Offices are bad for you

I’ve started this post more than once and abandoned it more than once. It’s nothing sinister, but it is contentious. This is a post about working from home. This may be familiar to you, but I used to get (jokingly) accused of ‘shirking from home’ when I chose not to come into the office. Now this has the same sting as ‘oh, you’ve just got man-‘flu’, by the way, an accusation that has had me returning to the office far too soon on many occasion, infecting others with my real ‘flu, and thereby decreasing the productivity of OUP just a little bit more than if I had stayed at home and recovered properly.

But I digress. Well, sort of. It’s all about the office, you see. That’s the link that’s going on in this head thing of mine.

I’ve started this post a number of times, but have always put it away. The fear is that someone from work will read this and then get all iffy about the concept of working from home and put a stop to it. I contend that this would be a bad idea all round.

When I work from home, the following things happen:

  • I get up at a different time than on ‘office days’ – not necessarily later, before you ask
  • I don’t sit at a desk and stare at a screen
  • I’ll probably sit on the floor, possibly with a laptop, probably fighting a cat off, and with papers spread across the rug
  • I may wander to a coffee bar with a pad and pen
  • I may stop whatever I’m doing for a little while and listen to Radio 4
  • I might read a (normally business-focussed) book
  • I may keep Twitter open or read the odd blog post (often work- or productivity-related)
  • I always get more done than I would have done at the office…

…yes, always.

And so, like so many others before me, I started thinking about why this is the case and whether I could do it everyday. How cool would that be?

The truth is, it wouldn’t be. I like meeting up with other people, and I get a lot out of sparking off other people – I have the sort of mind that needs that quite often.

But why is working from home so much better (sometimes)? At least, why is it for me?

No email. I get to choose when to read it – my ‘out of office’ note tells people that I won’t necessarily answer straight away. That is incredibly liberating, and sometimes whatever the issue is gets dealt with without my intervention at all. Sometimes I think that other people bounce stuff my way because it’s easier than doing a bit of thinking and problem-solving themselves. Honestly, I think that’s the truth.

No meetings. Despite what I said above about needing to be with people, meetings are rubbish. Mostly. I have often asked myself – during a meeting, sadly – why I am at this meeting. What value am I adding? What value is it adding to my working life? Some years back, while working with an author on a course, we hit a problem and my natural reaction was to call a meeting. Same author asked me if it was really necessary “…because, Carl, when you’re in a meeting, you’re still getting paid. When I’m in a meeting, I’m not doing any work. And I’m freelance…”. Good call. Made me think ever since.

Some meetings are useful, granted, but I think we do default to the ‘have-a-meeting’ approach to work rather than ‘have-a-think-and-maybe-a-couple-of-us-can-resolve-this-quickly’ approach. Of course, the latter approach requires that the other potential attendees of the meeting trust you to deal with it without them…

The key issue about meetings is that they interrupt my working day at the office. At home, no meetings, my choice, I can get my head down.

No ‘can I just ask…’ people. You know the sort I mean. Pop in for to ‘just ask’ a ‘quick question’ (this happens by email too…). Another interruption in the flow that I might be in. Again, I have less choice or control over this when I am at the office.

Longer bunches of consecutive minutes to work. If I look at my calendar when I am in the office I think it’s a rare occasion when I can find more than 60 minutes next to each other that I could use to focus on a single project, task, document or piece of thinking.

Think about that for a minute – that means for every (larger) project I tackle I can rarely devote more than an hour at a time to working through it. When I’m at the office, that is.

If I can devote an hour, then it’s still in danger of being derailed by one of the above situations. This is, in fact, one of the reasons I became a devotee of GTD, by the way, in order to have a methodology of dealing with only having moments of work, rather than time to work.

So why do I work at home/in a quiet cafe/in a library? Because there I have control over my environment. I choose what interruptions I’ll entertain and when I entertain them. I can remain on a roll when I’m on a roll. I am in charge.

Isn’t it ironic, though, that spaces created for work are rarely the places we do our best work? Office are bad for you.

I’ve been thinking about this post for sometime, I said, but what prompted me to write it/finish writing it was the following video. 15 minutes is too short to really explore what’s being said, but it was enough to make me put my digital pen to my digital paper and post this. Thanks for reading.

Did you do it at the office?


8 thoughts on “Offices are bad for you

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Offices are bad for you « Ooh! A piece o'candy! --

  2. I’m copying this from the comments section under the link to this post on Facebook. From a friend of mine – I asked him if I could use it, but heard nothing, so I am making it anonymous for the moment, until I hear it. I just like to hear the other side – from someone whose base is home.

    “This is why {my company} has no offices, and never will. I think what the video says is right (I skim watched it by the way…). Our company has a strong identity, produces high quality work, and communicates well. I’ve used tech to annihilate space, whilst staying fully at home. Today I’ve skyped colleagues in Bali and Nairobi, had a conference call between another location in London and Manchester, let the painter in to give a quote for some work, seen the kids to and from school, tickled the cat and gone to the pub for a long lunch. I even skyped my co-worker (…) on another floor in the house. My commute was from the ground floor to the top floor, and what’s more I haven’t had to pay any overheads. We have meetings when we need to at a central location in London, but most of the time when we want to talk to each other we pick up the phone or if not, we set our skype presence to off. On the sparking off other people bit I reckon its a balance, and you can create it. Sometimes I’ll have long calls with colleagues to work round issues. Skype video is great for this. Reinforced with regular face to face (best in coffee shops) this is better than water cooler chat. Enough already. Headline; if I had to go back to working in an office, I’d be out of the window faster than you could say ten storeys up.”

    • I was thinking about m’colleague’s comment a bit more and realised that the main thrust of Jason Friedman’s talk is in fact how one might make the office a place that you do want to do work in. So rather than avoiding the office altogether – as my friend does and wants to keep doing – it’s about how we engender a new sense of the building I spend my time in being a productive place rather than (as it is most of the time) and unproductive place to be.

  3. Hi Carl, this is interesting to think about, and I agree that it should really be about making the office a place where you’re going to get more work done rather than whether people should work somewhere else instead. I think it’s important for people to be given an environment that creates a good working atmosphere and where you have the ability to get your head down and get on with stuff but also to come together with other people to do the idea sparking you mention. And that’s what I miss, the interaction. Since I’ve left to freelance I’ve probably done more work in the past month and a half in terms of producing concrete things that I can show people than I would have done in the office. But I have really missed out on the brainstorming and idea sparking and the camaraderie, and that’s what makes working on your own at home quite hard for someone who gets a lot from those things. I think what I personally would ideally need would be a combination of the two situations. You need to be able to have periods of not being disturbed in the office, and maybe if you work in a communal office you need the chance to work somewhere where people definitely won’t disturb you – perhaps somewhere that would inspire creative thinking, with different kinds of desks or tables, no phones allowed, pictures on the walls etc.

    I think I essentially agree with you about meetings. But I think people get different things from meetings. Perhaps having them every week at the same time of day, just so everyone can abandon what they’re doing to tell everyone else what they’re doing before going back to it doesn’t feel that useful to some epople. But you get to know what others are working on, you feel as if you’re a part of something, and that can motivate you, make you feel as if you’re all in it together, you can commiserate, encourage and motivate each other. Some people need that. Maybe it depends on your personality as to what you need, bring to and get out of things like meetings, and as a manager you need to consider what each member of your staff gets from them and brings to them, and how best meetings can work for your team as a whole.

    I do get a lot more done working from home in terms of production if you measure it by that, but I think work is about more than that, and especially in a creative industry it should be about more than that – people do need other people, I think. That’s why on a personal level remote working and remaining part of the team would have probably been better for me, and why I feel my old company (not sure it’s being named here) may not be helping itself by not allowing that, as well as why at the moment I’m not sure whether I can cope with freelancing long term and being away from people all of the time. For me, maybe it just takes time to adjust, we’ll see. But unless companies become more flexible and trust their staff to meet when they feel they need to and work where suits them best, and provide them with working environments that are more conducive to getting the work done, they won’t get as much from their staff as they perhaps could.

    • Thanks Elaine. I’m not sure I have anything to add to your comment, other than to say that I sympathise with the difficulties you are possibly having as an independent freelancer.

      And I agree with you that more creative solutions (especially as we move to being digital and not a little 21st century) to the issues of remote working, working differently and frankly allowing work to be done in ways that resonate more with the digital native (attention span issues and all that) are sorely needed.

      Thanks again – it’s nice to know someone reads this nonsense!


  4. Hey Carl,

    Super post – I work at home a lot too – but off and on, I do intensive courses 8hr/8day then have weeks/days depending on what’s going on of time off (to draft blog and write)… anyway, ’twas not the point… what I wanted to say was that I used this video in class the other day – divided up the students into those who agreed and disagreed and got them to debate the subject.

    Was good fun, a lot came up in class about how one has to have a specific kind of personality to enjoy working at home and be effective but in fact, and the end of the conversation – all of them said that they felt it was better to have a place to go to!


  5. I hate working in the office all week. I had a sweet deal
    in the US where I worked Mondays and Fridays from home and those
    days were far more productive. I could get started earlier because
    I didn’t have a commute to deal with, and it was great that my days
    were entirely more flexible. The office is stifling, particularly
    when it comes to doing anything creative (which requires sitting
    cross-legged on a sofa, Mac balanced on lap, tea balanced nearby,
    with frequent breaks to faff around while thoughs percolate) or
    anything that requires thinking. And there are way too many
    meetings at OUP, attended by way too many people.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s