Why your office is outdated – and what to do about it

I’ve spent my career leading operations and talent functions. Alas, that hasn’t always involved wracking my brain to solve complex, strategic business challenges. Many times, it’s involved mediating arguments about the following:

  • Air conditioning
  • Fridge full of old food
  • Smelly lunches
  • Sales people being too loud on calls
  • Not enough forks
  • Who gets the window seat vs who sits near the toilets
  • Someone’s odour
  • Too much disco being played

Yes, they are ranked in order.

Yes, the last one was an argument I started. Disco music. Eww.

I’m basically your Judge Judy of office environment disputes.

I’m making light of the topic to keep you reading, but the reality is that these arguments have evolved into serious issues. I’ve seen employees suffer mental health issues, spent money on legal fees, had staff churn, and with frustration and sadness, seen lots of time, productivity and creativity being wasted on these matters.

A person’s working environment is so fundamentally linked to their ability to work.

Someone’s ability to produce deep work – the type of work that truly matters – is equally linked to their happiness.

If staff can’t produce deep work and aren’t happy, as a business, you won’t achieve anything.

This makes it critical to get your office environment right.

The idea of the Eudaimonia Machine

The formula is simple but working out the answer isn’t. Every individual has different needs and styles, and most office environments are insanely riddled with distractions.

In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work, he talks about architect David Dewane’s concept of the ‘Eudaimonia Machine’.  It’s essentially a blueprint for how office environments should be laid out, and advocates for creating the following zones:

  • Gallery – space for inspiration, where you see outputs of deep work
  • Salon – space for collaboration and discussion
  • Library – space for research and learning, and where all resources are stored
  • Office – space for light or shallow work, where it’s okay to have distractions
  • Chamber – space for deep work, intense focus, and no distractions

Newport extends this concept further by suggesting that not only is it about ensuring there are the right spaces for the right activities, but they have to be laid out in a somewhat clever and linear way, because in order to achieve deep work, you need to journey through the sequence of these spaces.

It’s cool, huh? But short of building an entirely new venue, how do you apply these concepts to your current environment?

Good question. We’re here to help 🙂

What’s more, these 7 tips don’t apply solely to employers, they can be applied to those working alone from their own space too.

1. Know what you need

How many of your staff work in distraction-filled flatshares that aren’t suitable for deep work? How many require 90% of their day to be in silence? How many need the ability to speak all day to clients, without feeling reprimanded?

Identify everyone’s requirements, preferences and home situation, because without that you can’t begin to design a solution that will benefit you or your company.

2. Don’t work from the office every day

Love the concept of the ‘Chamber’ and the ‘Salon’? Well, it doesn’t have to be inside your physical office environment if that’s not possible. It could be someone’s desk, at home.

If your team is more productive at home, then organise it such that 3-4 days per week everyone is at home, in their ‘Chambers’, doing deep work.

If your office environment is ergonomically well-suited to deep work, and the only thing getting in the way is distractions, then perhaps your ‘Salon’ is at home, via Zoom and Slack. In this scenario, maybe your team comes into the office 3-4 days per week – or as needed – for deep work.

3. Don’t confine your office environment to your walls

No one place will suit every need, so invest time in exploring your neighbourhood. Look for quiet cafes, buzzing cafes, local fitness studios, parks, collaboration spaces for hire, inspiring heritage listed venues, inspiring galleries.

Deep work requires different spaces for different needs and headspaces. Build up your repository of external spaces where your team can work, rest or play.

4. Make Eudaimonia Machine ‘spaces’ part of vocabulary

Maybe you can’t create distinct spaces within your physical workplace, but you can still be in those mental spaces.

If your Slack status says ‘Chamber’ this means you’re in deep work mode and should be left alone. If you need a creative boost, mentally switch on your ‘Gallery’ mode and seek out inspiration. If you’re needing to catch up on some admin, have a playlist that puts you in ‘Office’ mode.

And when it’s time to bring people together to celebrate wins, bring people into your virtual ‘Salon’.

Yes, the right physical layout will help your company achieve deep work. But deep work is not just about being locked in a Chamber, it also requires inspiration, collaboration, and many things in-between.

Having an understanding of these spaces and consciously using the terminology will not only help individuals understand each other better. It’ll also help people get better at learning how to operate in these spaces. You’re essentially acknowledging that work isn’t just sitting at a desk and typing.

5. Invest in products that support these spaces

Setting yourself or others up to be successful at deep work does require some spending. Too often I’ve worked with startups that are frugal with their money, but to the detriment of a good working setup. There is no point in not spending if it means you produce a third of what your competitor produces.

Here’s a few suggestions:

  • Monitors, mouse, keyboard – ensure every workstation has one, so anyone can plug-in and get to work in a comfortable way.
  • Lockers – have secure lockers where people can store laptops, or even just their ‘things’. Things can be important to individuals, so you need an easy way for people to store them away and lay them out at their chosen space for the day.
  • Phone booths – you can scatter sound-proof booths around the office which will solve a lot of your noise issues.
  • Booking system – avoid anyone feeling anxious over whether a space is available for them or not. Let people book a Chamber desk for deep work, or an Office desk for shallow tasks.
  • Notion – a moving team needs a knowledge base that doesn’t move. At FLOWN every bit of knowledge we have lives in Notion. Notion is our ‘Library’ and we invest heavily in ensuring it’s usable and never out of date.
  • Remote working appsTandem, Unlock, and Cosmos are innovative tools that aim to simulate the office environment online.

6. Ditch your meeting room

Lucky enough to have three meeting rooms? Great, get rid of some (or all) of them. Firstly, no one needs to have that many meetings. Secondly, why not carry on doing meetings Covid-style via video calls? You get better concentration and can see expressions more clearly.

You only really need to be physically together if it’s a very long, whiteboard intense workshop. Even then, maybe getting away somewhere near nature is better? Good thing FLOWN has a delightful collection of remote work-enabled properties for this very purpose.

Instead, your meeting room could become your library, an area for contemplation, a location for stretches and yoga, or even make those your deep work Chambers?

7. Sharing is caring

With many companies adopting a hybrid approach to working from the office/anywhere, why not consider partnering with another company and sharing your office spaces? You use it three days, they use it two? If you have lockers and monitors set up, one physical space doesn’t have to be for one company, and with forces combined, it means you can invest more in the right set up.

Get started

Our ability to do deep work depends heavily on us having access to the right tools and spaces. What’s right, though, is very personal. The cubicle got outdated and replaced with the open-plan design. Now, this too is outdated.

Design your working environment based on working styles, and don’t limit yourself to what’s inside the physical walls. Think spaces not teams, because a company’s ability to achieve deep work will ultimately be its competitive advantage.

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