Why you can't work at work

Offices are optimized for interruptions and interruptions are the enemy of work, creativity, and productivity. That's what Jason Fried, the co-founder of 37signals (makers of small business online collaboration tools), says. As a result, people who work in offices have to do their real work at home, during the nights and weekends.

I agree, for the most part. The best thing about working at home is that I can shut my phone off and focus fully on a project for a couple of hours without interruption. In an office environment, I have never been able to work for more than 15 or 20 minutes without someone breaking my concentration. That said, good things happen in offices, too. The thing I miss most about working in an office are those times when good ideas and decisions are made through informal meetings. Sometimes, getting people together in realspace is the best way to get something done.

With its constant commotion, unnecessary meetings, and infuriating wastes of time, the modern workplace makes us all work longer, less focused hours. Jason Fried explains how we can change all of this.
UPDATE: David Heinemeier Hansson and Jason Fried of 37signals are co-authors of a book called Rework that goes deeper into ways to get things done.

Why You Can't Work at Work


  1. Distractions can be irritating, but also good, no?
    “I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don’t quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.” that’s a quote from a former Bell Labs scientist, I forget who exactly.

  2. With its constant commotion, unnecessary meetings, and infuriating wastes of time, the modern workplace is a refreshing, idyllic contrast to the even higher levels of commotion, unnecessary interruptions, and infuriating wastes of time that a parent and homeowner will experience when trying to work in the same building as his or her family.

    Persons who have a less eventful home than office are living a very dull life, I think. Or they are childless, unmarried, friendless geeks – wait, I’m being redundant! Sorry. What I meant to say is my home life is more exciting and involving than my office life and therefore I am unlikely to get more of my employer’s work done if I am in that more exciting, involving, constantly swirling mass of lovable chaos I call my home.

  3. Especially when your office consists mostly of just one large room. That’s why I work from home, fultime. Well, and also because I live in the US and the office is in The Netherlands. It’s great!

  4. Nothing new here. The problem isn’t the office, it’s the inability of the people to structure and manage their time and resources.

    If you’re constantly interrupted by emails, IM, texts, phone calls, or people knocking on your door, there are easy solutions: close your email and IM, turn off the ringer on your phone, and put up a big “Do Not Disturb” sign on your office/cubicle.

    True, meetings can interrupt your work flow and prevent you from getting into the groove, but real-time meetings are often necessary to hash out things that would take forever via email. If you’re going to meetings that you don’t need to be at, either you’re silly for wasting your time or management is silly for wasting your time. But to say that meetings are evil is just wrong.

    1. >The problem isn’t the office

      Ok I’ll just close my door. Oh wait I work in an open plan office staring at two people opposite with five people over my shoulder and five more walking past every second. And they all wanna chat.

      Headphones playing ambient noise is about the only way I manage to get anything done during business hours.

      1. And they all wanna chat.

        In other words: you can get work done in an office, but not if the office doesn’t want to work.

    2. I don’t understand how you think that any of your “easy solutions” will work at all. If you shut off any communications device you’ll just have people tapping you on your shoulder – outraged that you didn’t respond to that IM from 30 seconds ago. How is putting up a “Do Not Disturb” sign going to filter out all of the phone calls, beeping devices, and stink-pot lunches and snacks from assaulting your senses from the cubicle next to yours?

      I see two major problems in the modern office. One is the office itself: a baseball diamond sized or larger auditorium filled with waist-high cubicles. These came about solely and only because cubicles, as office furniture, can be depreciated faster than actual walls can so accountants love them. For everyone else they are a disaster. After doing some studies pointing out that productivity drops by at least 20% in a cubicle environment Microsoft, for example, did away with them and replaced them with offices with doors that closed – ie. environments where work is possible.

      If a machine needs a particular environment to work there is never any question as to instantly shelling out whatever it takes to give it the right temperature, humidity and lack of vibration. Even hinting that a nickel might have to be spent on a human’s environment will cause management to have a fit.

      The other problem, in North America, is a complete lack of employee training in how to do anything involving other people. No one has a clue as to the difference between IM, phone calls, e-mail, blogs and document databases and invariably use the wrong tool (usually e-mail) for the wrong job. Most people spend about a day and a half of the five day work week doing e-mail – most of which should have been shovelled into internal blogs. Few people have a clue as to how to make meetings anything other than a complete waste of time: no decisions are made, no one keeps track of what was said or done at the meeting and there is only the vaguest idea of what the meeting was supposed to have been about before it got highjacked by someone’s pet peeve.

  5. It takes a pack of wild dogs to chase down a deer and tear it to pieces. But to bury a bone for later takes isolation. So, yeah, I agree with Jason.

  6. There are problems from working from home as well (which I do), however, they are not outward disturbances/interruptions which are not under your control. At home, you fight the battle with yourself…like reading Boing Boing when you should be working. It takes a certain person to be able to work from home. That person must be able to manage themselves effectively, otherwise, it can be much less productive than the office.

    The other side of this is human interaction. I miss that from my office days, however, I happen to be more introverted than extroverted so I can cope with that better than some might be able.

    The home office is something that only works for some. You have to be someone who can manage yourself efficiently as well as cope with the lack of human interaction.

  7. Being an introvert with an actual office and projects which do not require a lot of interaction, I don’t know what this guy is talking about.

  8. I’m watching this at work. Though in fairness, it’s after hours. Like what he’s saying though.

    I like the buzz of our open office. But I find I’m most productive in the morning before people get in, and start buzzing.

    1. Seconding you, adavies. I _do_ like the streaming buzz of convo that happens in my immediate vicinity with my workgroup mates, but I usually find myself getting to the office at about 6am to do some solid focused work for 3 hours. Then I can do work interspersed with other activity from about 9-noon. I usually head out for lunch with my coworkers, but if I don’t, then the lunch hour is also usually good for work time.

  9. I used to get into the office at 7am just to have a couple of hours in which to get things done.

  10. I find working at home just as distracting, if not more so, than working in an office. There’s a ton of stuff that requires attention at home, too…laundry, dishes, making the bed, getting dinner together, etc. If you have kids, add them to the list, too.

    Of course, I’m speaking from the aspect of someone whose spouse works, too, but away at an office. As the one at home, I sort of feel that taking care of the home is my responsibility.

  11. My home is too active and engaging to allow any work that is not focused directly on the home and family. That’s one of the reasons it is a fun place to live.

    My workplace, by contrast, is primarily focused on activities that benefit the organization(s) it serves. That’s why they have to pay me to work there; it’s significantly less fun than tossing squealing children into the creek.

    If your workplace prevents work, it is broken. Shifting you work to your home is not necessarily a solution, but could be a short-term patch that will permit you, personally, to work. It is often a very bad non-solution for the collective in the long term, because it permits the workplace to remain broken and dysfunctional while eroding any existing interpersonal bonds between workers.

  12. please tell me how I can work for your company.
    I just got out of a 2 hour meeting discussing our company’s new wiki system designed to stream line work but everyone knows it will be a cluster-f**k of of new learning.

    No one wants it, and again, it will take away from our productivity.

  13. The video looked interesting, but I didn’t get through the whole thing – I had to pause it so I could reply to an urgent email while taking a phone call about the IM conversation I was missing.

  14. Wow, I wish I worked in the platonically ideal office that kmoser inhabits. I was interrupted four times just while trying to watch the video.

    1. Wow, I wish I worked in the platonically ideal office that kmoser inhabits. I was interrupted four times just while trying to watch the video.

      Was one of the people your boss trying to tell you to get back to work?

      1. No, I was eating my lunch. That’s the only time my helpless boss doesn’t interrupt me. Most of the time.

  15. Welcome to the world of the teacher! No, we do not “work” until 3:00 and then go party until the next day. We do the seven hour show and go home to prepare for tomorrow’s seven hour show. Nor do we slack off for 12 weeks in the summer (workshops, tech integration, tweaking the curriculum, writing entirely new lesson plans for the new course you invariably get to teach once you get the one you teach now down to a science). Please do not get me wrong–it is the best job in the world, and I would not consider another. But I do not get to “work” at work. The only other job where I worked half this hard was the one in which I managed a house and three children full time.

  16. Hes not arguing against the office, just for his tools that mitigate the problems he identifies.

  17. I like interuptions, they keep things interesting. If I’m helping someone with their work, it’s not wasted time, and I get a break from my work. I don’t understand what he means by it taking like 20 minutes to get back to work. Takes me a few seconds at most to get my train of thought back.

    I always have like 5 things going on – listening to some politcal program on BBC iPlayer, or some dubstep, composing an email, working on a latest design. So other people’s interuptions and phone calls are just one more.

    So in short I’ve no idea what he’s talking about. I’m young but I’ve worked in around ten different offices without experiencing this.

    How difficult is it to just politely say you’re busy?

  18. I think this has more to do with the person than the surroundings, though the surroundings certainly don’t help.

    I own a consulting company and all of us work from home. It takes a certain kind of individual to do that though, so it’s not for everybody. I’ve had to fire people that got distracted at home too much and couldn’t get anything done, so being outside an office just brings another set of problems.

    The opposite side of this is that some people need to have someone looking over their shoulders to get ANYTHING productive done, so larger companies end up getting caught up in needless meetings and status tracking to make sure everyone is held accountable.

    At the end of the day, if the person isn’t interested or or invested in the work they’re doing, or the company has them working on things that are not important (a whole other topic), they’re going to be less productive.

  19. I think different strokes for different folks. I work in video games. The best games come when a artist or 2, a designer and a programmer all sit in the same cube and jam together on a game or part of a game.

    I’ve never had any problem working in the open (I’m a programmer) and I have far more issues working in isolation.

    If working in isolation works for your and your job great but don’t go thinking that it works for everyone and every job.

  20. Astute observations from the video but horrifying conclusions and intentions. Efficiency purely for it’s own sake results in rapid overexploitation of available resources, e.g. the industrial revolution to modern day. By increasing the efficiency of a given system, the “metabolism” also increase – it requires more resources and consumes them at a greater rate which establishes an unsustainable positive feedback loop driving the system beyond its sustainability, vide our current situation regarding improved medicine, food production and material luxuries resulting in near exhaustion of the necessary resources that power such a lifestyle. Unfortunately, the systems that embrace restraint are quickly overpowered and outcompeted by the expansion-based systems which drive themselves to extinction. Moral of the story? Perhaps we should enjoy that last slice of cake in the fridge and accept our impermanence. Sorry for the verbosity.

  21. This is a very idiosyncratic commentary on work. Many people do a wide variety of jobs on this planet. Many of these jobs are not typing on a computer. Many of them actually expend labor to complete a task or assignment.
    I suppose if everyone worked in an office environment then they would relate directly to this pretentious viewpoint. ( I work in an office. )
    This seems more of a problem of communication. Communications with other human beings. Perhaps you should look into this. If you annunciate words and form them into sentences, you can create a dialog with other humans that communicate your concerns with them. This would require you to actually interact with other human beings of course. The second part is even more critical in order to get good results from these communications. Listening. Listening and then understanding others will greatly improve your chances of achieving what you desire.
    Your actual commentary exhibits a lack of understanding of “work” and how you may work in a place that is not managed or organized well.
    This is typical of the ADHD Millennial crowd. (If you will forgive the generalization.) You sound young, inexperienced and full of yourself. Perhaps this is a mis-interpretation that I infer based on your syntax.
    Perhaps your personal working style requires you to be in solitude in order to be productive. This is not necessarily true for all people.
    I would not agree that work is all about interruptions. your statement regarding that is fallacious. Your personal experience at your workplace may appear to you as being all about interruptions. But again this is your personal experience.

  22. Working from home is a terrible way for me to get work done, but a great way for me to make sure that all the cupboards in my house are clean and the items within sorted and aligned perfectly.

  23. What I don’t like about this sort of story is that some co-workers use it to justify not working at work (translation: surfing news blogs and facebook) and choosing to work-from-home with no prior notice.

    In my profession (software development), team members working from home can be very disruptive because others on the team might need to communicate with them, which is easier and more efficient in person, in the office. In short, there is a social aspect to many careers, and working at home excessively can be anti-social and lower overall productivity.

    Unfortunately, 37Signals has a very abrasive, confrontational attitude in their opinions, that can make it difficult (and sometimes unpleasant) to work with colleagues who zealously advocate and practice their positions.

    1. I agree, noahz. The situation this guy from 37signals describes sounds like the company is broken, not Corporate America in general.

      It really sounds like he’s trying to justify his products, not change the world. We could fix the problem much easier by having people who worked at worked, rather than wasting time. That goes for managers, programmers, and everybody else. If you need to isolate yourself from the rest of the company because they are all trying to waste your time, everybody else in your company has a problem.

      At the company I work for, we only hire people who we think will be a good fit for the team, even if that means paying at bit more for the good guys. We don’t count lines of code or anything silly like that, but we have had to let people go who just didn’t get anything done or spent so much time being disruptive that they prevented other people from getting things done. Corporate America’s problem isn’t managers or meetings, it’s a lack of work ethic that is endemic.

      Working from home or using technological crutches isn’t the answer. We just need to be willing to work, and to say something about the people who are preventing us from working.

  24. I agree with his theory, but his practice seems entirely wrong.

    I agree that interruptions stifle the ability to work effectively, especially in creative work like writing, programming, designing, or anything else that requires intense concentration for long periods of time and that requires an easing-in period to get going.

    But avoiding real-time interaction and replacing it with offline interaction isn’t the answer, nor is removing managers and meetings. All of these things have important reasons to be.

    First off, this is where I’m coming from. I work for a ~20 person start up company that develops software for electrical engineers. We have an open door policy: you close your door if you are busy and don’t want to be disturbed, otherwise you leave your door open and people are free to come ask questions. We also have a meeting once a week so everybody can sync up. Almost all of us work in the same building, and within the building, about half of us have private offices while the other half are two people sharing an office (because that’s how the space worked out).

    Back to the argument. First, interaction. Ever hold a conversation with somebody over IM? It takes you half of an hour to say what could be said in 5 minutes. It takes longer to type; there’s more delay between you typing it, them reading it, and them responding; and in the ~20 second breaks while you wait for a response, you can’t reasonably do anything else. Email is even worse, because the turn around time is so much longer.

    When we design applications, we sit 4 people in a room for 2 hours and it’s done. We have tried writing things on a wiki, emailing suggestions back and forth, even teleconferencing with something like WebEx, and it was all painfully inefficient. If people aren’t sitting on their email waiting for a response, the turnaround time is impractically long, and if they are, they are being very inefficient with their time, because they spend most of their time waiting for emails.

    Second, managers. Our group has always been big on keeping everybody talking to each other so that nobody is left unaware of what’s happening. The reason for this is simple: without context, we can easily run into conflicting work, differing goals, and duplicated effort. By keeping everybody on the same page, we can be more efficient.

    Unfortunately, staying in sync means taking time to sync up. This is where managers come in. My manager is essentially a filter: we all talk to him on a periodic basis (maybe every couple of days, maybe several times a day). We let him know where we’re at and ask him questions about where everyone else is at. He acts as the living bulletin board between us, which tells us what we need to know and leaves out everything irrelevant. The only time he interrupts us is if there is something he thinks we need to know or if he has lost track of where we are at. This is what a manager is supposed to do: he makes sure everybody knows what they are supposed to be doing, so that they can do it.

    It’s sad to hear that some managers feel a need to make themselves important. They bring people into meetings who don’t need to be there, just to cover their bases. They schedule meetings for things that could be solved in 5 minutes. They intrude daily to trumpet irrelevant information or check in every hour to see how that work (which needs to be done now) is going. Managers can be very disruptive.

    The last thing is walking up to a person and asking a question. In my company, we all do this a lot. Sometimes it’s just to gab, but mostly it’s because we have a question that we need answered. Often, it’s something along the lines of, “How does this work?”, “Why is this written this way?”, and “Is it safe to do this?” These are all questions that we run into as we are in the middle of our work, and without an immediate answer, we would be stalled dead in our tracks. Sometimes an RTFM could avoid the problem, but generally speaking, the fastest and most efficient answer is to ask somebody who already knows.

    But these things aren’t inherently bad. Managers don’t have to meddle and waste time; they can increase our efficiency. Meetings don’t have to be a waste of time; they can be faster and more efficient than endless email threads. A tap on the shoulder or a shout over the wall can make you both more effective if it’s done for the right reasons. All of these things only fail when people do them for the wrong reasons. Managers who interrupt you just to remind you how urgent it is that you finish what you are working on, meetings held for the sake of holding a meeting, and being interrupted for the sake of conversation are wastes of time, but managers, meetings, and face-to-face questions are not the problems themselves.

    What companies need are people who understand the value of minimizing unnecessary interruptions and simple procedures for indicating when interruptions are unwelcome. Closing the office door, turning off the ringer on the phone, and closing your email program are simple solutions for the person who needs a couple of hours to get something done. Every few hours, you check your email and your voicemail, catch up on what you missed, then put it all away and get some more work done. There’s always a delicate balance between getting work done and being available and in the loop, and these are things that we need to balance ourselves as employees and as a group as companies.

    But don’t eliminate meetings and replace them with emails. Don’t eliminate managers and force people to work in isolation. Don’t close all the doors and leave people unable to ask the important questions. And don’t work from home and spend your day reading Boing Boing. We’ve tried all of those things at our company and they all failed due to a lack of communication.

    1. And don’t work from home and spend your day reading Boing Boing.

      But…but…that is my job.

  25. Define work!

    If a large part of your work is to motivate, inspire, coach and guide people you place should be on the work floor. The same applies for multifunctional teams, they require to know each other, and have frequent communication. The office is a great place for them to meet and align their thoughs

    Depending on your work and position it’s more or less efficient to work in the office.

  26. In the software engineering trade, I found that the primary source of “interruptions” to my work flow was waiting for my code to compile/build/deploy. During these minutes-long interludes, I could either stare at a useless screen like a zombie, or go browse the web. Naturally, I chose the latter. But by doing that, I got all the negative effects of a “real” interruption: losing my train of thought, forgetting important details about what I’m in the middle of doing, etc.

    It’s an inherent difficulty to being a programmer, in my experience.

  27. What an annoying video… maybe he describes his own office well, but how on earth can he generalize to “the modern workplace” and “people” and “you” and “everyone at work?” Nothing turns me off more than an arrogant jerk who thinks everyone is just like him. As all the commenters above attest to, this all depends from person to person, from workplace to workplace, and of course, not everybody works in an office, anyway, and not everybody who does work in an office sits at a computer working on “projects.”

    But you know what? I do. And how often do I bring my work home with me? I think I did it once in the last year.

  28. “As a result, people who work in offices have to do their real work at home, during the nights and weekends.”

    I’m happy I’ve never had any of yours or their jobs. I’m with adamnvillani: don’t universalize your own experiences.

Comments are closed.