3 Tips For Surviving the Modern Office

by Heather Hurst
, 6 min read

In the cult classic Office Space, there’s a scene where not one, but three managers stop by Peter’s desk to see if he got the memo on the new TPS report cover sheets. Because Peter did it the old way once.

By the third disinterested manager who didn’t listen to him, Peter was visibly upset—his work was interrupted repeatedly by people who had no way of knowing what Peter was doing, or what he’d already been told.


Check out our infographic, "Office Space Invaders: 5 Species of In-Your-Face, Productivity-Killing Co-Workers," for tips on dealing with The Cubicle Crusher and other colleagues who slow you down.


We laugh because we’ve all been there at one point in our careers or another. As we found in the 2016-2017 State of Enterprise Work Report, the office can be a place of many emotions, and the negative ones aren’t that hard to fix.

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The Visibility Problem

In too many offices, there is zero visibility into what employees are doing (63 percent report not using any kind of work management tool). That lack of insight leads to erosion of trust and a feeling that individuals are carrying an unbalanced load.

When asked how knowledge workers rate other individuals within their organization with regard to productivity, the results were fascinating.

With each layer of the organizational structure you peeled away from the employee themselves, the perceived productivity went down—with company leadership having the lowest perceived productivity.

It’s easy to laugh this off as people being too “me-centric,” but the issue is actually bigger than we want to admit—when you don’t know what people are working on, you’ll naturally think they’re slacking off. And assume that you’re doing more than the person sitting next to you, or across the hall.

What You Can do About It

Share information about what’s happening within your team, department, and company with your colleagues.

Andre Lavoie, CEO and co-founder of ClearCompany, explains:

"Employee alignment, for transparency’s sake, means taking a look at the big picture and seeking to understand everyone’s role within it. This is easily done when employers practice transparency in the workplace.

"Transparent leadership results in employees who understand the company vision and how their efforts help achieve company-wide goals."

At the company level, the easiest way to do this is to have shared goals that all company initiatives roll up around, and keep a running report of key departmental activities that will influence the goals. At the team/employee level, share your task lists with each other. 

This is easiest through a work management solution, but you can find other ways to assign tasks out as a team and have a clear understanding of your teammates’ priorities at any given time (try not to add in more meetings, though; they already take up 21 percent of the day).

Let’s Get Flexible

No matter what you call it—flex work, flexi work, core work hours—there is a movement toward more flexible working arrangements.

Technology has connected all of us in a way that it’s easy to set up your laptop at home or an office, have a conference call immediately following a dentist appointment (I have done this and do not recommend it), reply to chats and texts as you’re getting ready for work in the morning, the list goes on.

Technology has even made it possible to harness the hours when people are most productive—early morning and late afternoon—to be the most efficient with their time.

The piece that’s missing in many offices—that keeps companies from embracing flexible working—is trust and accountability. Going back to the misperception of productivity stemming out from an individual, it’s hard to have trust when you don’t know what those around you are doing.

That is compounded when employees move from the office to their couch to work. Work-from-home jobs were early adopted for job functions that have strong reporting/measuring functions in place, such as call centers.

Every aspect of call center work can be tracked—time on phone, off-call work, latency, calls waiting in queue, etc. It’s easy to look at a dashboard to see how well the call center is running and how individual agents are performing, no matter where the agents sit.

Knowledge work isn’t the sort of thing where you can randomly pick up the phone and listen in on a call. But the same kind of measurement/accountability is needed.

heather hurst quote

What You Can do About It

Trust and accountability. To enable flexible work, you have to have both. Trust in your employees that they are going to give their all to the job, no matter where they are doing it. And accountability to show that they really are.

Charlotte Sweeney, change management expert, describes how important it is that employers combine the right technology with increased trust:

“Employers should focus more time on supporting employees to build trust with each other when implementing different ways of working—and not purely the technology required.  

"Enabling managers to trust that people are being productive when physically not in the office is at the core of evolving our workplaces.”

This comes down to a solid resource management system. Understand the work in queue for your team—how long it takes to complete, why you’re doing it, how it rolls up to company initiatives—and then have a system to assign work equally among your team members.

Assign out the work—estimating against the “usual” hours the work takes—and then allow people to report back when they are finished with a task, and where a project stands overall.

This can all be automated through a system, or you can have a manual system in place that your team updates at regular intervals.

Interruptions Sap Productivity

Once interrupted, it takes 15 minutes to get back into the flow of what you were doing. Chances are good that you’ll get interrupted again before you even hit the 15-minute mark. And we wonder why there are days that we can’t get anything done.

When we asked survey respondents what could improve productivity, the frontrunner was “uninterrupted blocks of time.” In our age of cubicles and open offices, quiet space has become a sought-after benefit to getting more work done.

What You Can do About It

Creating uninterrupted blocks of time can be solved through culture, physical office space, and remote working.

Culture is the hardest—I’ve tried those “red/green” signs in the office where you note that you’re “in the zone” and shouldn’t be interrupted. When red was up, I had just as many interruptions as green; the signs meant nothing to most of the office.

To get a cultural shift to take place, you need strong change management initiatives in place to ensure that people learn the change, see it followed by executive leadership, and understand rewards/consequences.

The physical office space is a good way to go—give people space where they can work behind a closed door for chunks of time during the day. You can also mimic the “quiet cars” of Amtrak, and set up meeting rooms with multiple desks and a sign stating that noise isn’t allowed.

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In a recent survey, almost half of the 500 respondents said that providing access to a variety of areas to work and de-stress would be the best thing a business could do to help them improve their productivity.

In addition, 17 percent of those respondents said working in quiet spaces would improve their productivity.

Remote working is yet another way to find quiet space. As long as the remote location provides that lack of interruption, it’s an easy way to give employees the freedom to get their jobs done with far fewer disruptions to their flow.

Start to Make Changes Now

It’s easy to see why the workplace is the brunt of so many sitcoms and movies—between interruptions, lack of trust, and the close-quarter working of so many different personalities, it’s a breeding ground for comedic foibles.

Learn from the examples we mock in popular media, and build an office that could never have been emulated in The Office.

If you love office statistics, your appetite can soon be satiated—this year’s State of Enterprise Work Report will hit this blog on September 27.


Click here to see our SlideShare highlighting the 10 biggest surprises from the 2016-2017 State of Enterprise Work Report.

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