Kill the Office, or Fix It?

A recent essay in Wired says, “The traditional office, meanwhile, remains a black hole of interruptions, procrastination, and soul-crushing politics. According to Gloria Mark, an informatics professor at UC Irvine, the typical office worker is interrupted or switches tasks every three minutes—hardly enough time to accomplish anything of substance.” (via Kathy Sierra) The alternative, according to the article, is telecommuting. For everyone.

I love working from home. Given a choice, I’d rather not commute, and I’d rather have meals and breaks with my family. And when I’m doing solo projects, I’m definitely more productive there than in an office. For team projects, especially software development, however, I’ve never seen a dispersed team become anywhere near as productive as a high-performing collocated team.

The solution to the problems of the traditional office may, for some workers, be to do away with the office entirely, as Wired suggests. But that may be throwing the baby out with the bath water for the large number of workers who do team work. Telecommuting solves some problems and introduces others (e.g. isolation, communication overhead, potential for task orientation over results orientation). A better solution: fix the office environment instead of abandoning it.

A few modest proposals…

  1. Eliminate multitasking. Assign workers to a single project and allow them to see it through to completion. Within a project, allow them to complete one task at a time. For interrupt-driven roles like technical support and maintenance, allow workers to do just that role and to see individual cases through to completion. (Kanban systems are perfect for managing work this way.)
  2. Collocate teams. Once teams are working on a single project, put them together in the same room. Conversations will be more focused on the project goal and will be less distracting. Increased collaboration and face-to-face communication will lead to more productivity and improved morale. People enjoy accomplishing things with other people; make it easy and natural to do just that.
  3. Measure up. Too often, metrics reward the wrong things and lead to unintended consequences because they measure details of the work rather than results. For software development, find ways to measure the delivery of business value by the team. Leave the implementation details for the team to manage on their own. For other disciplines, the Results Only Work Environment started at Best Buy looks like a good framework for finding the right results-level metrics and letting go of details like hours in the office.
  4. Allow telecommuting. Once you start using the right metrics, workers may find that they can be more productive out of the office. Not all work is well suited to the office environment. Let them go.

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