You Can’t Work at Work


When are you the most productive?

If you’re like most people, it’s unlikely that you answered “during the day in the office.” It might be early in the morning or late at night when no one else is around. It might be a special room in your house or a quiet spot in the library.

For me, it’s when I’m on a plane. There are almost no interruptions, even if there is in-flight wireless. Of course, there are distractions – food, movies, seat mates – but for the most part these can be controlled by me. I choose to let them interrupt me.

Research has shown people are not good at multitasking. It impairs your ability to think for yourself and increases the likelihood that you rely on conventional wisdom. Multitasking reduces productivity.

Jason Fried explores the causes of poor office productivity in a talk at TEDx Midwest by drawing an analogy between interrupting sleep and work. We know we don’t feel rested if our sleep is interrupted; even if we sleep for many hours. By extension, we shouldn’t expect to be productive if we’re constantly interrupted, even if we’re in the office for many hours.

Of course, hardly anyone has long stretches of uninterrupted time. A few years ago I was able to schedule my day in one-hour blocks; these days I track 15 minute increments. If we’re not careful, we get lots of tasks done but precious little important work.

Fried claims the distractions don’t come from Facebook or YouTube or other Web sites. In his words, these are “just modern-day smoke breaks that employees voluntarily take to clear their minds.” While these interruptions are voluntary, the real problems are managers and meetings which force involuntary interruptions.

The talk challenges the conventional wisdom that employees are less productive when they work from home because they are more likely to be distracted. Instead, by keeping them away from managers and meetings, Fried believes that they will have higher productivity at home. They save commute time, they have higher job satisfaction, and they are more productive. It makes me wonder whether corporations should be spending hundreds of millions of dollars on large office buildings.

Fried suggests a three-part approach for helping employees be more productive when they are in the office:

  • “No-talk Thursdays”
    Schedule long stretches of time when co-workers are prohibited from talking to each other.
  • Passive communication
    Switch from active communication, like conversation, to passive forms such as email, IM, and collaboration tools.
  • Avoid meetings
    Replace meetings by simple communication of status or short conversations between a small number of people.

Counter-intuitive, but intriguing. Would it work in your office?

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5 Responses to You Can’t Work at Work

  1. Joan S April 20, 2011 at 10:50 am #

    Hi Jonathan,

    I think there is great value in working from home and also great efficiencies realized. However there is also the increased lack of team communciation and rapid problem solving that can be accomplished by interfacing in person with those of your team who aren’t virtual.

    Also, we’ve moved away from making a quick call to rapidly problem solve. Instead we start lengthly email chains copying others and taking their valuable time when often a call will take care of all the back and forth.

    Perhaps we need to look at using the best of all communication alternatives given the problem being addressed. And also realize that we all need to dedicate a portion of each day to getting off meetings and getting the real work done that then brings balance back into our lives (I realize that’s tough to do but you have to be strong!).

    Thanks for the post, good conversation.

  2. Kristen April 20, 2011 at 1:09 pm #

    “If we’re not careful, we get lots of tasks done but precious little meaningful work.”

    So true. It’s tough when every few moments there’s an interruption of some kind or another.

    I tend to use music w/earbuds to help counter the constant noise of the office. While this doesn’t remove all distraction, the music in itself can be one, it does cut down on the outside interruptions. It can also make time fly by, which is how I know I’ve been able to get work done.

    If I’m watching the clock tick by it’s usually a busy day at the office. Not work busy, but interruption busy. When I can zone into my tasks – meaningful or necessary – the time seems to slide by.

  3. rrodatus April 20, 2011 at 8:41 pm #

    At Microsoft in Germany our sales force had the DiMiDo rule – meaning: no internal meetings at Tuesdays (Di), Wednesdays (Mi), and Thursdays (Do). Customers appreciated it and over time our internal meeting structure adjusted to the rule.

    In general I realized pretty quickly that we are using at Microsoft (no matter if Germany or US) IM as the most common quick-fix tool. My call volume dropped significantly when starting to work here, and the open IM windows increased enormously. Instead of a ringing phone, I had a constantly blinking button on my task bar.

  4. riskczar April 21, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    There is still a culture within most organization that if you are not seated at a desk after 5, you are not a “good” worker. It won’t matter what time you arrived, how long was your lunch or how many smoke breaks you took, the optics of being there after 5 is all that matters. People need to be measured against what they deliver and not how many hours they spend in the office. Working from home is a derivative of this idea.

  5. Natalie Hanson, PhD May 2, 2011 at 4:42 am #

    Hi Jonathan, great post! I fully agree, and I really like the analogy with sleep – it makes good sense to me. Some time ago I wrote a post about the benefits of flexible working arrangements. It’s been proven to significantly increase not just engagement but employee productivity! I commented that such arrangements might also help SAP achieve it’s sustainability targets. You can read the post here if you like –

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