The Biggest Problem in the Traditional Workplace: Interruptions

Question: What is 37signals? 

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

Question: How is your company different? 

Jason Fried:  We’re\r\n kind of a virtual company and a physical company.  So we’re 20 people, \r\nhalf in Chicago and then half elsewhere in 10 other cities around the \r\nworld.  So we’re a little bit of a mix of the traditional and the sort \r\nof next-generation, new wave, or virtual sort of company.  Our general \r\nfeeling though is it’s best if people stay away from each other as much \r\nas possible, because when people are all together all the time, it’s \r\nreally easy to interrupt each other.  And we found that that’s kind of \r\nthe biggest problem with the traditional workplace... is interruptions. \r\n 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\r\n actually is his full name—he was working in Denmark and I was working \r\nin Chicago.  And we got a lot of stuff done working together seven time \r\nzones apart.  And then eventually he moved to Chicago.  And we're like, \r\n"Man, he's in Chicago, this is going to be great, we’re going to get \r\nmore work done together."  And he comes to Chicago and we get less work \r\ndone together.  And we start to realize that because we are both in the \r\nsame physical place in the same physical office, we’re just interrupting\r\n each other all the time by talking.  And there's something good about \r\ntalking and face time, you know, but too much of it is a bad thing.  So \r\nwe decided that we’re going to try to simulate the old way of working, \r\nwhich was he was in Denmark and I was in Chicago, so we wouldn’t see \r\neach other very often. So he worked at home and I worked at home and if \r\nwe came into the office we came in at off times often.  And we found out\r\n that we started getting more work done again when we were split up. \r\n And so we’ve sort of carried that through, throughout the business now.\r\n  That, you know, we try to stay away from each other as much as we can.\r\n  We have a physical office, we just built a new office, and I can talk \r\nabout that a little bit ‘because we try to take this philosophy and \r\nbuild it into a physical space.  But most of the time, we don’t talk to \r\neach other.  We communicate over the Web using our products or email or a\r\n variety of other tools you can use.  And then when you do that, someone\r\n can hide the thing when they don’t want to be bothered.  But you can’t \r\nstop someone from like calling your name across the room, or pulling you\r\n into a meeting or something like that.  That’s hard to stop.  But if \r\nyou communicate virtually through, you know, Base Camp or instant \r\nmessaging or email, it’s easy for you to hide that and then get back to \r\nit later when you’re free.  So then you decide when you want to be in \r\ncommunication with somebody else instead of someone deciding when they \r\nwant you to talk to them.

Recorded on July 22, 2010
Interviewed by Peter Hopkins

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.

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