Jason Fried, at a recent TED conference, presented his thoughts on why work doesn’t happen at work.
There’s a lot of what he said that I can really resonate with; I work in an open-plan office, and for the most part find that quite difficult. My best work (and probably my best thinking) happens in a quiet atmosphere, or somewhere I can tune out the background noise. One of the pitfalls of an open-plan office is that noise-levels are, in large part, dictated by others: some people like to think aloud or in conversation with others, and their ideas thrive in connection with other people. Some people just enjoy an almost constant background banter. Don’t get me wrong, I do enjoy that too, and find external processing of ideas and creativity with others incredibly stimulating. But when I need to get something done, I prefer a quiet calm, or at least somewhere I can tune out the background noise.
There are certain tasks that need me to be able to think clearly and coherently. For example, coding often needs you to be able to plan how one piece of functionality could be coded in a number of different ways, and determining the best route requires being able to consider not just the next line of code, but the implications of that on the next 50 lines.
Unfortunately, it’s often when doing those tasks that need my highest concentration that I find it all the harder to tune out what’s going on around me. And I’m not a nice person when faced with those conditions.
Jason compares work-patterns to sleep-patterns. When we sleep, it’s not a simple binary. You are not just asleep or awake, but your sleep is characterised by cycles and patterns. Medics and psychologists alike recognise how disruptive it can be to have your sleep disturbed, and Jason suggests it can be equally disruptive to have a work cycle interrupted; something that might happen many times every day in most offices. “The best gift you can give to a colleague is four hours of uninterrupted time.” He even goes as far as suggesting ‘silent Thursdays’, or even one silent Thursday afternoon each month, to see what difference this makes. It doesn’t sound terribly realistic, and I know many people in my office would (rightly?) balk at the idea; but as I think about it, I wonder if it might redress the balance of ideal working conditions for different types of people. If we work in an open-plan and ‘disruptive’ office for 160 hours a month, suddenly 4-16 hours a month given to conditions that might be more favourable to other people doesn’t sound a lot. Although that does assume that you can do your best work, under those conditions, in a specifically allotted time.
I think one of my major problems with Jason’s presentation, though, is that it feeds my selfishness. The working conditions he describes are my ideal, and I would love to be able to regularly have quiet space to get things done. But deep-down I know that’s not realistic. Part of my value to the organisation isn’t just my individual productivity, but the shared value of connections; being disrupted to help another, and having the freedom to interrupt someone else to get the help I need.
And people work differently. My ideal would be, I suspect, far from ideal for a good number of my colleagues; people whose creativity and productivity is catalysed by constant connection with others. One colleague (not based in our office) explained to me recently that when he needs to get something done, he turns his wifi off; but he also admitted that, as an extrovert, he thrives on ‘distraction’.
People are different, and that is good. People work differently, and how we accommodate those differences is important.
As we consider an office move this year, with potential to change and shape the way we organise that office, this certainly does give food for thought.