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Re: "The Office Not the Best Place For Work?"

Jeremy Chan

By Jeremy Chan


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December 06, 2010

I love TED talks - always thought-provoking and intelligent, and I applaud anyone who's been able to prepare one and captivate an audience - presenting well is not an easy skill to master.

I just saw one by Jason Fried (TEDx Midwest), in which he contends that work is not a good place to get work done. Jason is obviously an intelligent guy, and the audience was entertained (principally because he was describing a pain that everyone who works in an office has had at one time or another). I believe he has some excellent points, but I have to take issue with his central theory that meetings and managers (what he calls M&M;'s) are the root cause of the problem. He goes so far as to suggest that if we were only to just cancel meetings, productivity would skyrocket.

There are a lot of other crowd-pleasing statements in the talk that I agree with. He says that:

  • our society has traded "work" for "work moments", our day being shredded to bits by involuntary interruptions
  • meaningful work doesn't really get done because we need long stretches of uninterrupted time to achieve results, especially in work that requires higher-level thinking
  • work, like sleep, is stage-based; if interrupted, there is time wasted in "starting over" at the beginning of an uninteresting, preparatory stage
  • voluntary interruptions are better than involuntary ones

This all sounds good to me, and I'd guess that anyone who has worked in an office has experienced their days evaporating and not knowing why. It's incredibly frustrating.

Without much ceremony, however, Fried then goes on to suggest that because of this, meetings are not useful. He seems to think this because the involuntary interruptions that happen at the office don't happen at other places (home, train, going for a walk, on the porch) and he jumps to the conclusion that these involuntary interruptions come in the form of meetings called by managers. He further states that these managers require meetings because they themselves don't do any useful work, and thus have to constantly poll people about the real work that's being done. I suspect he's being somewhat facetious, but... that's quite a logical evolution. And it can't be considered completely facetious when it becomes the central tenet of his thesis.

Fried also states that managers demonize Facebook, Twitter, and Web browsing as time wasters, and assumes that the reasons that managers don't want people working at home is that they will stop working and just enjoy the internet instead. In his defense, he says this is what some managers have told him.

I can only speak for myself, but I can tell you that this is not why we require people to come into work. And our company is fairly flexible with allowing people to work from home if they need to, as long as this privilege isn't abused (how to determine abuse isn't trivial, so we generally don't even try). I don't worry about people not doing work while at home - I worry more about the fact that the people they need to collaborate with in order to get their work done are all in the office.

There are meetings, and then there are meetings... I've been in a lot of unproductive meetings, but I've been in a lot of productive ones - some even with managers!

Some Work is Highly Collaborative

The problem is that certain kinds of work are highly collaborative. People who are tasked with doing work that doesn't require a lot of collaboration might tend to think that meetings are a waste of time. But I mean - there are meetings, and then there are meetings, you know? I've been in a lot of unproductive meetings, but I've been in a lot of productive ones - some even with managers!

I cross the Canada-U.S. border a lot to visit with clients, which we're allowed to do, so long as "no work is being done while you're in the States", say the border patrol guards. I think this statement is meant to ascertain that we're not being directly paid by our U.S. clients, and that our employer is in Canada, where we normally work. But sometimes we're involved with requirements gathering meetings; when I tell this to the border guard, they usually move onto other questions. I've never really understood this. I feel like saying "Nope - no work being done here - just some useless meetings in which the customer tells us what they want and we write it down and feed it back to them to make sure we understand their needs - why would anyone possibly want to pay for that?" [1. Another question they sometimes ask: "Bringing anything into the country?" I often respond "My laptop and an overnight bag". I have twice heard the follow-up question "Any software on that laptop"? I feel like saying "No sir - I've uninstalled all of my applications, thrice wiped the O/S clear off the machine with a drive-kill utility, and then scoured the bios chip with a brillo pad in order to ensure compliance." Even if this question were meant to mean "am I bringing in a commercial software product which I will leave in the States with my client?", do they really think that a laptop in the trunk of a rental car hurtling down the 401 at 120km/hr is how software is distributed?]

Software development is a kind of work that requires intense collaboration at times, and intense solitude at others (and software consulting requires more collaboration than software development). There's a tenet of an Agile software methodology called Extreme Programming which completely rejects the notion of solitude, opting instead to pair people up at ALL times, proposing that one person is doing the difficult thinking bits, while the other is spending their brain cycles manipulating the tool and typing. It's an interesting idea, which we tried as a company early in our history but never really got comfortable with. It's just not naturally how everyone likes to work. Some people just get really nervous, uptight, and self-conscious when they have to constantly work with others. Others thrive with it.

I say this to lend some credibility to the statement that I understand that uninterrupted work, over long stretches of time, is very useful and often leads to work actually getting done. But this only goes for work that isn't by nature collaborative. Fried uses the word "ridiculous" to heighten the impact of some of his statements, but have you ever tried to tell a client that they should not ask for a weekly status meeting, because it would interrupt the work being done? In some situations the work that needs to be done is to ensure that your client is well-taken care of, apprised of status, and satisfied. In fact, in business, making sure your client is satisfied is the most important work of all.

Furthermore, I can tell you that the most valuable people in our company are people who are good at collaborating - and we place an emphasis on this during the interview process. They don't waste others' time in long boring meetings with no goal in sight, but they also recognize when it's more expedient to meet with someone than it is to fall down a 2-hour rabbit-hole of email call-and-response, sometimes caused by that medium's annoying propensity to both isolate people (and by extension, their ideas) from one another, as well as to introduce unnecessary artifacts of misunderstanding due to dubious grammar or ambiguous tone. Good collaborators choose the right medium for the moment. And sometimes the best medium for brainstorming, training, problem-solving, and good-ol' reporting... is a meeting.

Good collaborators choose the right medium for the moment. And sometimes the best medium for brainstorming, training, problem-solving, and good-ol' reporting... is a meeting.

Fried also states that Email, Facebook, Twitter, and Web browsing are not dangerous to productive work, because these represent voluntary interruptions; ones that people only choose when they have the time.

I suppose one can simply choose not to be interrupted, but one can also choose to not call a useless meeting. The fact is that people don't always act in the best interests of productive work. Yes, sometimes, people become flummoxed about next steps, and they call a useless meeting instead of slowing down and thinking about how to move a process forward. But people do this with email too. And likewise, people like having Twitter and Facebook open. They rationalize that this information will just enter their heads in a kind of non-interruptive, out-of-band osmosis. Twitter's whole m.o. is to lull you into this rationalization: hey, you don't really have to pay attention - these tweets will just fade into the cloudy landscape until you're ready to deal with them, or not. What a perfect medium of communication am I?!. But I've seen desktops with the entire second monitor continuously devoted to TweetDeck. And as for the mobile worker, show me someone whose head is forever tilted downward, thumbs pounding away at their precious smartphone, and I'll show you someone who has 500 followers. If their head is bent but their thumbs aren't moving, they're probably following 500 tweeters.

I won't even delve into the dog-in-headlights moment one experiences upon remembering an unharvested cabbage crop on Farmville.

Show me someone whose head is forever tilted downward, thumbs pounding away at their precious smartphone, and I'll show you someone who has 500 followers. If their head is bent but their thumbs aren't moving, they're probably following 500 tweeters.

And Email - what a bitter experience I'm having with you of late. When I arrive at work at 9:30, there are usually something like 20-30 emails already waiting for me. I probably send/receive over 100 emails on a light day. I have a task called "email" in my time-tracking system because of this. It reminds of a joke I heard recently: "My new iPad allows me to do so many more things that I never had to do before!"

There is also an implicit assumption that meetings take longer than emails, but this isn't necessarily true. I can communicate an idea to someone in 5 minutes that would take me 30 to write up in an email. Sometimes the reverse is also true, but in general I think it's much easier to communicate effectively and efficiently in person than it is to write it up in text. Fried might say "but it might not be as easy for the person you're communicating with, and in person, 5 minutes really means 10 - 5 for you and 5 for me". However the listener would also have had to mark that email for followup. Then they would have had to figure out how to prioritize it relative to the 85 other items marked for followup. And then they would have had to read that email (which I sometimes find much harder than listening to someone explain things and allowing me to interject with questions). Hopefully they wouldn't misinterpret the careless tone in the email, which would then require a meeting to explain.

My new iPad allows me to do so many more things that I never had to do before!

Come now. Email, Facebook, and Twitter can suck up huge blocks of time too, if you don't have the discipline to turn them off (which is most of us at least some of the time). What percentage of Twitter users do you think turn Twitter off when they need to get stuff done (keeping in mind, at work, 95% of the time you need to get stuff done)? Even if you do this most of the time, there will be times when you absentmindedly click on an obscured tinyURL, unexpectedly catapulting you into a maelstrom of trending topics, opinions, mystery and wonder that has you opening 7 new browser tabs and watching TED talks by the time you realize that it's 4:00 and you haven't had lunch. If you've used the internet, this has happened (and continues to happen) to you. It's responsible for the cry of @sanatapal, who just tweeted: "Dear twitter, please slow down. I cannot keep up! kthxbai". It is also responsible for this blog post.

But back to the topic at hand. Meetings, done well, happen like this:

  1. a goal is identified
  2. an agenda is created
  3. the parties are requested to attend (maybe by a calendar request that comes over uninterruptive email)
  4. the parties indicate whether or not they can attend at that time
  5. the organizer makes the necessary adjustments to the meeting's scheduled time
  6. the parties meet at said mutually agreed-on time
  7. the moderator keeps participants to the agenda and ensures that progress is made toward the goal
  8. minutes are taken, and if necessary, new important work is assigned

This may sound like a fantasy-land to some (sometimes even to me, I'll admit), but I've seen it happen. If you haven't, try it again without skipping the steps 1-5 and steps 7-8. And yes, the overhead associated with doing this is not insignificant. Therefore people should have a think about whether or not they need a meeting before calling one.

But I'm Still Getting Interrupted Too Much

I don't believe that the root cause of interruptions at work is "meetings" - rather I think that in an accelerating world, people believe that they have to do an increasing amount of work in a decreasing amount of time. We value "saving time" on our work rather than valuing the time we spend on it. What's worse, our clients and bosses often require it of us. This is dangerous because more and more, workers feel like they are under seige. Just one more weekend of work, one more late night on-call, or one more ridiculous deadline before they can finally relax. But that day never comes, because hey - you don't want to fall behind the competition, and you can be damned sure they're working weekends!

In this situation, the impulse of the worker becomes stronger and stronger to just "get it off my plate" rather than actually help to solve a problem. And I believe that this impulse is part of the genesis of both a job done poorly and many a useless meeting, email, phone call, and in-person interruption. It's only natural to haphazardly start involving others when you've been served with the impossible task of finishing off everything assigned to you by... last week. It's a defense mechanism. You don't know how to do the impossible, and you want others to empathize with your plight. Best to call a meeting, send an email, tweet, complain on Facebook, or even yell across the cubicle field asking for immediate help. The real issue is that people aren't cognizant of the negative effect their interruptions have on others - not that meetings, Facebook, Twitter, email, and phone calls aren't useful when used properly.

Managers who allow their workers to continue under siege aren't doing their jobs. Yes, we all have to work overtime sometimes, but the real job of a good manager is to get the best work out his or her people, not to "just call meetings". It means recognizing when your people are not being productive and need your help to remove an obstacle or get out of a rut. I have to credit Fried with having recognized this and with trying to do something about it by presenting what he thinks the problems and solutions are.

The real issue is that people aren’t cognizant of the negative effect their interruptions have on others – not that meetings, Facebook, Twitter, email, and phone calls aren’t useful when used properly.

But let's not demonize M&Ms; in general. If you repeatedly come across the same issues (say) on a software development project - it'll probably be productive to have a post-mortem meeting to discover what's going wrong, write it down, and share it with others. If employees are complaining that they neither understand the strategy of the company nor have enough access to the management team, you're going to have to consider the value of informing them and interacting with them, possibly in a town hall meeting. If employees want to know how they're doing on a semi-regular basis, you're going to need meetings to collect and deliver performance reviews, followed by meetings to measure targets and set goals. Hell, maybe you might even try to instill a sense of accomplishment in them by telling them in person that they're doing a good job every once in a while. I've been in one of each of these types of meetings just this week. Even though I have a thousand other bits of so-called "real work" that need to happen, I know these meetings are important, and that they ultimately deliver great value to the people in my company.

Useful meetings generate or close out action items, unstick stuck things, make a collaboration more valuable or efficient, and report on work that requires visibility by parties external to you. If they don't do these things better than other mediums of communication, then yeah - you probably shouldn't be calling them.

About Jonah Group

Jonah Group is a digital consultancy the designs and builds high-performance software applications for the enterprise. Our industry is constantly changing, so we help our clients keep pace by making them aware of the possibilities of digital technology as it relates to their business.

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