Illustration: Ashley Siebels
You know that sinking feeling you get when you’re waist-deep in work at the office, and your beloved work spouse comes over to tell you something hilarious — but you’re too busy to talk and wish everyone, even the people you like, would just keep out?
FlowLight is an “application that runs in the background on the user’s computer,” which picks up on when they’re “most focused,” and updates their availability status online, as described in a video about the product.
The FlowLight bulb, powered by a USB, also sits on your desk and changes colors to signal your focus level to passers-by.
Algorithms can see into your brain
So how does the FlowLight know what your headspace is? The device tracks how busy you are based on the keyboard and mouse activity, which is compared to averages based on other people. For instance, a “busy” user is someone who fits within the top 4%-9% of their activity level, and is very busy if their activity is in the top 4%.
ABB teamed up with the University of Zurich on a field study which found that the product cut down on interruptions by 46%.
Green means you’re free to be interrupted. Red means you’re too swamped to talk. Pulsing red means you’re really too swamped to talk—also known as “Do Not Disturb.” Yellow means you’re “away.”
While open offices can be popular, they can also be teeming with distractions that can decrease productivity and focus. The FlowLight could be an option for people who rely on quieter spaces to get work done.
What the FlowLight knows about knowledge workers
Are you in front of a computer most of the day? Then you’re a “knowledge worker.” The Harvard Business review defined “knowledge workers” as “people who ‘think for a living,’” citing specific research, in a 2015 article, and ABB’s David Shepherd specifically refers to programmers, designers, engineers and analysts in a video featuring the device.
ABB’s field study with the University of Zurich involved 449 “knowledge workers” in 12 countries.
In addition to cutting down on disruptions by 46%, there were other promising results, according to the research.
One big one: people became more aware of how many interruptions were breaking up their flow, which made them better at fending them off.
“We also observed an increased awareness of the potential disruptiveness of interruptions at inopportune moments, which impacts the interaction culture in a positive way, and that our approach can motivate knowledge workers and make them feel more productive,” the study said.
Of the people surveyed during the study, 58.5% felt like using it boosted their productivity, compared to 20.1% who didn’t think so.
Some participants reported that curious coworkers were interested in talking about the light— interrupting participants’ work— but that decreased after a few days. Overall, it seems to have had a significant effect.
Open offices need traffic lights
Open offices can be distracting, and a rebellion is slowly taking shape against them.
The 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey of 2,035 knowledge workers in the US by architecture and design firm Gensler found that they spent 54% of the “average workweek” focusing on their own work in 2013, compared to 48% in 2008. In 2013, they spent 24% of the “average workweek” working with others, versus 30% in 2008.
Lindsey Kaufman wrote an article about having to ditch her private office for a shared workspace when the New York ad agency she worked for moved to an open office.
This particularly chilling quote illustrates what can go wrong.
“Our new, modern Tribeca office was beautifully airy, and yet remarkably oppressive. Nothing was private. On the first day, I took my seat at the table assigned to our creative department, next to a nice woman who I suspect was an air horn in a former life. All day, there was constant shuffling, yelling, and laughing, along with loud music piped through a PA system. As an excessive water drinker, I feared my co-workers were tallying my frequent bathroom trips. At day’s end, I bid adieu to the 12 pairs of eyes I felt judging my 5:04 p.m. departure time. I beelined to the Beats store to purchase their best noise-cancelling headphones in an unmistakably visible neon blue,” Kaufman wrote.
When you’re extremely busy, using the FlowLight in an open office could be a subtle hint to those around you that maybe, now isn’t the best time for a chat.