“Attentional Capital,”or…The real reason for HBR’s “Why we hate our offices”

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The October 2014’s Harvard Business Review (HBR) cover page “Why We Hate Our Offices,” and the series of articles relating both commercial and academic research, are perhaps the latest and most prominent of what started as a trickle of dissention, but is now on the cusp of being a torrent of invective, about the increased crowding of human beings into smaller and smaller offices to achieve ever greater levels of individual and subsequently corporate and collective productivity.

The materials naturally focusses on preferred research biases. Ostensibly, Steelcase want to sell more desks and chairs; Bernstein wants to sell more books, and Waber and Magnolfi want to sell more expertise and thus consulting services.

However, what struck me as the most disappointing part of this work is that while all of them are in some way writing or researching ways to improve collective productivity in the physical organisational setting (which remains the pre-eminent way to assemble human resources for particular tasks requiring more than one source of input), it is an “office building” utterly without foundation. The unit of critical importance, we humans who do the productive transformational activity, are effectively considered a constant.

Well, we know that’s not true. Its beyond not true. Humans are not a constant. Ever.

Why have the researchers not included the foundations of the “office building” whilst putting up the walls and roof? Well:

(i) we humans are complicated,

(ii) we are all unique,

(iii) we are not always rational,

(iv) to do so properly requires a truly multi-disciplinary approach, likely including Psychology, Sociology, Economics, Organisational Behaviour, Change Management, and proper sciences Biology, Genetics, Engineering and Chemistry, and

(v) it’s a long-term longitudinal study requiring years of monitoring without an effective control group.


We at CanFocus believe starting with understanding the individual, facilitated by modern and inexpensive technology can, when properly understood and algorithmically modelled over even a short period of time, deliver massive productivity improvements, and provide both suppliers and builders of spaces, and shapers and leaders of companies and cultures, prescriptive solutions.

For instance…Are you a morning person? A night-owl? Are you a “don’t-talk-to-me-until-I’ve-had-my-second-cup-of-java-or-I’ll-claw-out-your-eyes” type? Dedicated lunch-time jogger or power-walker? Netflix-series-binger? New parent? Weekend-gamer? Weekend-warrior? 35%-travel-person? Introvert? Extrovert? ENTP? INTJ? MarCom Social Media Expert?

You likely are at least one of these, maybe several. You likely work with and like/love/loathe at least several of these too. Some of these get in the way of your daily productive tasks, several represent happy distraction and interruption from mundane activity, others are dullard time-killers who never get the message that you are busy, and are ALWAYS in your face with baby pictures (ugly ones too…and if they’re not ugly, even then, the 475th one of Johnny at age of only 4.2 months is getting a bit tedious).

The point is that everyone is unique. While people are hired for a minimal congruence with the perceived company culture, and can deliver functional competencies with acceptable degrees of abilities in areas such as Accounting, Finance, Marketing, Sales, Project Management, etc. etc. it is unquestionable that everyone goes about this in a different way (well maybe not Accountants, they’re just odd, right?). If you cannot measure this unit, you cannot effectively manage it. Period. Otherwise It’s just called “guessing.”

We do not have all the answers, far from it. However, we have been developing and testing the concept of “Attentional Capital” for the human aspects of productivity and the workplace, and believe it has potentially important utility for establishing the foundations of the “office building” the others are trying to build, on which these other theories can be more robustly tested.

People, as previous stated are unique, and through the nexus of biology, psychology, sociology and commerce to name a few, work in certain ways. We believe there is a aspect of predictably and patterns in how each transforms raw materials into products. In the 21st century when the workers are increasingly “Knowledge workers” the transformation happens in the mind. This is a unique creative task with no control group.

So the question becomes, how and when and where do we build spaces and organisations that maximise this kind of task productivity that we cannot see, touch, monitor nor measure?

We’ve developed simple, proprietary, physical and digital products to begin the exploration of that issue. We take Attentional Capital as a proxy measure.

Attentional Capital is simply a measure of how you, the producer, prefer to manage your day and deliverables, based on how you like to work best and most productively to meet the collective organisational goals. It is the empowered individual, and self-management of task priority within the broader boundary of group, divisional and organisational deliverables.

We pretty much are all paid an average hourly wage. If asked, it is evident in the general milieu of the office, tasks have a natural hierarchy of both priority and chronology. At the unique individual level we manage and shift our days to meet those deliverables as best as we can.

Unquestionably, those tasks require different levels of attention and focus, and everyone approaches them in a different way. Much has been written elsewhere about concentration and task focus, flow, and interruption and distraction management. What is intuitively equally clear is that the value of the work we do is not constant across the day. The ability to match importance of task, with level of required attention, matched to environmental and social congruence, is critical for optimal productivity…but it is unique to each producer.

Ally this to decades of supportive neuroscience and behavioural science confirming a person’s ability to concentrate is a finite and exhaustible period on any given day, and we posit that high-level, high-value, high-thought or strategic/creative tasks should be matched with facilitative environments…which can be built/designed after we work out how the human best works. At these moments the attentional capital is at its highest value, and for companies to be as productive as possible they should first understand these patterns in their employees, and then adapt the office to maximise it. This also relates to medium and low level activities too.

For example, I am a “morning person,” with the job title CEO, so my attentional capital, at its self-perceived highest between 0800-1100h, should be matched with highest concentration tasks, such as Strategy, Negotiations, Board and Executive meetings, and Hiring. Later in the day, when I am unable to focus with the same level of detail, and my attentional capital is now at a moderate level I may participate, but not necessarily lead, Product or Project Management tasks for information gathering. Latterly, before I’m ready to go home I can attend to emails and casual ad hoc meetings in my “cheap” state of attentional capital.

CanFocus has a suite of tools that facilitate the ability at the individual and team level, to reactively gather self-generated, unique data on periods of highest, moderate and low attention, and thus (i) by proxy define any trends in an individual’s reactive work preferences, (ii) through algorithms proactively optimise their periods of the day, and their interactions with others to match task and required attention.

What began as a tool for a much needed digital and physical interruption/distraction management device, has developed into a potential start in understanding how the producers of ideas and “modern innovation factories,” you and me, can harness attentional capital with sociometrics to help Steelcase Inc. et al build functional, adaptable human-oriented systems.

An office building with foundations anyone?

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On November 14, 2014

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