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The Perils of Interruptions at Work

6th December 2014

When was the last time that you did something, start to finish, without being interrupted? In today’s fast-paced, connected and globalised world, we’re nearly always being distracted by the ping of an email, a phone call, or someone hovering nearby with a burning question. In addition to being incredibly irritating, interruptions are impacting our ability to work effectively and innovate.

Distractions and interruptions affect the brain’s capacity to internalise and apply knowledge, an essential skill in all knowledge economy professions. When intently reading, listening or interacting with something, information flows from our short-term, working memory to long-term memory. Interruptions or distractions disrupt this flow of information, leaving us unable to process or store it as knowledge. Over time, frequent interruptions can result in poor memory recall and lower ability to comprehend while reading.

Research has also shown that distractions or interruptions lead to significantly higher levels of frustration and feelings of pressure. Being interrupted tends to make us paranoid that we’re falling behind, resulting in attempts to work faster and higher levels of stress. Deep concentration, on the other hand, has distinct health benefits. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has written about the state of ‘flow,’ reached when ‘a person must concentrate attention on the task at hand and momentarily forget everything else.’ Achieving this state, Csikszentmihalyi contends, is imperative to realising true fulfilment.

Furthermore, our capacity to innovate and be creative relies on an ability to absorb and reflect on knowledge. More interruptions and higher levels of stress leave less time for quiet reflection and contemplation. When distracted and unfocused we’re unable to consider what new products or services would meet customers’ need; what processes could be improved; or in what direction our companies should be heading.

Companies can better design their processes and workplaces to help us concentrate better in the face of an onslaught of interruptions. Expectations that emails don’t have to be answered instantly and the use of presence indicators can go a long way. In the near future, wearable technologies will monitor our levels of concentration and filter out all but the most important notifications. In the meantime, establishing quiet zones in offices, where the use of phones is prohibited, can make work which requires deep concentration more productive.

This post was written by Owen King, Unwork’s Workplace Consultant. 

In future of work

The Future of Workplace Technology: Virtual Reality and other wearables.

11th November 2014

Facebook made headlines earlier this year when it purchased virtual reality start up Oculus Rift for $2billion. Although Oculus Rift’s technology is initially intended for playing video games, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wasn’t shy about suggesting other use cases. ‘Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face – just by putting on goggles in your home.’ Virtual reality, and other wearable technology like Google Glass, could also transform the world of work.

American automotive giant Ford, for instance, is using VR to evaluate potential designs of new vehicles in a virtual environment. Using an Oculus Rift headset and several motion capture cameras, engineers at the company’s Detroit offices can explore the design of a vehicle and move around a virtual model of the car. Ford aims to use the technology to allow a group of designers based around the world to meet virtually and inspect new designs.

Another area where virtual displays could have an impact is training. General Motors has experimented with using Google Glass on its assembly line, giving workers live information about parts and components. Employees can also take pictures of parts or trouble spots they encounter, and submit the images to engineers for review.

Other companies could use Google Glass and similar camera-mounted wearable technologies to track performance. In the same way organisations currently monitor emails and phone calls, they could soon be using video monitoring to ensure standards and procedures are maintained. Aggregated video analytics could give companies a dashboard of the percentage of staff correctly dealing with clients in face-to-face meetings, and the number discussing key products or offerings. They could also gauge the reaction of clients in real time.

The brave new world of VR and other wearable technology has the potential to reshape our working lives to make them more collaborative, engaging and data-focused.

This post was written by Owen King, and is part of a series on the future of workplace technology. 

In future of work, technology

Time to think on your feet

1st November 2013
Figure 2 Informal standing up meeting tables at Vodafone, Amsterdam

Figure 1 Informal standing up meeting tables at Vodafone, Amsterdam

Standing up working has been receiving a large amount of media attention from various media outlets as a positive change in the way we work. There have been various historical figures that have advocated the benefits of standing up working, including the likes of Donald Rumsvelt, Ernst Hemmingway and Winston Churchill. With many modern knowledge workers working within increasingly sedentary environments, organisations are seeking ways to reduce these sedentary ways of working, with the aim of producing benefits that include improved health of staff, and greater productivity at work. Leading organisations that have sought to introduce standing up working as an effective way of working include Telstra, Vodafone, Microsoft and Plantronics.

Research has suggested that prolonged periods of sitting can contribute to increased risk of diabetes, various cardiovascular diseases and muscular skeletal injuries that are becoming so common within the office today. These are worrying findings when one considers that many sedentary workers in the UK now are sitting down for more than 12 hours of the day.

Figure 2 Standing up meetings at Microsoft in Amsterdam

Figure 2 Standing up meetings at Microsoft in Amsterdam

Standing up working can be used as an effective means of combating these sedentary work styles. Research has found that standing working increases heart rate and calorie burning at work. The study has indicated that staff who stand for three hours of each day burn 750 calories more than their sedentary colleagues each week.

Standing up working has other benefits beyond the improved health and wellbeing of employees – it is also an effective way to increase the speed of meetings within some activity based working environments. At Vodafone in Amsterdam meetings that ‘meetings that previously took one hour now mostly take between 30 minutes and 45 minutes’ when conducted in standing meeting rooms compared to sitting equivalents according to David Savage, Customer Solution Centre Manager. This has been backed up by research which has suggested shorter meetings do not contribute to poorer decision making induced by standing working practices.

It’s high time organisations start thinking on their feet and introduce standing up working in every workplace, as a means of promoting more effective working, improving staff wellbeing and inducing greater productivity at work.

Co-authored by Jacob Ward and Kit Lewin

In future of work, New Ways of Working Case Studies

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