On the Value of Workplace Isolation

January 18, 2016

We live in “busy” times. People are “busy.” Busy-ness has become the default state of today’s aspirational class and a prerequisite for future success. It is the downpayment we make on an imagined future filled with wealth, comfort and well-earned relaxation.

Many offices spaces foster this incessant busy-ness. In an effort to promote collaboration, we create communal spaces where privacy is rarely an option. Conference room culture demands that silence and contemplation be avoided at all costs, like “dead air” on radio. And when we get back to our desks, our computers beckon us with an endless stream of email that threatens to keep us in a constant state of busy-ness.

But does busy-ness help us get more done? Or are we simply ensnared in its trap and unable to discern how, or why, we wound up there? Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, suggests that we ask ourselves the question: “What if we stopped celebrating being busy as a measurement of importance? What if instead we celebrated how much time we had spent listening, pondering, meditating, and enjoying time with the most important people in our lives?” His advice applies as much to the workplace as it does to one’s private life. The ability to relax, meditate and think deeply about problems allows us to separate the essential from the non-essential, and to therefore approach tasks with heightened focus and efficiency. A whole new body of science-backed literature supports these ideas, and an impressive crop of successful young entrepreneurs are drawing inspiration from it and revolutionizing the workplace accordingly.

Privacy pods are a great example of the burgeoning revolt against incessant office space business. As are Google’s nap pods, where employees are encouraged to rest and reset their brains so that they can approach their jobs more creatively. While these innovations may be outliers in the grand scheme of workplace culture and design, they can also be seen as a response to a growing need for a type of workplace isolation that fosters deep work, creativity, innovation.

Professor Cal Newport, a renowned expert on workplace productivity, uses the phrase “Deep Work” in his book by the same name to denote, “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts,” he continues, “create new value, improve your skill and are hard to replicate.”

Little by little, the value of deep work – and the need for workspaces that foster it – is becoming apparent to today’s most innovative business leaders. These simple but profound ideas will undoubtedly have an impact on the workspaces of the future, helping to offset our inclination towards incessant busy-ness with a healthy dose of productive isolation.