The Biggest Problem in the Traditional Workplace: Interruptions

It’s best if people stay away from each other while they are working, because when people are all together all the time, they tend to constantly interrupt each other.
  • Transcript


Question: What is 37signals? 

Jason Fried: The company started in ’99 as a web design company actually.  And we were doing client work for hire, you know, redesigning people’s sites.  And we started getting really busy.  In about 2002-2003, we needed a better way to manage our client projects, and so because we were shooting things back and forth via email, which is what people typically do.  And we said, you know, we looked around at some software that existed and we weren’t really happy with what we saw, so we decided to build our own product internally to use with our clients to share designs and ideas online with people. And it worked out pretty well.  And we said, hey, maybe there’s a business here.  If we need this thing, someone else needs it.  And that was kind of the... that’s sort of what 37signals is all about, that we build stuff for ourselves and we recognize that if we need it, other people probably need it too.  And so since then we’ve launched six different products, we’ve wrote a book, and we’ve done a variety of other things all based on the things that we need or we want for ourselves realizing that we’re not special and other people would like it too. 

Question: How is your company different? 

Jason Fried:  We’re kind of a virtual company and a physical company.  So we’re 20 people, half in Chicago and then half elsewhere in 10 other cities around the world.  So we’re a little bit of a mix of the traditional and the sort of next-generation, new wave, or virtual sort of company.  Our general feeling though is it’s best if people stay away from each other as much as possible, because when people are all together all the time, it’s really easy to interrupt each other.  And we found that that’s kind of the biggest problem with the traditional workplace... is interruptions.  So we’re trying to avoid that at all costs. 

Question: How do you develop your ideas about how to run a business? 

Jason Fried:  Sure, well it kind of happened because originally, my partner in the business, a guy named David Hanssen—Heinemeier Hansson actually is his full name—he was working in Denmark and I was working in Chicago.  And we got a lot of stuff done working together seven time zones apart.  And then eventually he moved to Chicago.  And we're like, "Man, he's in Chicago, this is going to be great, we’re going to get more work done together."  And he comes to Chicago and we get less work done together.  And we start to realize that because we are both in the same physical place in the same physical office, we’re just interrupting each other all the time by talking.  And there's something good about talking and face time, you know, but too much of it is a bad thing.  So we decided that we’re going to try to simulate the old way of working, which was he was in Denmark and I was in Chicago, so we wouldn’t see each other very often. So he worked at home and I worked at home and if we came into the office we came in at off times often.  And we found out that we started getting more work done again when we were split up.  And so we’ve sort of carried that through, throughout the business now.  That, you know, we try to stay away from each other as much as we can.  We have a physical office, we just built a new office, and I can talk about that a little bit ‘because we try to take this philosophy and build it into a physical space.  But most of the time, we don’t talk to each other.  We communicate over the Web using our products or email or a variety of other tools you can use.  And then when you do that, someone can hide the thing when they don’t want to be bothered.  But you can’t stop someone from like calling your name across the room, or pulling you into a meeting or something like that.  That’s hard to stop.  But if you communicate virtually through, you know, Base Camp or instant messaging or email, it’s easy for you to hide that and then get back to it later when you’re free.  So then you decide when you want to be in communication with somebody else instead of someone deciding when they want you to talk to them.

Recorded on July 22, 2010
Interviewed by Peter Hopkins