SMART COFFEE BREAK: CREATIVE FLOW & HOW TO STAY FOCUSED AT WORK WITH DR FIONA KERR

Episode two of the podcast and article in the series of ‘Smart Coffee Break - The Productivity Podcast’ brought to you by Nestlé Coffee Partners, explores the subject of Individual Flow and Focus at work with special guest Dr Fiona Kerr

In this, podcast we delve into why focus and creative flow will matter more than ever with hybrid working, how to stay focused at work and what we can do to encourage our productivity with our expert guest Dr Fiona Kerr, Founder and CEO of The Neurotech Institute.

Why focus and creative workflow will matter in the flexible working environment 

Helping people to achieve a state of concentration and creative flow will be essential to the future of workplace productivity, says leading neuroscientist Dr Fiona Kerr in an exclusive interview. 

Supporting individuals to get into a state of concentration and flow will be as important to the future of productivity as enabling collaborative activity in the workplace.   

That’s the view of leading neuroscientist Dr Fiona Kerr, founder and CEO of The NeuroTech Institute and an adjunct senior fellow at the University of Adelaide, who believes we should pay more attention to how our brains work in determining the contours of the new office.  

Speaking to WORKTECH Academy director Jeremy Myerson from Australia as part of the Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work, presented by Nestle Coffee Partners, Kerr argues that ‘attention is a resource’ and that every manager should pin a sign on their computer screen to remind them.   

Getting into creative work flow is important for productivity

Paying attention is the first step to getting into flow – it allows people to focus and then open up creatively. ‘Creative ideation is this state you get into …you can actually cue it and people can get better and better at getting there faster,’ says Kerr. ‘And you can use things to do that: certain music, certain views, even certain chairs.’ However, many offices are poor at supporting flow and focus, their design offering too much by way of noise and distraction.

‘You've got this absolute cocktail of electro-chemical activity that increases trust and affiliation…’ Dr Fiona Kerr  

Getting into a creative flow does special things to the brain: ‘You've got this absolute cocktail of electro-chemical activity that increases trust and affiliation… all of these neurons that are normally connected with picking up information and they start to synchronise, which means they go faster,’ explains Kerr. This electro-chemical ‘hit’ then leads to predictive or pre-emptive thinking, which is so valuable to companies.

How your creative workflow can affect your productivity

The psychological concept of ‘flow’ as a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity and creativity was first recognised and popularised by the veteran psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who analysed the relationship between the scale of the challenge and our ability or resources to meet that challenge.

Fiona Kerr believes that this concept is still relevant today: ‘Csikszentmihalyi talks about needing to have some control and being able to concentrate…he talks about goal-directed behaviour and, again, paying attention.’ However, she disagrees with Csikszentmihalyi that you always need to stay on task, and not daydream, for example. Looking out the window or going for a walk is ‘a key part of flow’, she argues, because it allows the brain to collect and arrange the information it has stored so it can serve ideas up to you. 

Does that mean that we can take a break in the office without losing focus at work? Kerr is emphatic that this is the case: ‘Not only do you not lose focus when you get up and take a break, you actually increase focus… again because of the way that we store information.’ 

All work and no breaks can even be counter-productive: ‘If you just keep ploughing through, you don't go into flow. That aha moment is never when you’re deep-down concentrating, it's always when you're doing something else. The point about the water cooler, the coffee point, the stairs instead of the lift, is that these are the places that create serendipitous connection. What that does for your brain is it puts you into proximity with other people, and so there's all sorts of electro-chemical changes that happen.’  

Ways to encourage focus and productivity at work 

As companies bring their workforces back to the offices, what should they be thinking about in terms of design to support productivity? ‘It's a case of defining and agreeing a number of things. What does productivity look like? What does deep and shallow work look like?

Agree on how people are going to collaborate and when they need to come together 

Provide some quiet spaces for individuals to work and informal places to collaborate as well as formal spaces because if you're going to an organised meeting you actually go in with a very different cognitive head space to collaborate.’ 

Nestle Coffee Partners supports this with placing strategic coffee points near desks so that individuals have access to refreshments but are less likely to break focus and in certain areas of the workplace to draw people to locations, or near meeting rooms, to not break the momentum of collaboration.

‘Stress wipes out the capacity for flow because it does all sorts of things to our brains and bodies…’- Dr Fiona Kerr

Consider how technology can help to stay focused at work

Kerr says the key thing here is to give people control and not use technology for employee surveillance, for example, which causes stress. She explains: ‘Stress wipes out the capacity for flow because it does all sorts of things to our brains and our bodies.’ 

The leadership style can make a real difference

Empathic, respectful and positive modes of leadership that build trust can also have an impact on getting into flow. In The Neurotech Institute, Fiona Kerr is currently helping companies get to grips with what hybrid working means: ‘Hybrid workplaces are the hardest of the lot. They are harder than virtual, and harder than face-to-face. They can be the worst of both worlds, or the best of both worlds.’

Whatever happens next, our capacity for creative flow will be a major factor in the future wave of office productivity. You can listen to the full interview with neuroscientist Fiona Kerr here

It is the second programme in the Smart Coffee Break podcast series on productivity at work, presented by Nestle Coffee Partners in partnership with WORKTECH Academy, the global knowledge platform and member network exploring how we’ll work tomorrow.

Subsequent podcasts in the Smart Coffee Break series will focus on such subjects as optimising teamwork, team-to-team collaboration and unplanned interactions, featuring interviews with experts from around the world.

Look out for Episode 3, featuring Simon French, on Optimised Team Work - coming soon. And don’t forget to check out the expert advice on post-pandemic workplace productivity from our episode 1 guest Despina Katsikakis.

To find out more about individual flow and focus and how to nurture these behaviours in the workplace through coffee solutions download Smart Thinking on Productivity.

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More about Dr Fiona Kerr

Dr Fiona Kerr, speaks and consults on a range of topics including the neuroscience of human-human and human-technology interaction, neurogenesis, and the manner in which leaders create organisations to flourish. 

Fiona’s interest in the science and power of human connectivity has developed over more than 30 years working in a variety of sectors in Australia and overseas, encompassing power generation, automotive manufacturing, defence, pharmaceuticals, state government, and creative companies including Cirque du Soleil!