Why Modern Workplaces Don't Work


Over on The Big Think, 37Signals co-founder Jason Fried has posted an interesting short video about how the modern workplace is designed to provide constant interruptions (phone calls, meetings, colleagues dropping by your desk), and how that’s a real productivity killer:

Fried says that project management tools, IM, collaboration apps and email can be used to reduce those constant interruptions, because if you’re busy you can put them to one side until you have time to deal with them.

As web workers, we’re fortunate in that we typically don’t work in regular office. But we’re still subject to interruptions, and as such can also use tools and careful scheduling to reduce their frequency and boost productivity. Rather than an update meeting, for example, try using an app to keep your colleagues in the loop. Interruptions jolt you out of “the zone,” so if meetings or conference calls are absolutely required, scheduling them back-to-back will reduce the number of interruptions to your working day. WWD’s “Productivity Superstar” columnist Karen posted some great tips for reducing distractions in “7 Ways to Find Your Focus,” and for those working from home, complete with distractions like having to answer the doorbell and dealing with family members, Georgina provided “5 Focus Killers…and How to Beat Them.”

It’s also worth considering how your actions impact the people you work with — do you really need to phone them, or call a meeting? Do you need an answer immediately? As Karen says, productivity isn’t just something we give ourselves. It’s a gift we give other people as well.

What techniques do you use to minimize interruptions?

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Mike Templeton

It’s interesting to hear Fried describe his company as a business that removes interruptions from the work day. Now there’s a powerful unique value proposition.

I agree with him in that all too often our days are broken up or interrupted by things that can wait or that could be solved via a less intrusive method. Another problem I see with the current work environment is that sometimes those that want to be productive and not engage in interruptions are seen as “not being part of the team” or not being sociable. I have no problem with taking it easy and having fun, but I’d rather it be when I’m not at work being accountable for tasks and projects.

Great interview with Fried on this topic. Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

Larry Salibra

A great theory however it doesn’t work well in practice. As a business owner who is a “manager” that hates meeting, I almost never call meetings, let my employees make most of the calls and let them come to me for help. The result is that I am interrupted on other people’s schedule instead of interrupting other people on my schedule. The inefficient interruption work environment gets transferred to the manager instead of the employee.

My solution is to minimize time in the office so that employees know they will have a 2 or 3 hour period in the afternoon each day when they can find me for questions. Otherwise I work from home or the road and we can interact via email and IM.

Skip Knox

A key point in Jason’s comment concerns time delay. He says that most matters can wait a few hours or a single day, and he’s right. Specifically, most management-related interruptions can wait (unless there’s a client standing in the office at the time). But they don’t wait. They get scheduled without regard to the productivity arc of the developers. Taking that communication cycle asynchronous lets the workers decide when (within a day’s time-frame) it’s appropriate to deal with non-development matters.

Jason doesn’t address, but does hint at, another killer: scheduling interruptions in an intelligent way. The stuff that kills me is the 9am meeting followed by an 11am meeting, which leaves me almost zero productivity time for an entire morning. Leave aside the fact that one hour meeting should have been a half hour and the other wasn’t needed at all (!), scheduling the two back-to-back would be more efficient for the organization.

We need some sort of scheduling filler software that takes out the gaps. If you’re going to blow my morning, lets get four meetings done and give me two other days with no meetings at all. This, I think, is the core of Jason’s remarks: finding ways to win back larger chunks of true work time.


Amazing post! Jason is completely right. Totally progressive in thought, but the unfortunate reality is that corporate America is so set in its ways and many of the levels of managers is about taking credit rather than fostering a true creative environment. Much of what happens is about the fear management has to make bold moves in the workplace. The businesses that succeed in so many industries (along with excellent employee morale) tend to take a non-conventional approach to the workplace dynamics. Are there organizations that rule by an iron fist? Of course, but ask the employees how they feel about that environment and you’ll see what a flawed methodology that is.

Again, great article and extremely refreshing. :)

Simon Mackie

Fear is a big driver behind the status quo, I agree. And if management trusted its workforce a little more, perhaps more businesses would be able to embrace some of these ideas.


In some jobs it is not a productivity killer, such as support job when you are supposed to be constantly available for your customers/clients. You are always interupted by calls or people who come to you. You also have to check your emails at least every 5 minutes. But yet, that’s the job. And it is quite a common one, so it is wrong to say that such environments are non-productive. They are the only one possible so it works well with the people you support.

Simon Mackie

Fair point, Chris — yes, it depends on the job. But for many people, I would say that interruptions do get in the way of them doing their work.

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