“We all know that knowledge workers work best by getting into “flow”, also known as being “in the zone”, where they are fully concentrated on their work and fully tuned out of their environment. They lose track of time and produce great stuff through absolute concentration. This is when they get all of their productive work done. Writers, programmers, scientists, and even basketball players will tell you about being in the zone.
The trouble is, getting into “the zone” is not easy. When you try to measure it, it looks like it takes an average of 15 minutes to start working at maximum productivity. Sometimes, if you’re tired or have already done a lot of creative work that day, you just can’t get into the zone and you spend the rest of your work day fiddling around, reading the web, playing Tetris.
The other trouble is that it’s so easy to get knocked out of the zone. Noise, phone calls, going out for lunch, having to drive 5 minutes to Starbucks for coffee, and interruptions by coworkers — ESPECIALLY interruptions by coworkers — all knock you out of the zone. If you take a 1 minute interruption by a coworker asking you a question, and this knocks out your concentration enough that it takes you half an hour to get productive again, your overall productivity is in serious trouble. If you’re in a noisy bullpen environment like the type that caffinated dotcoms love to create, with marketing guys screaming on the phone next to programmers, your productivity will plunge as knowledge workers get interrupted time after time and never get into the zone.”
The Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, all about this phenomenon is a worthy read.
I can remember years ago locking myself in a studio working on music and losing track of time for hours on end. Performances were the same. It’s like waking from a dream. Any interruption would kill this level of concentration which was why there were no phones and the door was locked at all times. No windows either.
When I briefly worked a day job the phone was our enemy. We had understanding management who tried to tackle the phone problems by hiring people to deal with it. Productivity went up and so did their profits.
Fast forward to the office environment I work in today. I don’t believe anyone gets in the zone there.
Everyone is a client contact, everyone a project manager (in addition to being designers,etc), and everyone is essentially grouped together socially. The phones are always ringing, people wander around interrupting others to answer questions instead of researching the answer themselves, all manner of people can interrupt (including management) and regularly do (since there is no do not disturb sign and no door to close), people are constantly coming and going, constant chit chat around the cubicles instead of predefined social areas, and did I mention the constant phone calls? Especially the dumb bastard who has kept trying to send a fax through on my office phone for the past five years. Of course not just one try but 4 or more over the space of an hour. Five years, still no clue.
“We should be working in fortresses of solitude, isolated from all distraction, with chilled iced tea and small snacks at the ready. Instead we plop ourselves into distraction cauldrons. Our social lives benefit immeasurably (and that’s not an altogether bad thing). But focus suffers as a result.” Hat tip reinvented.
Later: (08/03) People often say that I am overly critical, a bit harsh, and seemingly negative. Wow. On reread of the above some of that seems to be true, so in the interest of providing balance I should say something nice.
Their are many positive aspects to an open and communicative environment. The constant social interaction creates lasting friendships – many in the office are like family to me. It allows you to bounce off the intensity of others. I can see that my co-workers are working hard so I respond to that social pressure by working hard too (or by pretending to work hard). I have a wealth of knowledge just a shout away and can easily see what other people are working on. I’m pretty sure when ‘the company’ created our work spaces they were primarily just following industry trends and trying to spend as little money as possible (though they tend waste a ton in other areas). Our environment is extremely flexible – all that is really cool. Unless of course you are really focussed on learning, working, and being productive.
The ‘wearing of many hats’ has many benefits as well. I have always been an advocate of allowing people to generalise. It can bring fresh insights to projects to have different people to perform different roles. The fact that I have studied and applied all kinds of knowledge that could be used in many different roles within a team has been invaluable to me. Where else could I have lead huge information architecture projects with so little experience? This kind of approach has to be managed though, because eventually people need to focus on something. People need something to call there own. You can’t invest in training someone to be an instructional designer, have them invest themselves in the role, and then turn around and say that this year you will be a web producer. That shows a lack of respect for the role, the profession, and the person. It’s costly as well.
Was that positive?
Joel on Software – Where do These People Get Their (Unoriginal) Ideas?