2015-07-18

Escaping the open plan office.

I'm often having a hard time getting much done in my office at work. In an open plan office the interruptions are constant, and if you want to escape your only option is to bring your laptop and escape into a meeting room with highly uncomfortable furniture.  In meeting rooms the chairs are usually bad, the desk is the wrong height, often the lighting is sub-optimal, there are on windows that can be opened to admit fresh air and the ventilation systems...well.  And then, of course, you have to lug all your notes, books, and whatnot to the meeting room.
So then you sit there and squint at a screen that is less than 1/4 the area of your large desktop screen while trying to find a comfortable seating position on pretty terrible furniture.
While my home office is pretty good, working from home isn't exactly optimal since it tends to make you feel like you're constantly at work -- or that you should be working. And it is tempting to do things that aren't work because "it'll only take ten minutes". The delineation between work and play becomes fuzzy.
For this reason I've started experimenting with working different places. From cafes to libraries and even sneaking into hotels and using their lounge areas. Here are some observations:
  •  Even in somewhat noisy environments it is easier to concentrate than at the office since the conversations around me do not involve me, the company or anything I do. It gets easier to mentally block them out.
  • Being able to work for hours on end without having people approach me is a real productivity boost. At an office you need a room with a door that can be closed to accomplish that. If you are sitting in a hotel lounge, people will leave you alone.
  • The biggest limitation of most spaces I've tried to do work in is the furniture. The chairs are often uncomfortable, the table is the wrong height, power outlets may be missing etc.
  • Being able to vary your surroundings is great. I tend to get bored of working in the same place day in and day out. Working in new surroundings somehow helps my creativity.

I have considered having "work weeks" where I go abroad and just focus on work for a week or so. Renting an appartment through Airbnb and perhaps bring a co-worker or two. Just to get more focused work time. I haven't had the opportunity to try it yet. I'd be interested in even trying this with people who are not my coworkers -- people from other companies.
I haven't tried working at coworking-spaces yet, but I have visited a few to have a look, and most of them are open plan, so that's a no-go. For focused work, that won't do.

Occasionally I end up discussing open plan offices with people who design offices, and most of these inevitably have a very different experience.  They have a hard time understanding why it is so hard for someone like me to function in a noisy environment.  This inevitably leads to a discussion of the fundamental differences between the way you do different jobs.
There are some jobs you can perform with very shallow levels of concentration.  For instance, I spent a few weeks designing physical objects in a 3D modeling system last year as part of a project at work.  For me, this requires very little concentration.  The mental process of designing and realizing three dimensional objects appears to be a completely intuitive, wordless process.  Meaning that I can have a conversation going with someone on an entirely different topic even while designing.  I listened to podcasts while designing 3D objects that need to fit together in a particular way and which need to be designed so that they work for the manufacturing process being used.  For instance orientation matters when you 3D print something -- for strength, printability, non-uniform dimensional changes etc.  You have a lot of constraints that need to be balanced.  But as I mentioned, for some reason, for me, this requires very little mental effort.  Very little concentration.

However, when I do algorithmic design or system design, or similarly mentally ardous tasks, things are very different.  It can often take up to an hour to arrange all the ideas, information and context in your head just so you can start to reason about things.  And it is very hard to maintain that state over time.  I think the best comparison would be to build a house of cards.  You have this very fragile structure in your head and you are trying to do work on it without losing it.  And when something threatens to disturb it, you get stressed out -- you feel unease and discomfort.

Working in an open plan office for someone who needs to concentrate deeply is like trying to build a house of cards in a daycare center full of hyper kids.  It isn't exactly where you would expect to get a lot of great work done.
All it takes to tear down parts of, or you whole, house of cards is for someone to interrupt you to ask a question.  The cost of an interruption can be great.  Even total.  It has happened innumerable times that I've been very close to solving a probleme, or getting significant work done -- only to have the opportunity yanked away from me because of an interruption at the wrong time.  And then have been unable to get back to where I was for the rest of the day.

To be honest, I don't think most of the work interior architects and office designers do requires all that much deep focus.  Yet I am often confronted with these kinds of professionals who seem only too happy to project the way they work onto everyone else.   It works for them and then for some reason they think this means that it'll work for people who do fundamentally different forms of work.

I'm not sure if this is lack of empathy or just very telling of an overall lack of professional depth.


I've tried to look at some productivity metrics for myself over the years.  Measurements are, of course, never perfect.  How do you measure how productive a programmer is?  Number of tasks finished?  Lines of code written?  Level of quality achieved?  Amount of functionality produced?  
For the most part I've used metrics that roughly measure "amount of work done" and "results delivered". I look at how many tasks I've finished, how many changes I have made and what milestones I've achieved and then "squint" to arrive at some rough estimate.
Unlike a factory worker who stamps out parts, where a doubling in productivity would be almost unheard of, the difference in productivity for a knowledge-worker often fluctuates by an order of magnitude.  That is, in very productive phases, I can be more than 20 times as productive as when I experience periods of low productivity.
The peaks in my productivity completely dwarf the periods of low productivity.  At my peaks I can do months of work in just a week.  Given that this is taxing I can't do this constantly, but when the conditions are right I can achieve this state more often.  Perhaps every two weeks or so.
From a cost/benefit point of view you would think that the obvious way to get the most out of my pay would be to try to keep me as close to the conditions where the peaks occur as possible.  The rational thing to do would be to run the numbers.  To look at the factors that make people more productive and to find places where you can spend N amount of money to get a N*X (where X > 1) increase in productivity.

Of course, this generally never happens.  And if I am going to be a bit mean:  it isn't surprising when taking into account that many of these people claim that they can function in noisy environments.  Of course they can.   They don't think very hard about things.

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