Why You Can’t Work at Work
Jason Fried is the co-founder and President of 37signals, the Chicago-based web-application company. He has co-authored all of 37signals' books, including the upcoming, "Rework," as well as the 'minimalist manifesto,' "Getting Real: The Smarter, Faster, Easier Way to Build a Successful Web Application" He also helps to maintain the company's popular blog, Signal vs. Noise, and is regularly invited to speak around the world on entrepreneurship, design, management, and software.
Question: What is your take on the typical workplace?
Jason Fried: Yeah, my feeling is that the modern workplace is structured completely wrong. It’s really optimized for interruptions. And interruptions are the enemy of work. They are the enemy of productivity, they are the enemy of creativity, they are the enemy of everything. But that’s what the modern workplace is all about, it’s interruptions. Everyone’s calling meetings all the time, everyone’s screaming people’s names across the thing, there’s phones ringing all the time. People are walking around. It’s all about interruptions. And people go to work today, and then they end up doing most of their real work after work, or on the weekends. So, people are working longer hours, people are tired – I’m working 50-60 hours this week. It’s not that there’s 50 or 60 hours worth of work to do, it’s because you don’t work at work anymore. You go to work to get interrupted.
What happens is, is that you show up at work and you sit down and you don’t just immediately begin working, like you have to roll into work. You have to sort of get into a zone, just like you don’t just go to sleep, like you lay down and you go to sleep. You go to work too. But then you know, 45 minutes in, there’s a meeting. And so, now you don’t have a work day anymore, you have like this work moment that was only 45 minutes. And it’s not really 45 minutes, it’s more like 20 minutes, because it takes some time to get into it and then you’ve got to get out of it and you’ve got to go to a meeting.
Then when the meeting’s over, you’re probably pissed off anyway because it was a waste of time and then the meeting’s over and you don’t just go right back to work again, you got to kind of slowly get back into work. And then there’s a conference call, and then someone calls your name, “Hey, come a check this out. Come over here.” And like before you know it, it’s 4:00 and you’ve got nothing done today. And this is what’s happening all over corporate America right now. Everybody I know, I don’t care what business they’re in. Like when I talk to them about this, it’s like “Yeah, that’s my life.” Like, that is my life, and it’s wrong.
And so I think that has to change. If people want to get things done, they’ve got to get rid of interruptions. And so I think that’s something we’re focused on, is trying to remove every possible interruption from people’s day. So they have longer and longer periods of uninterrupted time to actually get work done. And so, our whole workplace, whatever the word you want to use, the office, workplace, although we’re kind of virtual anyways; it’s structured around removing interruptions. And one of the best ways you can do this is to shift your collaboration between people to more passive things. Using our products or someone else’s products. Things that you can put aside when I’m busy. So, if I’m busy, I don’t have to look at Base Camp, I don’t have to check email, I don’t have to check IM. I can put those things aside and do my work. And then when I’m done with my work and I need a break, I can go check these things out.
But if someone’s calling my name, or tapping on my shoulder, or knocking on my door, I can’t ignore those things. I can quit a program, but I can’t quit someone knocking on my door. I can’t quit someone calling my name, or someone ringing me on the phone. So, we try and, even though we might be sitting right across from each other, we don’t talk to each other, hardly at all during the day. Even though we’re right there, we’ll use instant messaging, or email, and if someone doesn’t respond, it means they’re busy. And they probably put that window away. Instead of calling, “Hey Jason, Jason, Jason” until they respond, that’s interrupting somebody; that doesn’t work and that’s how most workplaces are.
And managers are the biggest problem because their whole world is built around interruption. That’s what they do. Management means interrupting. Hey, what’s going on? How’s this going? Let me call a meeting because that’s what I do all day, I call meetings. And so, managers are the real problems here and that’s got to change too. So, as managers of our company, we don’t really manage people, but we prefer people to be managers of one. Let them just figure things out on their own, and if they need our help, they can ask us for it instead of us always constantly asking them if they need help and getting in their way. So, we’re all about getting rid of interruptions. And I think that if companies were more focused on getting rid of interruptions, they would get a whole lot more work done.
Question: How does your company avoid these distractions?
Jason Fried: So, this isn’t really a plug, but we use our product called Campfire, which is a real time chat tool. That is our office. Campfire is our office, and that’s a web based chat tool where there’s a persistent chat room open all the time. Anyone who has a question for anyone else in the company posts it there and in real time, everyone else can see it if they’re looking at it. But if they’re busy, they just don’t pay attention. And then if non one responds, then that means someone is busy. Not like, I’m going to keep calling their name until they turn around. That’s what it’s like in most offices. Or you ring someone and they’re not there and so you call their name, and they’re not there, so you go to their office and you bang on their door. If someone doesn’t respond in Campfire, it means they’re busy. And unless it’s a true emergency, where you really need an answer right now, then you just let them be and they’ll get back to you in three hours. And the truth of the matter is, there are almost no true emergencies in business. Everything can wait a few hours. Everything can wait a day. It’s not a big deal if you get back to me later in the day for me to know right now.
And the other thing about interruptions and calling people’s names, and ringing them on the phone and stuff, it’s actually really an arrogant sort of move because you’re saying that whatever I have to ask you is more important than what you’re doing. Because I’m going to stop you from doing what you are doing for me to ask you this questions that probably doesn’t matter anyway. So, we’re very cognizant of this, and we make sure that we only ping people, that’s what we call it, digitally and in ways that will not really get in their way if they’re really busy.
And that’s not always the case, but that’s really what we try to do. And use Campfire and use Base Camp and use High Rise and all our products. Other people’s products this well as well, but we just use our own because we built them for ourselves and we use them and they’re free for us.
Question: Does your office have a hierarchy?
Jason Fried: Yeah. So, we don’t really have hierarchy, technically. I mean, ultimately the buck stops with me, but like it doesn’t get to that. We really let people make their own decisions and we give them feedback on those decisions and help them learn and make better decisions. And we have some small teams. People work in teams of three, but there are really no true leader in those teams necessarily. It’s like, the leader is the product. Like the product is what leads you. It’s got to be good. Quality is the leader and everyone has to understand that that’s what this is all about. We’re making good products here. We’re not making your idea, or my idea, we’re making a product that useful for our customers. So, that’s kind of what guides everything. And it’s surprisingly works pretty well.
We have like, big visions for things, and we all share common points of view on like what’s important, but ultimately it’s quality, it’s the product, it’s usefulness, it’s clarity. Those are the things that lead us on the right direction.
With its constant commotion, unnecessary meetings, and infuriating wastes of time, the modern workplace makes us all work longer, less focused hours. Jason Fried explains how we can change all of this.
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