The constant ping of messages that keep us plugged into work chatter might be doing more harm than good. We feel we must respond – it is about work, after all. But always being switched on means we never have the chance to think deeply. And that is a problem for companies that want to get the most out of their employees.The next great revolution in the office will need to correct this, according to one man who wants to reset the way we work. He believes that the value someone can bring to a company will be judged not by their skill, but by their ability to focus. But how do we find the time to shut off distractions and do our best work?
Our workplaces are set up for convenience, not to get the best out of our brains, says Cal Newport, bestselling author of books including Deep Work and Digital Minimalism, and a Georgetown University professor. In knowledge sector jobs, where products are created using human intelligence rather than machines, we must be switched on at all times and prepared to multitask. These are two things that are not compatible with deep, creative, insightful thinking.
Our workplace should learn from production lines
According to Newport, the knowledge sectors that operate in the most focus-oriented way are areas like software engineering, where the goal is to produce a product. “Agile, scrum and sprint-based executions have been used in these sectors for a while,” says Newport. “They work on only one thing for three days and during that time the product is their whole focus. Software engineers never let things unfold in an ad hoc manner. This is more amenable to the way the brain operates.”
They work on only one thing for three days and during that time the product is their whole focus. Software engineers never let things unfold in an ad hoc manner - Newport
The analogy with industry is useful because of the length of time it took to find the best solution for manufacturing products efficiently. Historically, products were manufactured from start to finish by skilled workers. This is convenient, but not quick. It took until the 20th Century to arrive at the production line. By focusing on one thing that the worker is a specialist in for a short and intense amount of time before passing it onto the next worker, they can concentrate on what they are good at. There is no reason to think that we currently have the best working practices for knowledge workers after only a few decades.
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