Why You Can’t Work At Work

Jason Fried has made possibly the most awesome video in the history of mankind.

Key takeaways:

  • “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.”
  • “Management means interrupting.”
  • “There are almost no true emergencies in business.”

Thankfully, I’m in the very fortunate position of being largely able to dictate my own work schedule, including the ability to telecommute quite frequently.  And we have fewer meetings than most workplaces.  But there’s no doubt that meetings, phone calls, knocks on the door, and other interruptions — which may well help other people get their jobs done — make it harder for me to do mine.

And, in addition to being a worker, I’m a manager.  I mostly communicate instructions to my team via email, allowing them to respond asynchronously.  But not always.

Of course, there are social aspects to “work” as well.  While yapping with colleagues no doubt undermines productivity, it’s a good release can build cohesion and enhance legitimate information sharing and collaboration.  But it can also be a giant time suck.

Here’s the transcript of the video:

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 Camp Fire, which is a real time chat tool. That is our office. Camp fire 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 Camp Fire, 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 Camp Fire 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.

Much more — although not about this topic, exactly, at the link.

via Andrew Sullivan

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Economics and Business,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    I work 3-4 hours a day. Why? No management, no office. Either I get my work done or I don’t and that’s on me.

    By the way, these same problem define the average high school. An entire day spent in moving from class to class. Imagine if you had to switch offices seven times a day. And then attend conferences, wait while discipline is enforced, listen to announcements, listen to your idiot classmates, endlessly recalibrate what you need to carry with you and what you can store away, and basically have your work day dictated by seven different managers (teachers) none of whom co-ordinate with each other.

  2. sam says:

    The classic:

    “Jeez, I’m glad my boss is going out of town. Now I can get some work done.”

  3. tom p says:

    My old man used to complain about this exact phenomenon…. the only time he could get any work done was evenings and wkends (mid-upper management, Monsanto) because that was the only time nobody bothered him.

    That was his job (dealing with other peoples BS)

    I have the exact opposite situation: I have to hang so many square feet of drywall, or stand so many lineal feet of wall no matter how many times my foreman bothers me.

    Difference is, I can tell my foreman to go *F* himself…

    My old man’s job was to listen to everybody else’s problems, and fix them, no matter how long it took.

    I think I got the better end of the deal.

  4. Fred says:

    It may be 8:30p where I am, but I logged into work and forwarded this on to the email group of my immediate colleagues at work – it just so happens the bosses are in the same email group.

  5. Chuck says:

    The operational mantra for most organizations is that it is better to look be busy than to actually be busy. Its not that workers are generally lazy , but that workplace politics and dynamics require employees to exhaust energy on “being part of the team” and/or actively demonstrating support for agendas that will keep them employed whether or not these agendas are consonant with the company’s best interest. A friend of mine said it well with “I spend more time working at defending and keeping my position than I do actually working in the interests of company profitability”.

    In my own organization we now spend about 45-50% of our time preparing and organizing reports justifying our departmental existence. Add to this the time spent in informal and after-hours meetings just to keep abreast of the true state of affairs (i.e. impending layoffs, possible merger plans, never-ending reorganization plans) and there isn’t much time left to improve the company’s bottom line. Five years ago we spent much less energy on these efforts and were more focused on finding innovative solutions to production problems. Priorities have changed since then and innovation is at an all time low.

    Increased workplace interruptions are just a manifestation of the general fear and insecurity prevalent in corporations. Many employees probably know what they should be doing but they interrupt their manager anyway since they don’t want to risk doing something wrong or they just want to remain connected to an information source.
    Staying out of touch in a corporate setting, even if you are some kind of hyper-productive genius, is very risky.