Jennifer B. Davis
There was a thought-provoking interview conducted by Crain's Chicago Business with Jason Fried, one of the founders of 37Signals. You may recall that this is the guy that blew off a product idea I once sent them, but apparently I don't hold that against them. I love what they do (as do their million other users) and they continue to innovate with a geographically-distributed team of 8 people. Which is pretty incredible!

One of things Jason mentions in the video is that they tried all working together, in the same office, and it killed their efficiency. He said "interuption is the enemy of productivity." Now they just try to "stay out of each others way." Certainly they talk, when they need to. They clearly collaborate, as the tools they make work well. They just do it judiciously. There is no water cooler.

In contrast, is most corporate environments, and even start-ups today, that prefer open, collaborative environments believing that people work better in teams if they are in each others' face all day long. What about the famed "Management by Walking Around"? Isn't that the epitome of interuption, having an executive walk around the office and talk to employees over their cube walls? We want cafeterias, or at least coffee service, to bring people together. They want social functions to build teamwork. I don't want to speak for Jason, but I suspect he would contend that this is like feeding the enemy army before they attack you. So, what do you think, are open environments (read: cubes), cafeterias, and water coolers actually breeding inefficiencies in organizations? Or is Jason's view more of a personality test for the corporate culture, its leadership, the size of the organization, and the type of work that is getting done.

Perhaps some work could not be done in the 37Signals way, distributed and unstructured? Perhaps this is unique to software development? Could trial lawyers work this way? Architects? Strategy consultants? Research scientists? How much collaboration and communication is enough? How much is too much?

Could all personality types work in this more isolated way and find it satisfying? Could you go days or weeks without the social chit-chat in the office? I know some that couldn't. I know some that would love it and would feel so much more productive.

What about you?

3 Responses
  1. Dave Says:

    I found it hard to watch that interview without clapping and yelling "AMEN!". It is so true for software development; on days when I work from home, my productivity skyrockets because I can work on a task until I am done with it. When I am in the office, I get spurts of productity, but they are constantly interrupted with meetings, random chats, questions, etc, etc. That said, you have to have a team that is happy, challenged and trustworthy, or you just might end up with some very accomplished World of Warcraft players, and no productivity at all. :)

  2. kristi w Says:

    Some people feel like they can not work from home because they are distracted by all of their home projects that lurk around every corner. I find myself much more able to focus when I am able to work at home than at the office - where little projects pop up and people stop to chat. Some of those conversations are invaluable, though, and would have been missed if I worked in isolation more often than not.

  3. At PLANET ARGON, our answer to this problem has been to adopt a friendly flex-time policy. We don't hire remote developers or designers, because the latency of communicating ideas is too long. Since we're working for our clients currently and not on our own ideas, we need to be sure that we all have a shared understanding of our clients business goals as well as their user goals.

    We work in an open and collaboratie environment and are moving from a office space with a few private offices... to one large studio space, where we'll spread out a little, but still be in an open format. It doesn't take a lot to ask people to be careful not to pollute the environment with distracting conversations, which can be alleviated with IM, Basecamp, Email, etc. Group discussions happen a lot, but they're generally focused on projects... and when it does go into la la land, it's no harm because it's bringing our team closer together. Many of us our friends outside of work.

    Also, having everyone close and in Portland, means we can leave early on Fridays from time to time and hit the pub for happy hour or hit the trails for some afternoon hiking, which brings us closer together.