My first real software development job out of college was with Microsoft. The year was 1997, and the boom was in full swing. Enthusiasm was high, parties were epic, and it was a time we've not seen since. It was also the era of "everyone has an office," and nobody really questioned it. Indeed, the only place on campus that I can remember not being this way was a large room in which something like the "open office floorplan" was used for contractors. And I remember thinking it was counterproductive, even then.
As a developer, I liked having my own space. Shelves for my reference books (and I'm still old-school that way). Some posters on the wall to set the nerdy mood. A huge white board that was all my own. It was my space, and the mindset that went with it had a direct impact on my morale and productivity. Of course, the real benefit was the door. It was open 90% of the time. Anyone could come by, and collaboration never suffered. But I could also close it, meaning that if I wanted some "in the zone" time I could have it. I could even put a sticky on the door, letting people know that I was unavailable except in emergency.
You simply can't do this with an open office plan.
Headphones are an invitation to be tapped on the shoulder. A "quick question" never is, and even when it is, pulling someone out of the zone means that quick question cost a half hour, at best. White boards are shared, so you can't keep a design up for weeks while refining it. And the chocolates on my desk seem to mysteriously disappear overnight. That one is still a mystery.
What I've discovered, though, is that for the past 18 months, "working from home" has reinforced these beliefs and given some concrete experimental evidence to support them. So what have I discovered?
A private space to work provides the same benefits as an office in the building. I can close the door. I can socialize to family members that when the door is closed, I'm concentrating, and please don't interrupt unless you have to. This is generally respected in my household, with the notable exception of the cats. But cats are jerks. Working from home means I can have that private space that isn't afforded in an Open Office building. My point here being that I believe we've all experienced this, now. Has anyone, working from home, not found it better to have your own private space? Do you honestly work in the common areas all the time because the distractions are something you seek out? I doubt it.
When working from home, if someone needs you, they have to get in touch electronically. They don't get to walk over and tap you on the shoulder. Or, worse, stand there and wait for acknowledgement. But with the exception of a ringing phone (who calls unannounced these days?), all communication can be asynchronous. Emails can be read and returned in their own time box. Slack allows you to mute notifications except when urgent if you want. Even chat applications let you set your status as "busy" if you want. I wish Slack had a status called "In the Zone," but that's a feature request. I truly hope this understanding persists once we all return to the office.
I confess, I have a remote work habit that sounds ludicrous but actually functions at the highest level: I work from Las Vegas. Yes, I live in the San Francisco bay area, but, at least when the pandemic has allowed, I will often travel to Las Vegas for a week. I get a nice hotel room at my favorite center-strip resort, usally complimentary, and work from the comfortable hotel room where I have good Internet connectivity, a decent sound system, and a desk. I honestly get up at the start of the day, work without interruption, and put in a full day. My productivity is even more than at home, as there are no family members (or, as I said, cats) to interrupt, even legitimately. Meetings for the past 18 months have been on Zoom anyway, and the worst I got from those who didn't know my plans was a comment that my artificial background looked like a Vegas hotel room. In the evenings, I got good food, perhaps saw a show (nothing refreshes the mind like Penn and Teller!), and got to play some poker or roll dice. I don't really drink much, so I got up the next day refreshed and ready to go.
This may or may not work for you. You have to have the discipline to actually get the work done. For me, the enjoyment of my evenings wouldn't be there if I knew I had work piling up or people suspicious of my work ethic.
I remain of the opinion that Open Office Floor Plans are a drain on productivity and morale, and in light of 18 months of solid "work from home" data, I see no reason to change this opinion. And now I have some solid experience to back it up.
There have been more than just a few instances where interactions "at work" have gotten a little too personal or awkward for my tastes. Nothing with me, thankfully, but I've seen it in meetings.
Now that we're all working from home, I think I know what it might be - we're working in the same place we live and play. To me, this often makes work feel more informal. We work in our pajamas (or less). We can get up and go into the bedroom to get something. Lunch is from our kitchen.
I think, perhaps, it's natural to feel more informal while working, perhaps subconsciously, and this leads to violations of work protocols and professionalism.
This is probably obvious to everyone else, but it just occurred to me ;)
Dr. Gary Chapman’s book, “The Five Love Languages,” is a well-known tome on five ways that humans tend to express and experience love for one another. Of the five, one is “Acts of Service.” That is, doing things for other people. As it is in life and relationships, so it is in business. Often, helping others through actions can provide benefits not only for the recipient, but also for the helper.
My friend Rick shared a story with me this morning, about a seminar and a lesson. I quote it here:
Once a group of 500 people were attending a seminar. Suddenly the speaker stopped and decided to do a group activity. He started giving each person a balloon. Each person was then asked to write their name on it using a marker pen. Then all the balloons were collected and put in another room.
The people were then let into that room and asked to find the balloon which had their name written on it within 5 minutes. Everyone was frantically searching for their name, colliding with each other, pushing around others and there was utter chaos.
I'm often asked about my personal productivity strategies, and the number one tip that I like to give out is the benefit of making habits of the things that you find valuable. It is said that it takes 21 days for form a habit, and that one must be committed to establishing it. I could argue that if you can remember to do something for 21 days, you've already made it a habit. If the habit I want to create is eating delicious cake every day, I suspect I could do without help. When it's remembering to floss, on the other hand, I might forget if I'm in a hurry, or even blow it off. In this case, I find that checklists help.
Applications like Todoist work for me, as they let me make a checklist of tasks and set them to repeat daily (or in some cases, on weekdays, weekends, or whatever schedule works for me). Initially, I had a single checklist, but I found this difficult to work with. Sometimes there are tasks that are expected on a given day but just aren't going to get done, often for very good reason. For example, one task I have is to make a daily journal entry about a particular topic. The problem is that the topic doesn't generate activity every day, so checking off this task when there is nothing to journal about is perfectly okay - but I get "credit" in the app for actually doing it. There is no way to mark it, as we'd say in the betting world, "no action."
My solution was to split out my list into two categories and then split those into two more. The two categories are health habits and all other habits. I treat health differently because many of the items are non-negotiable. Take my blood pressure medication, for example. That goes into the second split of "maintenance," which means that it's a "no excuse" task.
Tasks that aren't maintenance are improvement, and those are the ones that, more often than not, wouldn't get done if I didn't hold myself accountable. Improvement health tasks like working out or meditating (though that's becoming more attractive the more I do it). Improvement habits like committing to writing at least one sentence a day (hat tip to Stephen Barnes for this one).
In all cases, checking them off provides the dopamine reaction I'm after. I want to see, every day, 100% on maintenance tasks, and as close as I can get on the improvement tasks. If something can't be done regularly, I re-evaluate it to see if it must be dropped from the list or if I need to make adjustments to make it possible.
Bonus List: I have one for "Memorize." This is, obviously, anything I need to commit to memory. I put the text in a task and read it once per day and then check it off. After a time, the every-day repetition gets the job done and I can remove the task. Ask me to do some Shakespeare for you some time - this is how I memorized Dogberry's part in Much Ado About Nothing ;)
Do you think this would work for you? I'd love to hear thoughts and refinements! What would you add/change to this?
Consider this another strike against the "open floor plan" office - I'm refining my Pandora station to play the perfect workday mix. Since I get into the office around 0730, I can just turn it on low and get to work. On weekends, I even get to blast it because I'm often the only one here when I come in to get stuff done in peace. But as soon as 0930 or so rolls around, people start filtering in, and I have to go to the headphones. It's just not as comfortable.
Maybe it's me, but headphones get warm. I prefer the "big cans" like my coveted pair of DT-770 Pros. They sound great, but at work, getting up and moving while tethered with headphones is also a pain. And cow orkers never seem to know when I've got them on because I want music or because I am trying to get into the zone. With an office, a closed door makes this clear.
This isn't a rant. Honest. But I'm going to write one some day.