Four Walls and a Laptop

By Nadav Zohar

Many factors can contribute to minimizing distraction in the physical workplace. Perhaps the major considerations are noise, lighting, temperature, and management acceptance.

A few dozen software developers were asked to respond to this hypothetical scenario: “Suppose you are a month away from a product deadline. If you meet the deadline you get a $25,000 bonus. Describe your ideal work environment to guarantee you get the $25,000. Include as much detail as possible: location, lighting, temperature, etc.” This is a great question to understand a person’s ideal distraction-free environment.

For some people childcare was the major issue, while others cared most about natural light and greenery. One person thought he would work more efficiently if his office had a specific style of furniture. Another person merely answered, “Four walls, a coffee machine, and a laptop.”

These results are predictable: each of us has opinions about what makes a work environment ideal and many people long to work for an organization that understands this.

Each of us is different, and we tend to work in a way that maximizes our strengths.

We all have personal preferences for our physical workplace. The lighting, the temperature, the position or padding of the chair, and the hunger factor can all influence our ability to concentrate. If we are aware of the preferences we have for our environment, we can make changes to our surroundings that impact our level of focus and productivity.

Corporate work environments can seem like very sterile places. Penny-pinching CFOs have dominated decisions about the environment in which corporate America now works. Managers have quite naturally insisted on a work environment that makes sense to them. A standard approach is to demand a consistent start time, to provide a clean, relatively quiet, well-lit workstation with a desk and chair, and to limit distractions.

The problem, of course, is that the general workforce is not like corporate management. Some folks like to work at a large conference table, while for others sitting on the floor is the only way they can be comfortable enough to get into a groove. Because of our individual preferences, it is important to remember that one way will not always work for everyone. Each of us is different, and we tend to work in a way that maximizes our strengths.

An InfoTech Weekly article reported a clear relationship between the quality of the physical workplace environment and staff turnover, absenteeism, and productivity. A strong economic argument exists for improving the workplace to reduce employee churn and operating costs. Organizations do not invest in good work environments just because they want to – they realize a significant financial benefit also.

While there are many factors that can contribute to an improved physical workplace, perhaps the biggest distractions are noise, lighting, temperature, and management acceptance.


Some people need noise to be able to concentrate and are distracted by silence or by being alone. A friend of mine owns a business and could work from home, but chooses to work in an office because she is more productive with other people around. Other personalities depend on quiet and solitude to be productive.

I once mentioned to a coworker that I liked getting into work at 7:00 in the morning because I can get more done from 7 to 9 in the morning than during any other part of the day. She thought this was a great idea, and showed up to work early the next morning. About 7:30 she came by my cubicle wondering how I could get anything done when it was so quiet! Individuals should pay attention to this aspect of themselves and adjust their schedule according to how they work best.


As with noise levels, we all seem to have personal lighting preferences. Many work environments insist on having bright overhead fluorescent lighting, but studies have shown that some people lose their ability to concentrate when the light is too bright. Experiment with different levels of light to find out what is most comfortable for you. The key is to use enough light to see without eyestrain, noting that your preferences will likely be different from those of your coworkers.


In every office building, you find some people sitting comfortably in lightweight, short-sleeved shirts while others are shivering in their sweaters. The ideal room temperature is often different for one person than for another. If it is too hot or too cold, many people have a hard time concentrating. While some adapt easily to varying temperatures, others need the room to be comfortable before they can pay attention to anything else.

Consulting-Specifying Engineer Magazine reported that providing workers with day-lighting, high air quality, and individual temperature controls have resulted in measurable increases in productivity. Unfortunately, short-term economic goals are often impediments to creating a worker-friendly environment.

Management Acceptance

I once had a manager who was more interested in his career as a manager than on his team’s productivity. When asked if his team could work from remote to limit distractions and improve productivity, he said, “No, what would I do then?”

If you have a manager who is truly focused on productivity, ask if you can experiment. Ask for three weeks to work in any environment you choose – any place, any time. At the end of those three weeks, if you and your manager discover that you are less productive in your preferred environment, you’ll go back to your old one. But, if you are more productive, then you can remain in your preferred environment as long as your productivity stays constant. A manager who is sincerely focused on productivity will probably take you up on it.

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More than likely your ideal work environment will be more than four walls, and a laptop, but if that is what makes you the most productive, try to work in that environment as much as possible.

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