Friday, December 17, 2010

We Still Can Get Thinkgs Done At Our Offices

If you’re one of those managers who worries that people who don’t come in to the office aren’t being productive, ask yourself this question: where do you go when you need to really buckle down and get stuff done? Odds are it’s not the office during normal hours.

That’s just one of the provocative points raised by Jason Fried, who is the co-founder and president of 37 Signals. He recently spoke at a TED conference in Chicago and kicked up a lot of dust with the notion that “Work Doesn’t Happen At Work.”You can watch the entire presentation here if you’d like (and I recommend it). Many of the points he raises are valid. Some, I think, need to be tempered by a dose of reality, or at least understanding of the human condition.

Before you light the cubicles on fire here are some of the highlights, and a few thoughts of my own:

When you ask people where they go to really concentrate and get work done, they rarely say “the office”. This is absolutely true. Real inspiration doesn’t happen between 9 and 5 and rarely happens surrounded by cubicle walls. It also seldom happens when your dog is barking at the postman or your kid is banging on the office door because they’re late for soccer practice. Jason’s point is that people need to be able to work when the time is right and they are at their best, not be restricted to specific hours or places. No one is at their best 24/7 and few people’s jobs require top-tier inspiration every minute of the working day. This doesn’t mean that the office doesn’t serve a lot of mundane but critical uses.
Most meetings are an expensive waste of time, brain power and oxygen. You’d be hard pressed to find an argument from anyone except the people who sell doughnuts (who would shrivel up and go out of business if we all went cold turkey on this). I think, though, that this is an indictment of the way most people run their meetings and the politics involved rather than the actual act of human discourse itself. At his most didactic, Jason sounds as if actually talking to people is most often a waste of time. Unless you have coworkers hanging out in your home office this can be difficult to do without a central meeting point.
Work, like sleep, happens in phases and it doesn’t really work when constantly interrupted. A bit of a strained metaphor but the point is that you can’t do good, sustained work if you’re constantly interrupted. However, this again supposes that your job is primarily to sit quietly and create. Some people actually have to interact with others and be a resource to those who sit and think. Of course, it doesn’t have to be inside burlap-padded cubicles.
He has 3 ideas and I have a couple of gripes about them. Jason plays the gadfly and makes three radical suggestions to make the office a better place.
1) Instead of casual Fridays, how about “no talk Thursdays”. His idea is here is to make it okay to be quiet and not interact with people on command. You can do that now if you have the nerve to set and keep boundaries. It also presumes that all conversation is unnecessary (which reveals as much about the coder mindset as it does about the workplace). I am an auditory learner and I need to speak to other real live human beings in order to process information effectively. The office also provides social interaction which makes the workplace bearable for the majority of people who aren’t introverted knowledge workers.

2) Use more asynchronous tools instead of synchronous tools. Email, instant messaging, blogs and social network sites actually are great places to gather information and formulate thoughtful answers. We should not assume that the live event (telephone, videochat or, heaven forbid, actually getting together) is the best way to achieve your outcomes. On the other hand, we can’t just assume that it’s not. Input and feedback are the keys to any successful process and I’m not arrogant enough to assume that I have all the answers i need if everyone would just leave me alone. Please let there be someone smarter than me around I can talk to. Any workplace that runs entirely on email and electronic messaging without some human contact and conversation isn’t a place I want to be part of and a lot of people feel the same way.

3) Just cancel any meeting that doesn’t look like it will be worth the time. I can get behind that. It also applies to remote workers in the form of painful webmeetings and conference calls that are held because you think you should hold them. Also, do you really need to send that email right now? Stop and think about what you want to accomplish and weigh the best options to accomplish it. Shockingly, you may find that dealing with other humans is actually a useful way to get where you need to go. Just go about it in a way that’s respectful of their time and their working process so that by solving your problem you’re not becoming someone else’s unwelcome interruption.

In fact, while much of what Jason says about the modern workplace is correct, I took away an unintended lesson. Instead of doing away with the office completely… how about we all actually think about what we need to do, make it possible for people to do it and work with people respectfully to let everyone be their best?

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