Open Office

Productivity Distraction Communication

I just read this article, titled The Open-Office Trap, from Maria Konnikova’s blog at The New Yorker. It citest all sorts of studies and makes a pretty good argument that the Open Office is actually not a good place to get focused work done.

Since I personally work with people that are in other places – and often even different time zones – I have heard many questions from people who work in a conventional office environment, curiously asking how that is even possible. To them, it feels so much more cumbersome, if not simply impossible, to work collaboratively with people when you can’t just get up from your desk, walk over, and ask someone someting.

But the more I get these questions and think about good ways to reduce the amount of distraction and misunderstandings, I find that it might just be the other way around. I know, that’s really counterintuitive.

The Problem: Thoughtlessness and the Sheer Amount of Interruptions

When David Craig surveyed some thirty-eight thousand workers, he found that interruptions by colleagues were detrimental to productivity, and that the more senior the employee, the worse she fared. – The Open-Office Trap

I remember when I used to work in a media agency in Berlin, we had a nice open office space, holding somewhere around 15 people depending on the day and current projects. There were 3 directors and each had their separate office with a door to shut.

You can imagine that a lot of "quick questions" came up from the folks working in the open office during any given day, me included. And so you’d walk over, stand in front of the glass door, and peeked inside to see if the director was on the phone or typing at his computer. This act alone would most times get his attention (interruption/distraction already happening) and he would then either gesture you to come in or some "come back in 5 minutes"-variation.

So for the senior person way more distractions directed at them than any editor or graphic artist (while they, on the other hand, have to cope with the noise, people right next to them being on the phone, moving stuff around, etc.).

And since you get conditioned by this people coming to your door pretty quickly, you get used to keeping some attention in the corner of your eye, no matter what you’re doing. That’s like being partially distracted, most of the time.

On top of that, it’s not just the quick questions related to actual work that come in. You also get people just knocking, opening the door and dropping a line like, "Please call back so-and-so.", or "You want a coffe?", "Going for lunch. Wanna come?", and so on. That adds up!

The Solution: Raising Awareness and Getting Everyone to Be More Considerate

Architecture alone is not going to do it. Having a (guardian) secretary might not work for everyone. So, what can you do?

My conclusion is, you have to think and act more as if you are not being in the same place/office. That’s why I think it’s so valuable to be able and have the experience to work with remote teams. It requires more discpline. It makes you consider efficient ways to get information to others or retrieve it from them.

And that’s really what TightOps is about. The big upside is that it makes a virtue out of necessity.

You start thinking about the "cost of interruption", which I tried to illustrate like this (where just walking over to someone’s desk is on the far right of the spectrum, captured as "Face to face"):

asynchronous and direct communication channels

You also start asking questions mentioned in the Communication Channel Code:

  • How urgent is this?
  • What’s the best medium for the job? (Do I really need to walk over now or can I "leave a message" in an asynchronous way?)