17:22
TEDxMidwest

Jason Fried: Why work doesn't happen at work

Filmed:

Jason Fried has a radical theory of working: that the office isn't a good place to do it. In his talk, he lays out the main problems (call them the M&Ms) and offers three suggestions to make work work. (Filmed at TEDxMidWest.)

- Software entrepreneur
Jason Fried thinks deeply about collaboration, productivity and the nature of work. He's the co-founder of 37signals, makers of Basecamp and other web-based collaboration tools, and co-author of "Rework." Full bio

So I'm going to talk about work,
00:15
specifically why people can't seem
00:17
to get work done at work,
00:19
which is a problem we all kind of have.
00:21
But let's, sort of, start at the beginning.
00:24
So we have companies and non-profits and charities
00:26
and all these groups
00:29
that have employees
00:31
or volunteers of some sort.
00:33
And they expect these people who work for them
00:35
to do great work --
00:38
I would hope, at least.
00:40
At least good work, hopefully, at least it's good work --
00:42
hopefully great work.
00:44
And so what they typically do is they decide
00:46
that all these people need to come together in one place
00:48
to do that work.
00:50
So a company, or a charity, or an organization of any kind,
00:52
they typically -- unless you're working in Africa,
00:55
if you're really lucky to do that --
00:57
most people have to go to an office every day.
00:59
And so these companies,
01:01
they build offices.
01:03
They go out and they buy a building, or they rent a building,
01:05
or they lease some space,
01:08
and they fill the space with stuff.
01:10
They fill it with tables, or desks,
01:13
chairs, computer equipment,
01:16
software,
01:18
Internet access,
01:20
maybe a fridge, maybe a few other things,
01:22
and they expect their employees, or their volunteers,
01:25
to come to that location every day to do great work.
01:27
It seems like it's perfectly reasonable to ask that.
01:30
However, if you actually talk to people
01:33
and even question yourself,
01:35
and you ask yourself,
01:37
where do you really want to go when you really need to get something done?
01:39
You'll find out that people don't say
01:42
what businesses think they would say.
01:44
If you ask people the question: where do you really need to go
01:46
when you need to get something done?
01:48
Typically you get three different kinds of answers.
01:50
One is kind of a place or a location or a room.
01:52
Another one is a moving object
01:55
and a third is a time.
01:57
So here's some examples.
01:59
When I ask people -- and I've been asking people this question for about 10 years --
02:01
I ask them, "Where do you go when you really need to get something done?"
02:04
I'll hear things like, the porch, the deck,
02:06
the kitchen.
02:09
I'll hear things like an extra room in the house,
02:11
the basement,
02:13
the coffee shop, the library.
02:15
And then you'll hear things like the train,
02:18
a plane, a car -- so, the commute.
02:21
And then you'll hear people say,
02:24
"Well, it doesn't really matter where I am,
02:26
as long as it's really early in the morning or really late at night or on the weekends."
02:28
You almost never hear someone say the office.
02:31
But businesses are spending all this money on this place called the office,
02:34
and they're making people go to it all the time,
02:37
yet people don't do work in the office.
02:39
What is that about?
02:42
Why is that?
02:44
Why is that happening?
02:46
And what you find out is that, if you dig a little bit deeper,
02:49
you find out that people --
02:51
this is what happens --
02:53
people go to work,
02:55
and they're basically trading in their workday
02:57
for a series of "work moments."
02:59
That's what happens at the office.
03:01
You don't have a workday anymore. You have work moments.
03:03
It's like the front door of the office is like a Cuisinart,
03:05
and you walk in and your day is shredded to bits,
03:08
because you have 15 minutes here and 30 minutes there,
03:10
and then something else happens and you're pulled off your work,
03:13
and you've got to do something else, then you have 20 minutes, then it's lunch.
03:15
Then you have something else to do.
03:18
Then you've got 15 minutes, and someone pulls you aside and asks you this question,
03:20
and before you know it, it's 5 p.m.,
03:23
and you look back on the day,
03:26
and you realize that you didn't get anything done.
03:28
I mean, we've all been through this.
03:30
We probably went through it yesterday,
03:32
or the day before, or the day before that.
03:34
You look back on your day, and you're like, I got nothing done today.
03:36
I was at work.
03:39
I sat at my desk. I used my expensive computer.
03:41
I used the software they told me to use.
03:44
I went to these meetings I was asked to go to.
03:46
I did these conference calls. I did all this stuff.
03:49
But I didn't actually do anything.
03:51
I just did tasks.
03:54
I didn't actually get meaningful work done.
03:56
And what you find is that, especially with creative people --
03:58
designers, programmers,
04:01
writers, engineers,
04:03
thinkers --
04:05
that people really need
04:07
long stretches of uninterrupted time to get something done.
04:09
You cannot ask somebody to be creative in 15 minutes
04:12
and really think about a problem.
04:15
You might have a quick idea,
04:17
but to be in deep thought about a problem and really consider a problem carefully,
04:19
you need long stretches of uninterrupted time.
04:22
And even though the workday is typically eight hours,
04:25
how many people here have ever had eight hours to themselves at the office?
04:28
How about seven hours?
04:31
Six? Five? Four?
04:33
When's the last time you had three hours to yourself at the office?
04:36
Two hours? One, maybe?
04:39
Very, very few people actually have
04:41
long stretches of uninterrupted time at an office.
04:43
And this is why people choose to do work at home,
04:46
or they might go to the office,
04:49
but they might go to the office really early in the day,
04:51
or late at night when no one's around,
04:53
or they stick around after everyone's left, or they go in on the weekends,
04:55
or they get work done on the plane,
04:58
or they get work done in the car or in the train
05:00
because there are no distractions.
05:02
Now, there are different kinds of distractions,
05:04
but there aren't the really bad kinds of distractions
05:06
that I'll talk about in just a minute.
05:08
And this sort of whole phenomenon
05:10
of having short bursts of time to get things done
05:12
reminds me of another thing
05:14
that doesn't work when you're interrupted,
05:16
and that is sleep.
05:18
I think that sleep and work are very closely related,
05:20
and it's not just that you can work while you're sleeping
05:22
and you can sleep while you're working.
05:24
That's not really what I mean.
05:26
I'm talking specifically about the fact
05:28
that sleep and work
05:30
are phased-based,
05:32
or stage-based, events.
05:34
So sleep is about sleep phases, or stages --
05:37
some people call them different things.
05:40
There's five of them,
05:42
and in order to get to the really deep ones, the really meaningful ones,
05:44
you have to go through the early ones.
05:47
And if you're interrupted while you're going through the early ones --
05:49
if someone bumps you in bed,
05:51
or if there's a sound, or whatever happens --
05:53
you don't just pick up where you left off.
05:56
If you're interrupted and woken up,
05:58
you have to start again.
06:00
So you have to go back a few phases and start again.
06:02
And what ends up happening -- sometimes you might have days like this
06:05
where you wake up at eight in the morning, or seven in the morning,
06:07
or whenever you get up,
06:09
and you're like, man, I didn't really sleep very well.
06:11
I did the sleep thing -- I went to bed, I laid down --
06:13
but I didn't really sleep.
06:16
People say you go to sleep,
06:18
but you really don't go to sleep, you go towards sleep.
06:21
It just takes a while. You've got to go through these phases and stuff,
06:23
and if you're interrupted, you don't sleep well.
06:26
So how do we expect -- does anyone here expect someone to sleep well
06:28
if they're interrupted all night?
06:30
I don't think anyone would say yes.
06:32
Why do we expect people to work well
06:34
if they're being interrupted all day at the office?
06:36
How can we possibly expect people to do their job
06:38
if they're going to the office to be interrupted?
06:41
That doesn't really seem like it makes a lot of sense to me.
06:43
So what are these interruptions that happen at the office
06:46
that don't happen at other places?
06:48
Because in other places, you can have interruptions,
06:50
like, you can have the TV,
06:52
or you could go for a walk,
06:54
or there's a fridge downstairs,
06:56
or you've got your own couch, or whatever you want to do.
06:58
And if you talk to certain managers,
07:01
they'll tell you that they don't want their employees to work at home
07:03
because of these distractions.
07:06
They'll also say --
07:08
sometimes they'll also say,
07:10
"Well, if I can't see the person, how do I know they're working?"
07:12
which is ridiculous, of course, but that's one of the excuses that managers give.
07:14
And I'm one of these managers.
07:17
I understand. I know how this goes.
07:19
We all have to improve on this sort of thing.
07:21
But oftentimes they'll cite distractions.
07:23
"I can't let someone work at home.
07:25
They'll watch TV. They'll do this other thing."
07:27
It turns out that those aren't the things that are really distracting.
07:29
Because those are voluntary distractions.
07:32
You decide when you want to be distracted by the TV.
07:34
You decide when you want to turn something on.
07:36
You decide when you want to go downstairs or go for a walk.
07:38
At the office, most of the interruptions and distractions
07:41
that really cause people not to get work done
07:43
are involuntary.
07:45
So let's go through a couple of those.
07:47
Now, managers and bosses
07:50
will often have you think that the real distractions at work
07:52
are things like Facebook and Twitter
07:55
and YouTube and other websites,
07:58
and in fact, they'll go so far
08:01
as to actually ban these sites at work.
08:03
Some of you may work at places where you can't get to these certain sites.
08:05
I mean, is this China? What the hell is going on here?
08:08
You can't go to a website at work,
08:11
and that's the problem, that's why people aren't getting work done,
08:13
because they're going to Facebook and they're going to Twitter?
08:15
That's kind of ridiculous. It's a total decoy.
08:17
And today's Facebook and Twitter and YouTube,
08:22
these things are just modern-day smoke breaks.
08:24
No one cared about letting people take a smoke break for 15 minutes
08:27
10 years ago,
08:29
so why does everyone care about someone going to Facebook here and there,
08:31
or Twitter here and there, or YouTube here and there?
08:33
Those aren't the real problems in the office.
08:35
The real problems are what I like to call
08:38
the M&Ms,
08:40
the Managers and the Meetings.
08:42
Those are the real problems in the modern office today.
08:44
And this is why things don't get done at work --
08:47
it's because of the M&Ms.
08:50
Now what's interesting is,
08:52
if you listen to all the places that people talk about doing work --
08:54
like at home, or in a car, or on a plane,
08:57
or late at night, or early in the morning --
08:59
you don't find managers and meetings.
09:01
You find a lot of other distractions, but you don't find managers and meetings.
09:03
So these are the things that you don't find elsewhere,
09:06
but you do find at the office.
09:09
And managers are basically people
09:12
whose job it is to interrupt people.
09:14
That's pretty much what managers are for. They're for interrupting people.
09:16
They don't really do the work,
09:19
so they have to make sure everyone else is doing the work, which is an interruption.
09:21
And we have a lot of managers in the world now,
09:24
and there's a lot of people in the world now,
09:26
and there's a lot of interruptions in the world now because of these managers.
09:28
They have to check in: "Hey, how's it going?
09:30
Show me what's up," and this sort of thing
09:32
and they keep interrupting you at the wrong time,
09:34
while you're actually trying to do something they're paying you to do,
09:36
they tend to interrupt you.
09:39
That's kind of bad.
09:41
But what's even worse is the thing that managers do most of all,
09:43
which is call meetings.
09:46
And meetings are just toxic,
09:48
terrible, poisonous things
09:50
during the day at work.
09:53
We all know this to be true,
09:55
and you would never see a spontaneous meeting called by employees.
09:58
It doesn't work that way.
10:00
The manager calls the meeting
10:02
so the employees can all come together,
10:04
and it's an incredibly disruptive thing to do to people --
10:06
is to say, "Hey look,
10:08
we're going to bring 10 people together right now and have a meeting.
10:10
I don't care what you're doing.
10:13
Just, you've got to stop doing what you're doing, so you can have this meeting."
10:15
I mean, what are the chances that all 10 people are ready to stop?
10:18
What if they're thinking about something important?
10:21
What if they're doing important work?
10:23
All of a sudden you're telling them that they have to stop doing that
10:25
to do something else.
10:27
So they go into a meeting room, they get together,
10:29
and they talk about stuff that doesn't really matter usually.
10:32
Because meetings aren't work.
10:35
Meetings are places to go to talk about things you're supposed to be doing later.
10:37
But meetings also procreate.
10:40
So one meeting tends to lead to another meeting
10:42
and tends to lead to another meeting.
10:44
There's often too many people in the meetings,
10:46
and they're very, very expensive to the organization.
10:48
Companies often think of a one-hour meeting as a one-hour meeting,
10:51
but that's not true, unless there's only one person in that meeting.
10:54
If there are 10 people in the meeting, it's a 10-hour meeting; it's not a one-hour meeting.
10:57
It's 10 hours of productivity taken from the rest of the organization
11:00
to have this one one-hour meeting,
11:03
which probably should have been handled by two or three people
11:05
talking for a few minutes.
11:08
But instead, there's a long scheduled meeting,
11:10
because meetings are scheduled the way software works,
11:12
which is in increments of 15 minutes, or 30 minutes, or an hour.
11:15
You don't schedule an eight-hour meeting with Outlook.
11:18
You can't. I don't even know if you can.
11:20
You can go 15 minutes or 30 minutes or 45 minutes or an hour.
11:22
And so we tend to fill these times up
11:25
when things should really go really quickly.
11:27
So meetings and managers are two major problems in businesses today,
11:29
especially to offices.
11:32
These things don't exist outside of the office.
11:34
So I have some suggestions
11:37
to remedy the situation.
11:39
What can managers do --
11:42
enlightened managers, hopefully --
11:44
what can they do to make the office a better place for people to work,
11:46
so it's not the last resort, but it's the first resort?
11:49
It's that people start to say,
11:52
"When I really want to get stuff done, I go to the office."
11:54
Because the offices are well equipped,
11:56
everything should be there for them to do their work,
11:58
but they don't want to go there right now, so how do we change that?
12:00
I have three suggestions I'll share with you guys.
12:03
I have about three minutes, so that'll fit perfectly.
12:05
We've all heard of the casual Friday thing.
12:08
I don't know if people still do that.
12:11
But how about "no-talk Thursdays?"
12:13
How about --
12:16
pick one Thursday once a month
12:18
and cut that day in half and just say the afternoon -- I'll make it really easy for you.
12:20
So just the afternoon, one Thursday.
12:23
The first Thursday of the month -- just the afternoon --
12:25
nobody in the office can talk to each other.
12:27
Just silence, that's it.
12:29
And what you'll find
12:31
is that a tremendous amount of work actually gets done
12:33
when no one talks to each other.
12:35
This is when people actually get stuff done,
12:37
is when no one's bothering them, when no one's interrupting them.
12:39
And you can give someone -- giving someone four hours of uninterrupted time
12:41
is the best gift you can give anybody at work.
12:44
It's better than a computer.
12:46
It's better than a new monitor. It's better than new software,
12:48
or whatever people typically use.
12:51
Giving them four hours of quiet time at the office
12:53
is going to be incredibly valuable.
12:55
And if you try that, I think you'll find that you agree.
12:57
And maybe, hopefully you can do it more often.
12:59
So maybe it's every other week,
13:01
or every week, once a week,
13:03
afternoons no one can talk to each other.
13:05
That's something that you'll find will really, really work.
13:07
Another thing you can try
13:10
is switching from active
13:12
communication and collaboration,
13:14
which is like face-to-face stuff,
13:16
tapping people on the shoulder, saying hi to them, having meetings,
13:18
and replace that with more passive models of communication,
13:21
using things like email and instant messaging,
13:23
or collaboration products -- things like that.
13:26
Now some people might say email is really distracting
13:29
and I.M. is really distracting,
13:32
and these other things are really distracting,
13:34
but they're distracting at a time of your own choice and your own choosing.
13:36
You can quit the email app; you can't quit your boss.
13:39
You can quit I.M.;
13:42
you can't hide your manager.
13:44
You can put these things away,
13:46
and then you can be interrupted on your own schedule, at your own time,
13:48
when you're available, when you're ready to go again.
13:51
Because work, like sleep, happens in phases.
13:53
So you're going to be kind of going up and doing some work,
13:56
and then you're going to come down from that work,
13:58
and then maybe it's time to check that email, or check that I.M.
14:00
And there are very, very few things that are that urgent
14:02
that need to happen, that need to be answered right this second.
14:05
So if you're a manager,
14:08
start encouraging people to use more things like I.M. and email
14:10
and other things that someone else can put away
14:12
and then get back to you on their own schedule.
14:14
And the last suggestion I have
14:16
is that, if you do have a meeting coming up,
14:19
if you have the power,
14:22
just cancel. Just cancel that next meeting.
14:24
Today's Friday -- so Monday, usually people have meetings on Monday.
14:28
Just don't have it.
14:30
I don't mean move it;
14:32
I mean just erase it from memory, it's gone.
14:34
And you'll find out that everything will be just fine.
14:36
All these discussions and decisions you thought you had to make
14:39
at this one time at 9 a.m. on Monday,
14:41
just forget about them, and things will be just fine.
14:43
People have a more open morning, they can actually think,
14:45
and you'll find out that maybe all these things you thought you had to do,
14:48
you don't actually have to do.
14:50
So those are just three quick suggestions I wanted to give you guys
14:52
to think about this.
14:54
And I hope that some of these ideas
14:56
were at least provocative enough
14:58
for managers and bosses and business owners
15:00
and organizers and people who are in charge of other people
15:02
to think about laying off a little bit
15:05
and giving people some more time to get some work done.
15:07
And I think it'll all pay off in the end.
15:09
So thanks for listening.
15:11
(Applause)
15:13

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About the Speaker:

Jason Fried - Software entrepreneur
Jason Fried thinks deeply about collaboration, productivity and the nature of work. He's the co-founder of 37signals, makers of Basecamp and other web-based collaboration tools, and co-author of "Rework."

Why you should listen

Jason Fried is the co-founder and president of 37signals , a Chicago-based company that builds web-based productivity tools that, in their words, "do less than the competition -- intentionally." 37signals' simple but powerful collaboration tools include Basecamp, Highrise, Backpack, Campfire, Ta-da List, and Writeboard. 37signals also developed and open-sourced the Ruby on Rails programming framework.

Fried is the co-author, with David Heinemeier Hansson, of the book Rework, about new ways to conceptualize working and creating. Salon's Scott Rosenberg called it "a minimalist manifesto that's profoundly practical. In a world where we all keep getting asked to do more with less, the authors show us how to do less and create more."

More profile about the speaker
Jason Fried | Speaker | TED.com