Why focus and flow will matter in the hybrid workplace

Helping people to achieve a state of concentration and creative flow will be essential to the future of workplace productivity, says leading neuroscientist Fiona Kerr in an exclusive interview with the Smart Coffee Break, presented by Nestle Coffee Partners

Supporting individuals to get into a state of concentration and flow will be as important to the future of productivity as enabling collaborative activity in the workplace.

That’s the view of leading neuroscientist Dr Fiona Kerr, founder and CEO of The NeuroTech Institute and an adjunct senior fellow at the University of Adelaide, who believes we should pay more attention to how our brains work in determining the contours of the new office.

Speaking to WORKTECH Academy director Jeremy Myerson from Australia as part of the Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work, presented by Nestle Coffee Partners, Kerr argues that ‘attention is a resource’ and that every manager should pin a sign on their computer  screen to remind them.

Getting into creative flow

Paying attention is the first step to getting into flow – it allows people to focus and then open up creatively. ‘Creative ideation is this state you get into …you can actually cue it and people can get better and better at getting there faster,’ says Kerr. ‘And you can use things to do that: certain music, certain views, even certain chairs.’ However, many offices are poor at supporting flow and focus, their design offering too much by way of noise and distraction.

‘You’ve got this absolute cocktail of electro-chemical activity that increases trust and affiliation…’ Dr Fiona Kerr

Getting into flow does special things to the brain: ‘You’ve got this absolute cocktail of electro-chemical activity that increases trust and affiliation… all of these neurons that are normally connected with picking up information and they start to synchronise, which means they go faster,’  explains Kerr. This electro-chemical ‘hit’ then leads to predictive or pre-emptive thinking, which is so valuable to companies.

Highly focused mental state

The psychological concept of ‘flow’ as a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity and creativity was first recognised and popularised by the veteran psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who analysed the relationship between the scale of the challenge and our ability or resources to meet that challenge.

Fiona Kerr believes that this concept is still relevant today: ‘Csikszentmihalyi talks about needing to have some control and being able to concentrate…he talks about goal-directed behaviour and, again, paying attention.’ However, she disagrees with Csikszentmihalyi that you always need to stay on task, and not daydream, for example. Looking out the window or going for a walk is ‘a key part of flow’, she argues, because it allows the brain to collect and arrange the information it has stored so it can serve ideas up to you.

Does that mean that we can take a break in the office without losing focus? Kerr is emphatic that this is the case: ‘Not only do you not lose focus when you get up and take a break, you actually increase focus… again because of the way that we store information.’

All work and no breaks can even be counter-productive: ‘If you just keep ploughing through, you don’t go into flow. That aha moment is never when you’re deep-down concentrating, it’s always when you’re doing something else. The point about the water cooler, the coffee point, the stairs instead of the lift, is that these are the places that create serendipitous connection. What that does for your brain is it puts you into proximity with other people, and so there’s all sorts of electro-chemical changes that happen.’

Shallow and deep work

As companies bring their workforces back to the offices, what should they be thinking about in terms  of design to support productivity? ‘It’s a case of defining and agreeing a number of things. What does productivity look like? What does deep and shallow work look like? Agree on how people are going to collaborate and when they need to come together. Provide some informal spaces to collaborate as well as formal spaces because if you’re going to a formal collaboration meeting you actually go in with a very different cognitive head space.’

‘Stress wipes out the capacity for flow because it does all sorts of things to our brains and bodies…’- Dr Fiona Kerr

Another important factor to consider is how technology is used. Kerr says the key thing here is to give people control and not use technology for employee surveillance, for example, which causes stress. She explains: ‘Stress wipes out the capacity for flow because it does all sorts of things to our brains and our bodies.’

Empathic, respectful and positive modes of leadership that build trust can also have an impact on getting into flow. In The Neurotech Institute, Fiona Kerr is currently helping companies get to grips with what hybrid working means: ‘Hybrid workplaces are the hardest of the lot. They are harder than virtual, and harder than face-to-face. They can be the worst of both worlds, or the best of both worlds.’

Whatever happens next, our capacity for creative flow will be a major factor in the future wave of office productivity. You can listen to the full interview with neuroscientist Fiona Kerr here.

It is the second programme in the Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work, presented by Nestle Coffee Partners in partnership with WORKTECH Academy, the global knowledge platform and member network exploring how we’ll work tomorrow.    

Subsequent podcasts in the Smart Coffee Break series will focus on such subjects as optimising teamwork, team-to-team collaboration and unplanned interactions, featuring interviews with experts from around the world.

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