May 3, 2019

How Slack and the open office layout ruined productivity

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Advanced workplace communication technologies and a return to humanistic office design were meant to make companies more innovative, making us both happy and productive. They did neither. Where did we go wrong and how do we come away from it?

Productivity Software

Software like Slack, Workplaces and Teams were meant to facilitate communication and get us away from the dreaded overflowing email inbox, but they also brought something just as bad in their wake:

  • The low barrier to entry of communication software means that people share information more frequently and with a significantly decreased quality of content.
  • Work communication becomes its own sort of social media, complete with its distracting allure as a time sink.
  • Rise in performative messaging and information sharing from remote workers to show that they were in fact working at their desks

Open Offices

The open layout of offices where workers are seated within eyeshot of each other or visible behind glass partitions allowed companies to both save on their leases by reducing square footage allotted per employee and give the impression that they were forward thinking and innovative. But this lack of barriers produced some unfavorable results as well:

  • There is no separation from other peoples’ in-person interactions, meaning you’re in earshot of all conversations but even when you have earbuds in, you also aren’t completely focused when things are constantly catching your eyes.
  • 65% of creative people need quiet or absolute silence to do their best work, an environment open offices can’t provide, especially if workers are required to be in office at all times.
  • At many companies, there was an increase in anxiety for women who not only felt personally more pressured by “being on display” all the time, they actually found male coworkers evaluating other female colleagues on their attractiveness, some of many factors that prompted women to seek “hiding spots” where they could find privacy.

How It All Adds Up

When the time lost to distractions in both digital and physical spaces adds up, that subtracts time from normal working hours, which prompts people to multitask hoping to recover that lost time.
The issue is that the length of distractions can increase with the given co-worker(s) and amount of distractions can scale with the size of a given team or department.
This far outweighs a single worker’s capacity to work faster and multitask, which is not actually a thing—it’s the inefficient switching between tasks.

Regardless of the nature of the job (9-5 versus flexible work hours), this almost always results in work being done far beyond regular work hours. While this is certainly fine for the occasional sprint, over time it means an eroded barrier between work and life. And the least productive our best hours of the day are, when we are at our peak focus and energy, the even worse our work is in our off hours.

How We Can Learn From This

Where the individual box-shaped cubicles of the 20th centrury were derided as isolating and alienating us from our coworkers to make mindless drones of us, open offices have made machines of us in different ways: as constantly online, aware, engaged and performing. That said, both styles of work have inherent advantages that can be leveraged to make our time in an office as rewarding as it is productive so we can all go home on time.

  • People are not gears, but we absolutely have them. We need to be able to switch from being inaccessibly focused on our tasks to produce the best work in a given period of time while also being open and attentive to interactions with other people. But we can’t do both at once and we can’t remain in one gear indefinitely. If the space can’t be physically structured to allow us to switch gears, the daily or weekly schedule must.
  • While the romantic notion of the grind and the hustle has simply changed vocabulary and style, in its very concept it means to work harder, but not necessarily smarter. Systems and metrics for KPIs can be oppressive if improperly or unfairly implemented, but these unsexy methods have their place in keeping us focused on what’s important as much as what’s urgent so that have work “diet” that is healthily balanced without too much junk (making office memes, anyone?)
  • For leaders and managers, recognize that provided there are specific measurable goals and deadlines agreed on in advance to measure everyone against, the quieter seemingly distant workers might not necessarily be less committed or involved in a project and the more vocal and active communicators might not necessarily be the most productive either.
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