sense to sit them next to colleagues who need a quiet environment to scrutinise contracts or invoices! As well as making it hard to focus, you’re also likely to put a strain on relationships if the environment is frustrating or a barrier to getting work done.”

If those are some things to avoid when designing space to maximise focus, then, what works best?

“There are several things you could consider. Having a setting that’s divided by storage or shelving units, for example, can help to create the physical separation that’s often needed to feel that you’ve got your own little world to work in. Single desks, tucked away from the busier environments, can help with a psychological distinction too – it can make people think; ‘I’m going over here to focus on this task, and I’ll leave when it’s done.’

“You’ll need to create settings where people can talk to each other, to ask questions or overhear important information that affects them but try to build that into your other office zones. For focus, it’s about creating a space that brings a sense of separation. If you’ve got room and budget, building designated pods – there are lots that are sound-proof, but made of glass, so they still let in lots of light, for example Vetrospace– can be a great way to achieve that. Similarly, flexible booths that are set up and ready to use can work really nicely too.

“Lastly, remember to find out from the users of the space before you start planning what they need to focus, or if there are challenges in their current space that you can help them overcome with the new layout. Sometimes, it’s not until you sit down in a space and try to get something done that you’ll notice the things that you could change. It could be something as simple as a draught from a window, or a noisy overhead fan or flickering light – so try to conduct use a post occupancy report to get the users’ feedback and then act on those findings.”