Why The Office Is The Worst Place To Work

Caught this editorial on CNN this weekend:

Companies spend billions on rent, offices, and office equipment so their employees will have a great place to work.  However, when you ask people where they go when they really need to get something done, you’ll rarely hear them say it’s the office.

If you ask, you’ll usually get one of three kinds of responses: A place, a moving object, or a time.

They’ll say their house, their back porch, an extra bedroom they’ve converted into a home office, a library, the coffee shop down the street, the basement. Or they’ll say their car, or a train, or a plane — basically, during their commute. Or they’ll say really early in the morning, really late at night, or on the weekend. In other words, when no one else is around to bother them.

Indeed, I think it’s important to realize that different individuals have different productivity models.  By that I mean that certain people are “morning people” and their brains are most active and creative in the morning.  Others are “night people” where there brains are most wired and effective in the evenings.  Some people feel more comfortable with natural lighting during the day time.  Some prefer a bright working space while others prefer a dim one.

It seems counterproductive to force everyone into one model of the work environment when the preferences that maximize the efficiency of each individual can be vastly different.

And then there’s the bigger issue of interruptions:

I don’t blame people for not wanting to be at the office. I blame the office. The modern office has become an interruption factory. You can’t get work done at work anymore.

People — especially creative people — need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done. Fifteen minutes isn’t enough. Thirty minutes isn’t enough. Even an hour isn’t enough.

I believe sleep and work have a lot in common. I don’t mean that you can sleep at work or you can work in your sleep. I mean sleep and work are phase-based activities. You don’t just go to sleep or go to work — you go towards sleep and towards work.

You aren’t sleeping when your head hits the pillow. You start the sleep process. You have to go through phases to get to the really beneficial sleep. And if you’re interrupted before you get there, you have to start over.

The same is true for work. You don’t just sit down at your desk and begin working effectively. You have to get into a groove. You go towards good work. It takes some time to settle in, clear your head, and focus on what you need to do.

A very good analogy and I wholeheartedly agree.  At the same time, to ensure that this model works, teams need the right tools (Webex or equivalent, chat clients, VOIP, etc.) and the right people to make it work.  To some extent, it takes a good amount of trust that each member of the team understands their tasks and roles to get their jobs done without having to have a manager or supervisor constantly buggering for a status or having meetings to figure out the status of the tasks.

At least for myself, I find it incredibly difficult to work any any problem of moderate complexity without sitting down and having a solid bloc of a few hours to work on the problem.  There’s nothing worse than having to do a mental context switch when one is working on a difficult problem.  Well, it’s only worse when that context switch is for a meeting that’s inconsequential to the tasks at hand

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1 Response

  1. Rob says:

    I agree completely. For the last 12 months I’ve been working in a cubicle environment, which is very noisy. Coming from 6 years with my own office I have found the switch difficult and even 12 months later I feel I still can’t focus and produce even 4 hours worth of work in an 8 hour day.

    Over the last 2 week Xmas break I did some coding at home and was deeply satisfied how more productive I was in my home office, even with 2 small kids running around.

    It’s a pity I can’t work from home, even though we have team members working remotely.