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Focus Work: Which Work Spaces Help Employees Concentrate and Get Projects Done?

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Where do you go when you really need to buckle down and finish some important work? Much like favorite comfort foods and preferred self-care routines, it turns out that the answer to this question can vary considerably depending upon who you ask.

When it’s time to complete “focus work” (otherwise known as “deep work”), some people need solitude to really concentrate. Others feed off of inspiration from their coworkers. Some like the formal feel of an office desk. Others enjoy a comfy couch in a cafe.

This has been our experience at Density across several different locations, and it is reflected in some hard data we recently collected from 100 people in our workplace experience survey.

In most professional roles today, there are a few different types of work. Everybody has at least a little bit of tedious, busywork in addition to the constant barrage of emails and other incoming messages to monitor. Then there may be some level of managerial or collaborative work to be done alongside other members of your team.

Different people want to work differently, and this finding suggests that organizations should remain mindful about the individual needs of all their employees.

Finally, once we sidestep all the other distractions and clear the calendar of meetings, comes what we can call “focus work” or “deep work.” These are the projects and tasks that require you to really lock in and concentrate for an extended period of time. This is usually the most important and fulfilling part of our job.

Respondents of the workplace experience survey were asked to select an area for individual focus work

When presented with four locations to do individual focus work, more than half (54%) of the respondents said they prefer a private office without a window. The next most popular choice was a cubicle (19%) followed closely by both a lounge area with soft seating (14%) and an open office environment (13%).

While a private office is predictably the top pick, the preference shown for the three other settings shows that there is no universally perfect location to do focus work. Different people want to work differently, and this finding suggests that organizations should remain mindful about the individual needs of all their employees.

We definitely see similar sentiments expressed by our workers at Density.

Image of Density employee using an assigned desk
A Density employee in an assigned open area desk

Across three open floor plan offices on the West and East Coasts, we offer a range of working spaces that include assigned desks, phone booths, conference rooms, lounges, kitchens and shared seating options within the open area. We also encourage employees to use noise-cancelling headphones so that they can easily block out distractions.

Image of Density offices lounge areas
An open area with soft seating at the Density HQ

In a quick questionnaire of 35 workers at Density, we found that 12 prefer to do individual focus work at their assigned desks, 6 work best in open areas with soft seating, 5 like rooms with couches and 2 would pick a conference room.

Image of Meeting Room After Redesign Utilization
A meeting room with couches and soft seating at Density HQ in San Francisco

There are, however, differences across the locations. For example, 6 out of the 15 people polled in our San Francisco office prefer our extra-sized Framery phone booth. Nowhere else are the phone booths so popular, whereas more people in our Syracuse office like to work in the lounge areas than even their assigned desks.

Image of double phone booth at Density office
A Framery double phone booth, used for focus work by a Density employee

This likely goes to show that a phone booth is not always a phone booth. Design matters. Similarly, the perception of a lounge area can be affected both by its setup and coziness as well as the other options available at the location.

One other data nugget: When we added remote options to the equation and asked 24 of our workers the same question about focus work, 14 elected to work from home, 9 picked their office and 1 said they would go to a cafe. Again, and as we have seen when asking deeper questions about remote work, this suggests that employee choice may be a key element in raising productivity.

Perhaps even more interesting is data that we are seeing about conference room use. While only 2 out of 35 surveyed Density workers say they prefer to do focus work in a conference room, the usage statistics tell a different story.

Image of conference room at Density offices
The largest conference room in Density HQ used for two person meeting

Over a two-month period from January 24 to April 23, the large conference room at our San Francisco office was occupied by a single person 21% of the time it was in use.

Image of meeting room  Density data showing it was used most by 1-2 people
Analytics from Density dashboard show the large conference room was not being used as intended

What does this tell us? Well, we can’t draw any definitive conclusions. But it seems likely that people are using the conference room to do focus work much more often than they told us they do. Perhaps people are hesitant to report that they are using a large, sought-after room for individual projects? We cannot be sure. But as far as our office design goes, we now do have good information that people do use these spaces for solo work.

Such individualized knowledge can probably benefit all organizations. You would certainly be wise to take the time to ask your employees how they prefer to work. But you also can benefit from analyzing usage data for an objective look at what is actually happening on a day-to-day basis.