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In a recent interview, Jason Fried from 37 Signals tells us why working closely together destroys productivity.

Proximity is an invitation to interrupt somebody. And interruption is the biggest enemy of productivity that there is. When everyone is sitting together, everyone’s at the same desk or nearby. It’s really easy to shout something over to somebody or tap someone on the shoulder or whatever. That can be useful at times, no doubt. But for the most part, it’s interruption.

Interruption destroys your zone. If you’re working on something and someone taps you on the shoulder, you gotta stop working on that thing and answer their question and whatever you need to do. And that just takes you out of your zone. It takes you out of that mind set of getting stuff done. And you don’t fall right back into, it takes awhile to get back it it. So we’ve just found interruption is something that gets in the way most of the time. So that’s why we try to stay from one another. If we need together, we get together. But it should be at the last resort, and the exception, not the rule.

After hearing Jason’s argument, I’m officially over my fetish for open-plan offices. I know they look deliciously beautiful in designer furniture catalogs–everyone’s smiling and sitting facing each together on one long giant table. But real life doesn’t imitate staged catalogs.

From what some LifeClever readers say, open-plan offices don’t work.

Previously, I worked in an office with an open floor plan. The design of the space was really cool, but I have too much ADD to be around that many conversations. :) When I have work to do that requires focus, nothing does the trick for me like a closed door and some good ol’ fashioned silence.

At my day job, we sit at separate desks facing away from each other. When I started in January, I was doubtful of this seemingly anti-social arrangement. Why can’t we sit across from each other and “collaborate” freely? But after six months, the arrangement works. I have fewer distractions, fewer shoulder-taps, and fewer random conversations. When working, silence is a good thing.

Check out the rest of Crain’s Chicago Business interview with Jason here.

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18 Comments

  • Rob

    gravatarAug 28, 2007
    10:22 am

    IBM and TRW did studies in the 70’s indicating that computer programmers were anywhere from 40% to 400% more productive when they put given their own offices with telephones and doors that close and lock, so they could block out distracting interaction with others, than they were in open office space such as shared computer labs and “bull pens”.

    Why has it taken so long to recognize this? Because managers will grasp at any new-age touchy-feely management fad du jour when in the course of management-by-magazine-article instead of researching and using scientific methods. The lack of intellectual rigor in “management theory” and business schools is astonishing.

  • Art

    gravatarAug 28, 2007
    3:35 pm

    These “collaborative” workspaces may look nice but I think they’re one big invitation for a headache. I regularly deal with 12×18 printouts and huge packaging comps and 36×48 presentation boards.Where would I put all of these? What if I need to make a phone call? Now everyone is eavesdropping. I need space and privacy.

    It’s also my experience that most people are very bad collaborators; they will work together and share ideas only when told to. I prefer to meet in a conference area or room, then go back to my desk and work. My headphones are on 99% of the time; this helps me concentrate. I need time and space to create. If I wanted to be social I’d go back to high school or go out to lunch.

  • Jeff

    gravatarAug 28, 2007
    10:07 pm

    I have just come out of an environment currently going through a phase of neo-Stalinist evangelism for what is euphemistically called “agile development”. I testify from experience that individual productivity is certainly hampered by having to cooperate with others.

    There are a couple of metaissues here, however. Productivity is fine if it’s properly directed; productivity at useless tasks is wasted effort. Quite often, though, it’s impossible or merely inconveniently hard to determine in advance what needs to be done; sometimes these things have to be worked out interactively in consensus. This is why software development has trended from traditionally planned projects to iterative methodologies; requirements development is hard, so hard that no one can do it infallibly in advance.

    Another issue is that, no matter how productive you are, there is usually more work to be done than one person can do. Inevitably, in groups, there is a most productive person and a least productive person, and also a most competent person and a least competent person. In order to get productivity and quality to an acceptable level, the less productive/competent often have to be helped or mentored by the more productive/competent, making the former more effective and the latter less so.

  • Ole Høegh

    gravatarAug 29, 2007
    12:34 am

    I think it depends on the kind of work you have to do. If you are a programmer and has a defined task to implement unintererupted concentration is required. If you are a programmer and needs to figure out the requirements, you need ongoing dialog – not just a meeting. If you are a small team of programmer, designer and text writer you might need the synergy of a team but the focus of just your project and thus a small office for three would be optimal.

    My point is, I think a more flexible office configuration would be optimal instead of being stuck in either a one man office or a 100 man space.

  • Miguel Marcos

    gravatarAug 29, 2007
    2:00 am

    I work on a trading floor which is close to the epitome of open space and interrupt-prone. You get used to it. No, wait, you have to get used to it. And you do. Or you fail pretty fast. You learn to phase unimportant conversations and sounds out and vice versa.

    You end up being productive but in a completely different way. Emergency wards are extremely productive, too. It’s just a different type of productivity.

  • Adam

    gravatarAug 29, 2007
    8:53 am

    This cool cucumber doesn’t look like he enjoys the open concept working environment.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DvG8uIU2aQE

    ;-)

  • Dave

    gravatarAug 29, 2007
    11:19 am

    Open office environments can work where everybody is quiet all the time, but that is a rare, almost impossible situation. The more quiet an office is, the more each small sound stands out and distracts people.

    I can work fairly productively at a noisy coffee shop where the background noise is consistent because my brain seems to get used to the background noise. But when working in a quiet Dilbert-esque cubical farm, the overall silence is interrupted by the occasional phone ring, computer beep, or quiet conversation that is annoyingly distracting and ruining of concentration.

    The bottom line, open office environments are provide the worst of both worlds. Let me work at either Starbucks or in a private office with a door that I can close. I can’t stand “open” offices.

  • Philip Foeckler

    gravatarAug 29, 2007
    11:11 pm

    I’ve been skeptic of open offices ever since I attended CCA which applied an open layout to its SF campus.

    Although this decision did indeed spur exchange between the disciplines it only occurred on a superficial level and did not yield many practical benefits. On the other hand the increase of noise and opportunity for distraction was startling.

    Nonetheless, I think there are good coping solutions out there. For me headphones generally do the trick since they dramatically reduce external noise and signal to my surroundings (even when they are off) when I am not available. One ex-coworker even went so far as to use Oropax ear-plugs. Although certainly highly effective, I’m not sure of the social implications of such a measure ;-)

    I wish there was an equivalent in the virtual space. What about a Communication Mute Button (don’t alert me of new messages, and so on.)

  • Angela

    gravatarAug 29, 2007
    11:26 pm

    I interned at a weekly journal where most of the office was like that. Only the editor had an office with a door that could shut. It was insane–just noise and motion and conversation everywhere. I couldn’t focus at ALL. I couldn’t understand how anybody could.

  • Suan Gee Pebble Tan

    gravatarAug 30, 2007
    5:25 am

    I used to worked in a theatre company where it was divided into 2 levels. Production office on the ground level, and Administrative office on the upper level. I think it is good to separate them as we all know, production side tends to be very noisy as we try to find things, move or store things here etc. The administrative office has howver not so much of these activities and tends to be more quiet. It needs to be more quiet as it gets all the enquiry calls directed to them. So I think it all boils down to what kind of work we are dealing with. I wouldn’t want anyone to tap me on the shoulder or yell out my name when I am concentrating on budgeting or scheduling as it breaks any concentration or thinking I have.

  • t.

    gravatarAug 30, 2007
    11:48 am

    Michael Bloomberg, NYC’s mayor, first thing he did when he got into office was tear down the walls and keep an open space office. It has worked for him so far.

  • Craig

    gravatarAug 30, 2007
    1:44 pm

    More office planners and managers need to learn this lesson.

    http://craiglp.wordpress.com/2006/08/25/the-myth-of-the-collaborative-cube-farm/

  • Rob

    gravatarAug 30, 2007
    7:10 pm

    Bloomberg’s model works when you are the supreme dictator who can order everybody else to shut the F**K up so you can concentrate on your work.

  • Pamela

    gravatarAug 30, 2007
    8:39 pm

    I agree. There are times when things need serious attention and we can’t risk someone disturbing us all the time. It’s better if we have our own office.

  • Will

    gravatarAug 31, 2007
    7:14 am

    I think the important considerations are the kind of work being done, the culture of the workplace, and the sensibilities of the individual workers. It is overly simplifying to say that either an open-plan office or closed no-interruption plans is better for all offices.

    As an example, I’m a software engineer for one of the top video game developers in the world, and due to the extremely highly collaborative and creative nature of our work, I’ve found open-plan offices almost always working much better than closed plans. Everyone is a vital source of ideas in game development, and everyone’s work has innumerable complicated interactions with everyone else’s. As a result, much more time is saved by everyone being in range of any conversations going on than is lost from the more frequent interruptions.

    It’s true that oftentimes we put our headphones on or otherwise make it known that we’re deep in code and shouldn’t be interrupted, but this flexibility is an advantage of the open-plan. The times that someone overhearing an open discussion and jumping in to add a vital contribution are unpredictable – if that person was in an office then no one would have ever known that the vital contribution had been missed. The times that need deeper focus, programmers can cut themselves out of the open office for just that necessary bit of work, without losing the open-plan benefits the rest of the time.

  • Alan

    gravatarSep 2, 2007
    6:35 pm

    I totally agree. Productivity has a lot to do with focus and we simply can’t focus on our work if we are open to distractions. Socializing can be good to our work, but we also have to do it in the right time.

  • Lulu

    gravatarSep 7, 2007
    7:07 pm

    This is why mid level sound buffered cubicle walls are great. It allows privacy and quiet and noise buffering, while still allowing open conversations.

    In my office with an open floor plan, headphones are looked down upon ( I think it has something to do with everyone being loud and noisy New Orleanians), so it’s impossible to find a way to block out all the distractions. The work requires a bit of focus or else you can lose what you’re doing, so all those distractions can really lead to a huge head ache and non-productiveness.

    Luckily I think the office manager wizened up to this and has ordered cubicle walls…I can’t wait.

    And maybe it’s just me, but does anyone else notice that everyone has to eat loud food with crinkly bags while at work?

  • Dave

    gravatarSep 10, 2007
    2:40 pm

    Just to add to the “It depends on the kinds of work…” comments: It depends on your industry. A software product company’s business goals are to produce products. But your standard corporation’s business goal’s are not to make their programmers effective… it is to keep the business running, whatever business that may be.

    There is a lot more production support and maintenance involved in reaching that goal, which requires not only communication, but interruption. If a system breaks, the programmers will need to drop their projects to fix it. The business needs do not always align with programmer preferences.

    So while we can discuss what the programmers want until all hours of the night, that doesn’t make it the right answer.