Uncover the reasons why the office may be the worst place to work

In October 2010, Jason Fried gave a talk on TED, and that video has generated more than 2 million views since it was posted. TED is a non-profit organization that chooses to bring people from the technology, entertainment, and design (TED) industries through regular conferences. A co-founder of a company and a co-author of a New York Times best seller, Jason Fried, the president of 37signals, talked about why work does not happen at work. In his talk, he described the present-day office and explained why it is the worst place to get things done.

The Question

According to Fried, for about 10 years, he has been asking people where they would go when they really need to get something done. The answers he got can be categorized into three: 1) a time, 2) a form of transportation, and 3) a specific place. Examples of time are on weekends, early in the morning, or really late at night. Examples of the second answer are the the train, the plane, or while commuting. Examples of specific places are the porch, the basement, the coffee shop, or the library. What is noticeably missing from these answers is the office. It is also ironic, because businesses and organizations spend so much to build and have an office full of equipment so that people can go there and do work.

The Modern Workday

In his talk, Jason Fried described a typical workday in the office, and was able to explain why not much work was happening there. An eight-hour workday nowadays has been divided into very small packets of 15-minutes at the least to one-hour periods at the most. It is rare for people to have two hours uninterrupted and dedicated to doing a specific task. For example, after working on a task for 15 minutes, a person can be visited by a colleague for a question or for assistance about another work. This person will then spend 15 to 30 minutes for this, and then go back to his task. While trying to get back on the first task for 5 minutes, he can again be called to a meeting or remember to do another task.

A project manager’s workday is very similar. While working on an important project plan for the first 15 minutes, a team member can visit and ask about an issue. After having the discussion and while trying to get back to planning the project, a senior manager can call for a meeting or a status update, which again breaks up the concentration of the project manager from completing the all-important project plan. There are serious implications to a poorly prepared project plan, which can result in serious delays, insufficient resources, high costs, failed implementation, and unsatisfied customers.

Two Types of Distractions

Fried identified two types of distractions: the voluntary and the involuntary. Voluntary distractions are when people decide to momentarily stop what they are working on, and focus on another matter, which may or may not be related to work, such as go to Facebook or YouTube. He likens this to a modern-day smoke break. Although it temporarily halts work, it does not create any significant effect on the work, because people are at a stage where they usually cannot do productive work anyway. Since this is voluntary, they can decide anytime to get back to doing productive work.

In contrast, involuntary distractions have a more damaging effect. Jason Fried pinpointed two sources: managers and meetings (M&M). When managers suddenly come visiting and personally ask people about a status or issue, they cause interruptions. When a manager calls a meeting of 10 other people, the manager multiplies the effect of the interruption 10 times. However, most of what can be discussed in a meeting can be resolved successfully with a 15-minute discussion between two or three people. When a project manager is called in a meeting with 10 other project managers, he or she can report about his project for 15 minutes, but has to wait and listen to nine other project status reports of 15 minutes each. That time could have been more productively spent on planning, scheduling, and resolving issues.

Similarities of Sleep and Work

Fried compared work to sleep, because both happen similarly in stages, especially to creative people, people who often have to come up with ideas and solutions. Like sleep, producing meaningful work happen in stages, and before getting into the stage of coming up with brilliant ideas, people have to go through the early stages where the mind prepares and wrestles with questions. Unfortunately, when interrupted while getting into that important stage, people cannot simply get back to the point before they were interrupted, but have to start all over again.

When a project manager is trying to define goals, manage scope, make a schedule, build a team, or prepare contingencies, he or she has to consider many things such as skill sets, availabilities, dependencies, budget, and priorities. It is a delicate balancing act, and getting interrupted while in the process of considering implications throws the project manager off balance. The project manager has to start all over again, or worse, may start working on an incorrect premise.

Recommendations

At the latter part of his talk, Jason Fried offered three suggestions to make the office become the first place people would think of when they need to get something done. First, he suggested having at least half a day once a month where people are not allowed to talk to one another. Second, he promotes passive communication such as email or instant messaging instead of personal visitations or face-to-face conversations. Third, he advises people just to cancel the next upcoming meeting. He guarantees that with these recommendations, people at the office can have more uninterrupted stretches of time to produce substantial work.

And for the project manager, this is a welcome time to make the perfect project plan. It is a great opportunity when all things are identified, defined, considered, assigned, and tracked. Consequently, the result is a schedule with no delays, costs within budget, and a completed project that achieves its goals and satisfies all stakeholders.

Jose Maria Delos Santos

Jose Maria Delos Santos

Jose is a subject matter expert and member of the writing team for Project-Management.com and Bridge24. He has written hundreds of articles including project management software reviews, books reviews, training site reviews, and general articles related to the project management industry.

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