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Does your company need a thinkerspace?

I had a theory about the modern ad agency workspace and I wanted to test it out.

In preparation for my talk at the 2017 Gas Can Creative Conference, I went on an unofficial tour, visiting several agencies around Kansas City. I ventured from north of the river to south of 435 and was absolutely blown away. There are so many cool spaces in our ad community that are oozing with personality and charm—and their own sense of style and décor:

Open floor plans, kick-ass common areas, kitchens, booze, barista stations, tree houses, collaboration spaces, social media command centers, roof-top decks, pool tables, ping pong.

I really appreciated that at each and every agency, the person showing me around did so with a sense of pride, happy to show off their digs like I was a client or new business prospect.

Which brings me to my big concern.

Every agency I visited, much like the one where I work (and I presume much like every other agency in the country), is designed for the client tour, not for the demands of our job. It’s a big problem—and a growing threat to the value of our work.

Today’s world is littered with stuff vying for our attention, making it near impossible to find time to think. When I say “think,” I mean breaking down, analyzing, considering and evaluating multiple thoughts. Cal Newport calls it Deep Work.

Social media, email notifications, calendar reminders, activity trackers, texts, delinquent timesheets, a new message from your kids’ baseball coach about a new practice time for tonight and the worst of all, group messaging. These things are all constantly popping up, chiming in, buzzing in your pocket, begging for your attention.

We’ve arrived at the point where we are organizing interruptions with interruptions.

That video is funny because it’s true.

You’ve likely seen this stat by now:

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I can’t help but see the parallels between the world-at-large and the advertising agency work environment. No walls, open floor plans, lunch-table-style seating. Great for “collaboration,” shitty for deep work. I heard someone recently refer to Bose noise-reduction headphones as “the new office door.”

It’s not just sound wreaking havoc on our ability to think in a focused, deliberate way… Last week, the Wall Street Journal wrote about the idea of visual noise as “the activity or movement around the edges of an employee’s field of vision, which can erode concentration and disrupt analytical thinking or creativity.”

Why do we have to find ways to “retreat” at work? Why do we need to work from home, or go “lock up” somewhere to get stuff done?

Behavioral scientists have documented that the human brain works harder and less efficiently when it’s constantly distracted and interrupted. And our industry seems really hooked on the idea of creating work spaces that exacerbate the problem. We need to stop feeding the problem. We need to outsmart it.

At Callahan, we have a sign on the front door that states we are a community of thinkers and makers. Like everyone, we struggle with the “thinking” part of that equation with our open floor plan and overflowing collaboration.

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That consistent struggle is why we did the unthinkable: we ditched plans to create a collaboration and Makerspace, and instead installed a Thinkerspace. We call it The Deep End. It’s a place reserved for quiet, introspective work for when we need to write or watch or read or think, free of distraction—and we all need this more than we know. We no longer have to make plans to leave the office, we now head to The Deep End.

The Deep End opened about a month ago, and to no surprise, it‘s used every day.

By allowing ourselves to do deep work—to really, truly use our brains, without distraction—we continue to push our ideas, our clients and ourselves individually to places unknown.

So much is changing in the world around us. It’s time to challenge the idea of how our work environment helps – or hurts – our ability to maximize the value of our creativity.

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