This Clever Desktop Gadget Makes it Easier to Focus in Open Offices

How much more productive would you be if you were left alone?

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BY Betsy Mikel - 10 May 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Despite their wave of popularity over the last few years, open offices are loved by few. Noises travels. Distractions abound. There's nothing stopping a coworker from stopping by and disrupting your train of thought.

In the olden days, you could have simply closed your door. Not so much in the open office environment.

Some try noise-canceling headphones (even nothing's playing). Others resort to working-not working flags or lights. Developers at robotics and automation technology company ABB Inc. tried placing orange traffic cones on their desks to signal they were not to be disturbed.

None of these solves are ideal. Who better to design a solution than a technology company? ABB was up to the challenge. The FlowLight was born. Invented by UBC assistant professor Thomas Fritz and a team of ABB researchers, it tackles the problem of pesky coworkers bugging you went you really just need to get work done.

The FlowLight might appear like nothing special. It's just a small bulb you place on your desk and it uses your keystrokes and mouse activity to signal when you’re busy.

But here's where it gets clever. Plug the FlowLight into your computer, and it will respond to your keystrokes and mouse activity. Depending on your computer activity, it shifts from do-not-disturb mode to not-all-that-busy mode.

When you become focused on a task and start typing furiously, it switches to red. This signals to your colleagues that you're in the zone, and they should save their chit chat for another time.

When your typing cadence slows down -- signaling that you might be more in daydreaming or Facebook scrolling mode -- the light turns green. Colleagues know you might be more approachable at this time. They know it's safe to swing by and get the name of that delicious sushi restaurant you were raving about.

Does it work? After 450 ABB employees tested out the FlowLight, they say yes. "Not only did the employees report fewer interruptions," the company said in a press release, "it also changed the office culture so that people were more respectful of each other's time and aware of when they could interrupt a colleague."

Keyboard strokes and mouse activity is one way to measure someone's busyness, but it's not the only way. Just because you're not typing doesn't mean you're not thinking.

That's why Fritz, the inventor, is now working with PhD student Manuela Zuger to design future iterations of the FlowLight. They're exploring how they might use people's heart rates, pupil dilation, eye blinks and even brainwave activity to change the FlowLight's color.