Focus memory workplaces

Innovative companies are increasingly making relaxing/rejuvenating spaces top priority in their office layout. Designed spaces like indoor or roof-top garden is a definite perk to the employees, and according to “Attention Restoration Theory” by Stephen Kaplan at the University of Michigan, the most restful surroundings are in nature.

Stephen Kaplan talks about two types of attention:

  • Involuntary attention
  • Directed attention or voluntary attention

The author suggests that directed attention requires more focus and cognitive control as compared to involuntary attention. In a typical office environment the human brain is constantly reacting to distracting cues from emails, status updates, phone conversation, etc. especially in today’s popular open office layout they are plenty. These cues powerfully drive not only how we feel and what we do, but also how we do it.

To do a task well one needs to focus and have a directed attention filtering distractions via inhibitions. Multitude of external stimuli pushes the brain harder to filter all other distractions; the overuse of which leads to fatigue, pushing the mind to cognitive exhaustion.

In his book “Focus” Daniel Goleman suggest an antidote to cognitive exhaustion: take a mental muscle rest by taking a relaxing break in a restful setting. Taking a walk, as they suggest, is a good option; but where you take your walk is also equally important. Based on research conducted, the author suggests that a walk through an arboretum led to better focus on return to concentrated tasks than a stroll through downtown. As per his recommendation sitting by a mural of a nature scene—particularly one with water in it—is better than the corner coffee shop.

Urban settings has varying stimuli that occupies one’s attention, meanwhile nature captivates people’s involuntary attention while allowing them to rest their directed attention, which in turn free up mental resources to concentrate on other things. This improves focus and memory.

 “The human brain is constantly reacting to and processing a bandwidth of inputs and information far beyond our conscious perception. Cues from the environment and each other powerfully drive how we feel and what we do. Purposeful designs can accommodate and harness this human operating system. In such an environment people will immediately grasp what they can do, where they can go, what things are for, and why they are the way they are. Productivity and pleasure will come naturally. It will just feel right.”  — Herman Miller


Semi-private & private working areas for focused work

“My office has an open layout, everyone sits together. I have these people all around me: talking loud, discussing, brainstorming, playing radio; I sometimes go to the conference room and I have this large room all by myself. Sometimes I get kicked out because groups wants to meet and then I have nowhere to go. How am I supposed to concentrate and get some serious work done?!” exclaimed Nora.

One aspect of Nora’s work include (the most talked about) 3Cs: Communication-Coordination-Collaboration; but an equally important aspect of her work is a product of the creative solutions she comes up with when she can concentrate and focus on the work at hand without any external disturbance or stimulus. Nora – introvert or not – has a different working style. While conference rooms, open-semi open meeting/touchdown areas are great for the 3Cs, focused work is equally important for employees who need to do some deep thinking.

This calls for zoned areas: semi-private and private areas in an open plan offices.

Semi-private areas:

    • Furniture: The first  and the most flexible solution is zoning furniture separate from the open office areas. Use of alcove sofas with a high back & side wall sofa provides the user a comfortable seating experience and an acoustic division for some noise reduction.


  • Booths: The second option is open office booths, planned early in the design stage. Compared to the high back sofas, these have a desk to dock a laptop, comfortable seating, a power and data/WiFi connection.


Private: Phone room or focus rooms are high walled small rooms that provide most privacy for focused work. The room layout includes a desk and a chair, hence the room footprint is small; it is advisable to have a glass wall to make it visually open and let light to remedy claustrophobia. Provide distraction banding at eye level to cut visual stimulation. Providing a fabric wrapped panel and soft furniture can increase acoustics in the room. Provide for power data outlets or WiFi connection; and if you wish to go a bit high-tech a room-scheduler will prove useful to reserve the space. Make a percentage of phone booths ADA accessible.


How does your office incorporate different working styles? Please let us know your thoughts.