In Psychology there’s a concept called flow, which is when your attention is so hypnotically focused on your work that your ego disappears and you become one with the task. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist who coined the term, claims it’s the secret to happiness and a life worth living. “Some people say Michelangelo painted the Sistine Chapel in a flow state,” says Mark McKenna, director of product design at Steelcase.
In order to achieve a flow state, you first have to be able to focus, and that’s exactly what Steelcase is aiming to provide with Brody Research. It’s a one-person pod with an adjustable chair, a titling laptop stand on a swiveling arm, a footrest, and a privacy screen that encircles the person within. McKenna calls it “a micro-environment” for the user, more like a cockpit than a desk. Steelcase will be showing it off at Neocon, the annual furniture festival, in Chicago this June.
When Steelcase started on Brody, the design team began by thinking about escape and focus in broad terms. Steelcase has explored this territory before: Last year the company worked with famous introvert Susan Cain (author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking) to create five modern office spaces that maximize productivity by offering privacy.
That line borrowed heavily from Cain’s work; this one leans on a slew of new research. To observe deep focus in the wild, a Steelcase research team went to ground zero for concentrated working: college libraries. There, Steelcase saw a posture repeated among college students. “When they really need to pay attention and digest some stuff, students get themselves out of a chaotic environment, and then put their backs to the wall,” McKenna says. “They position themselves so no one could sneak up behind them.”
Evolving for the Office
That observation—about students positioning themselves so they have a clear view of their surroundings—was an interesting one. It dovetailed with some other research the Steelcase designers were doing on the nature of distraction. We often think of distraction as a mental function—runaway trains of thought like, I need to finish this paper…but maybe I’ll just muse over the symbolic meaning of last night’s episode of Mad Men. But some scientists have argued that distraction is first and foremost a function of human sight. Steelcase started thinking about distraction in evolutionary terms. “A human being or animal is very prone to visual distractions at the periphery of their vision. We began to see distraction not as something pejorative, but as something that’s an evolutionary adaptation we developed to avoid predators,” McKenna says. “That flipped the project around for us.”
That heightened awareness is “great in the Savannah, not great in an office,” McKenna says. Brody is meant to give workers a way to sidestep that adaptive behavior. The privacy screen blocks out peripheral activity from the worker’s line of vision. The chair and the laptop stand are taken from Steelcase’s current product lines, and are both flexible enough to cradle the worker, so his posture can mimic that of a college student. And there are little conveniences sprinkled throughout: power outlets and a hammock underneath the seat, to keep bags off the floor but within fingertips’ reach.
Of course, Brody can only eliminate distractions from the physical world. The trouble is that distraction hails from our screens, too. In another bit of research conducted by an internal team, Steelcase found that the typical office worker gets interrupted every 11 minutes. The Brody might function as a Do Not Disturb sign, but it can’t step in between you and your blinking Gmail tab, or the notification that pops up on your phone. Still, it’s one of many designs intended to counterbalance the trend of the open plan office—a respite away from floating chatter and collaboration stations that invite coworkers to linger. The rest—the Gmail, the Instagram, and whatever else is keeping you from your flow state—is still up to you.