One of the latest trends sweeping the business world is the “pod” – a small, free-standing soundproof space that can comfortably hold one or two people. If you look around, you’ll notice them sprouting up in offices, airports and other public places where people need temporary privacy from noise and other people.
Pods started out as a place for individuals to meet or make phones calls without worrying about being heard by people around them. Next came Internet-enabled pods where people can engage in work without being disturbed. The latest version is the nap pod, a private space that lets you take a catnap at work while listening to relaxing music. In less than five years, the market has grown from one pod company to more than a dozen – a clear sign that a need is being met.
What’s driving the growing demand for pods? Hundreds of thousands of years of brain evolution.
Our ancestors grew up in a world free of noise pollution. No loud freeway sounds. No jet engines roaring overhead. No daily barrage of emails, voice mails, social media tweets and texts. Consequently, the human brain evolved to function at its best in relative peace and quiet.
These days we have to struggle to escape noise, and the way we design our work environments doesn’t help. Offices used to provide some privacy. Nowadays, most people work in cubicles that do little to mitigate noise and interruptions. The recent adoption of open work spaces has created even less privacy and more noise.
When traveling for business, we have to deal with crowded airports, sitting shoulder to shoulder on airplanes and other public situations that make it hard to focus on work. Even when alone in our hotel rooms, we’re usually connected to others via smart phones or mobile devices. So much so that looking at screens has become the predominate daily activity for most 21-century humans in the developed world.
Our brains don’t like this unnatural environment, and pods provide a way to revert back to what the human brain (and body) is used to. According to the Pew Research Center, 85% of Americans consider it important to have time alone. Here’s why.
The human brain needs peace and quiet to rest and rejuvenate. It needs time to filter through all the information it receives every day and decide what to keep and what to get rid of. From a business standpoint, downtime with our brains is essential for staying focused on the destination. Otherwise it becomes hard to focus our time and attention on what we should be doing rather than the interruptions that never seem to stop.
When we’re deprived of the quiet and privacy the brain needs to calm down and relax, several things happen, none of which support winning in business.
Stress levels shoot up. Interruptions take our eye off the ball. Without quiet time we lose the ability to think (instead of just “doing” all the time). Creativity and decision-making suffer. The borders we put up to create space for ourselves counteract the communication and teamwork needed to respond to rapidly changing markets.
We stop talking to folks we sit next to. We block out noise and interaction with headphones. We use more technology and less face-to-face. When the technology overwhelms us, we delay or stop returning emails, voice mails and texts. We start taking lunch and other breaks by ourselves to create personal space. All of which are clear signs that employees crave more alone time.
We can’t do away completely with interruptions in the workplace. But we can learn to mitigate them by creating more personal space for ourselves. First, get conscious on how you split your attention. On average, employees are interrupted 50 to 60 times per day at work. It takes ten to 16 minutes to refocus on a thinking task following that interruption. And the really scary insight – approximately 50% of the decisions made at work today are rote behaviors – doing versus thinking, traveling the same pathways without considering if something changed or needs to be updated in our brains.
At the organizational level, we can:
- Create interruption-free work zones
- Schedule ourselves in (pretend) meetings to block out time so others don’t interrupt
- Determine a block of time each week where no emails are sent internally
- Provide “quiet” rooms where employees can mediate or focus intensely for short periods of time
- Respond to work messages only when we are active at work and not when we are on vacation or after hours
- Put up simple visuals on our outside cube or office wall (i.e. “Please come back in 30 minutes, I am focused on a project” or “Please schedule time with me, I am currently in an important meeting or interview or on a phone call…”)
At the personal level, we can:
- Take 5 minutes each morning to review the day ahead and think through how we will stay focused on our top priorities
- Take short mental breaks every day. Put the phone on hold, pause for a moment, take a few deep breaths and just relax.
- Let our brains wander. Look out the window and let our minds roam, thinking about anything but business.
- Go outside for lunch and walk barefoot in the grass.
- Schedule certain times during the day to respond to emails and other interruptions
Winning in business requires focus. The more quiet time our brains have to rest, rejuvenate and ponder what could be – without interruption – the more we can focus on what needs to get done. Providing employees the quiet time they need will boost their creativity and productivity while helping them stay focused on the organization’s destination and winning.