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Why Work Doesn’t Work – 10 Fatal Flaws of the Modern Day Office

January 4th, 2011

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As the economy changes and more Americans are starting to juggle multiple jobs and work from home, questions are being raised about the necessity and effectiveness of today's offices. Are we really even productive at work? Here we'll exam 10 fatal flaws of the modern-day office, and how working from home, or just revamping office culture by minimizing meetings and introducing things like recharge activities and no-talk afternoons, may help us all get more done.

  1. Information workers aren't productive for 8 hours straight: As Pick The Brain editor Erin Falconer writes, it makes sense for labor-intensive jobs — like factory line work — to last for 8 hours at a time, but for information workers — people who need to be creative — 8-hour shifts are unreasonable. Mentally, it's hard to have that kind of stamina, and physically, our eyes get too tired staring at the computer screen. Creativity and strategic and critical thinking are drained if they're forced to work nonstop.
  2. There's no work day, just work "moments": Jason Fried presents this idea as part of his lecture at TEDxMidwest. After dealing with interruptions, lunch breaks, meetings and answering questions, you might realize that you didn't get any actual work finished during your official work day, and that you just completed little tasks. From the outside, the office might look like a bubble of productivity, but all those people running back and forth only have a few moments each day to themselves to do real, meaningful work. This problem is especially damaging to creative industries, like design or writing and editorial.
  3. Offices are full of all the wrong interruptions: While managers argue that TV and naps are distractions for those who work at home, involuntary interruptions plague office workers. If you're working at home, you choose to turn on the TV or get into bed to take a nap. But at the office, distractions and interruptions are more serious, because you can't easily get out of them. Meetings, phones ringing, e-mails, and people coming up to your desk to ask questions or to just chat add to the "work moments" philosophy.
  4. There are no available recharge activities in an office setting: Recharge activities allow us to take a mental break from our work so that our brain has time to recharge and come back to the problem with a new, fresh focus. But when you're stuck in an office, your boss most likely isn't going to let you get a hair cut or run any errands unless it's your lunch break — and even then, you might have trouble breaking out on your own for a significant period of time. And while smoke breaks and even long lunches used to be the norm in offices across America, some bosses won't even let you check personal e-mail or Facebook as a way to take a break and recharge. It's a mistake that actually cripples productivity, not enhances it.
  5. We need long stretches of un-interrupted time: With all of the involuntary distractions going on around us at work, we don't have a long stretch of time to really dig deep and think critically about problems. Quick brainstorming or flash ideas can happen, but in order to come up with valid, well-organized, effective solutions and strategies, we need long stretches of uninterrupted time, something that people like Fried think is impossible to get at the office.
  6. Meetings: Meetings are false implications of productivity. They steal everyone away from the few moments of actual work they were doing, and waste lots of time getting set up, passing out papers, eating, and listening to presentations. Only two or three people are usually needed in meetings anyway, which could cut "meeting" time down drastically. You could get the same result — or better — by inviting someone into your office for a 10-minute chat as you could in an hour-length meeting with 15 people. Or, just e-mail everyone and ask for Reply All responses to keep everyone in the loop, but on their time.
  7. Managers interrupt needlessly: Fried also believes that managers are a major problem in the modern-day office because they're constantly interrupting workers. As they pop over to your cubicle to check how things are going, ask for reports, and delegate tasks, they're cramping your productivity and lowering your productivity. Since you have less time to yourself to work out problems, you probably aren't able to think as creatively or deeply to come up with innovative solutions.
  8. Face-to-face collaboration isn't needed anymore: Offices are physical places we can all go to connect and work on problems together. But now that collaboration and communication tools are available online — in surplus — we don't really need a geographic center to work. We can talk online, in real-time, with people in the same city or who are working across the world. There's really no need to sit in an office all day if you can just as easily ask someone a question from your home office or neighborhood WiFi spot.
  9. The office isn't a place people associate with productivity: As Fried remarks, when he asks people where they feel most productive, he hardly ever gets the answer "the office." Instead, most people feel like they can get the most work done at home, on a plane or train, and anywhere else that's quiet and they're not likely to be disturbed. If no one associates the office with productivity, no one's arriving to work with the right attitude. That makes it less likely that real, meaningful work is going to get done.
  10. Offices are too chatty: "Active communication" is what distracts us: when we catch up with cubicle mates or go to meetings. "Passive communication," like e-mail, instant messenger or memos, is less disruptive and can just as easily be supported if employees work from home or at remote locations as if they sat in an office. Fried suggests that managers introduce a no-talk afternoon once a week or even once a month if they're not likely to let employees were from home. No talking is allowed — not as punishment, but to give everyone the silence and privacy they need to do their own work.

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