Ask yourself, and for confirmation, ask your colleagues, where they would choose to go to get important work done. Few would say ‘to my workplace’, and many would say to a coffee shop, to their home, or some other interruption-free zone.

Reports indicate that people are spending longer at work, simply because they can’t get work done at work anymore. It has even become an absurd badge of honour to work long hours and to be sleep deprived.

The reason for this strange and troubling situation — that work cannot be done at work — is a managerial rather than an individual’s failure. If money or goods go missing, it is because managers failed to institute appropriate systems to protect these valuable resources. In like vane, managers have failed to institute appropriate systems to protect what is possibly their most valuable resource — employees’ time and attention.

Time and attention are most effective when they are utilized in large chunks

Time and attention are most effective when they are utilized in large chunks, but the workday is sliced into multiple short working moments. An hour interrupted by calls, a “quick” meeting or question, stops being an hour. Every interruption creates “attention residue” that impedes the work that follows, making it extremely hard to get anything meaningful done.

We are alive in an era where an immediate response is possible, but that does not imply it should or needs to become the new normal. Waiting is acceptable — really. In most situations, the expectation of an immediate response is as unreasonable as it is unnecessary. Unless managers both model this waiting behaviour and promote it, expect it to persist in the company.

Every employee’s time and attention must be respected

Managers must start with the presupposition that every employee’s time and attention must be respected. If colleagues are at their desks, it should be supposed that they are working, and so should not be disturbed — not that being present means you are available to be disturbed.

Open-plan offices are not necessarily a bad decision, they are only a bad decision if the culture that will enable them to be effective workplaces is ignored. That culture is respecting a colleagues’ time and attention. Libraries are open plan spaces that work well, because library users have all bought into the culture that doing deep work requires silence.

Collaboration is the modern equivalent of harnessing a team of horses to pull a wagon. It is the only way to maximize human intelligence. That said, it cannot be a justification for preventing others from doing good work.

Our workplaces need revision and deep respect for time and attention is a good starting point.

Guest Author Ian Mann

Ian Mann from Gateways Business Consulting. He is the strategy midwife© who helps companies give birth to their best ideas. Ian specialises in strategy and leadership.