an axe on grass
Employees can choose between multiple physical workplaces, why not offer the same variety in their digital workplace? PHOTO: Tyler Lastovich

A strong argument can be made for giving people in the workplace access to an integrated suite of digital productivity tools. A consistent interface creates familiarity, making training and support scalable. Common file formats and shared spaces for collaboration also remove unnecessary barriers to working together at an organizational level. And as a bonus, having one vendor to manage also makes life easier for IT and procurement.

But using the same set of collaboration software tools might not always improve work. The same attributes that create opportunities for better productivity at an organizational level may at the same time introduce distractions or inefficiencies for teams and individuals.

One Person's Distraction Is Another's Inspiration

Distraction is a relative concept because it has to account for different workstyles, information handling needs and team cultures.

The Helmfon by Hochu Rayu

For example, the Helmfon is a concept for a concentration helmet developed by Ukrainian design agency Hochu rayu. The inspiration behind it was to help people fully concentrate by blocking office distractions that can otherwise kill a person’s productiveness.

A concentration helmet is probably a little extreme. A pair of noise canceling headphones would most likely be equally effective. Other solutions exist that are intended to help reduce distractions and interruptions, such as desk traffic lights that detect when a user is in productive flow and automatically illuminate a “do not disturb” signal.

But one person’s distraction can be another’s inspiration. Research has found that the right level and type of ambient noise actually helps us be more creative. Harvard Business Review reported that:

“The problem may be that, in our offices, we can’t stop ourselves from getting drawn into others’ conversations or from being interrupted while we’re trying to focus. Indeed, the EEG researchers found that face-to-face interactions, conversations, and other disruptions negatively affect the creative process. By contrast, a coworking space or a coffee shop provides a certain level of ambient noise while also providing freedom from interruptions.”

Why Offer Variety in Physical Workspaces, But Not Digital?

Here lies the problem with the one-size fits all approach to collaboration technology, which runs against the grain of modern office design that now calls to give people much greater choice about where, how and when they work.

The most progressive offices aim to help people choose space to work from that is based on a combination of factors, such as sound, light, movement and temperature levels. Others are integrating the use of “third spaces,” which are neither working from home ("first place") or the office ("second place"). Conversely, the software tools we provide are simplistic and typically allow for only two modes of collaboration: synchronous (at the same time, like Slack) or asynchronous (at different times, like email).

To its credit, Microsoft has recently provided guidance on how it provides choice in the Office 365 suite, spanning SharePoint, Yammer, Teams, Outlook and Office 365 Groups. The company breaks it down into the concept of an inner and outer conversation loop.

Microsoft 365 Teamwork: Where to Start a Conversation

Perhaps more training on how to properly leverage these different conversation loops would help to reduce distractions, but this does not change the fact that technologists continue to promote a worldview that makes no allowance for temporarily opting out or appreciate the value of participating in virtual third spaces.

Integrated Doesn't Mean Removing Choice

By forcing people into the same always on, always connected productivity and collaboration platforms, we often prevent people from choosing a working environment that is optimized to the types of work or tasks at hand. And while it is true that people expect a cohesive experience, cohesion should never be confused with removing choice or providing solutions that are intended only to meet the lowest common denominator of collaboration requirements across the broadest range of users.

Enabling collaboration and knowledge sharing across an organization needs to be balanced carefully with meeting the needs of different teams and individual workstyles.