Where Does Work Happen Best?

I’m leading a team of an organization through some pretty significant change.  Our team has been involved in print, inventory, sales, and publishing to print.  The team has worked in the same office in the same city.  This has been the case for over 100  years.  Therefore, change is pretty significant in the larger perspective.  We’ve had some major staff transitions, collaborated on new strategic directions, shut down legacy initiatives, and are charting the course to a new horizon for the organization.  Many of these transitions have not been smooth.  But what change is, really?

One key change in our team is how we work and how we’re organized.  The team has been primarily on-site, 8-5.  I was hired to be the first hybrid executive to work both on and off site.  The new team I’m hiring will be primarily off-site.   Within 6-12 months, we’ll have team members all over the country.  We’re working on creating some rules and structure for this type of work.  The reality that I’m learning is there can’t really be too much in place.  Provide basic rules, & base-line accountability.  Mostly, I need to provide freedom, direction, and resources to do work.  One of the books I’ve got a thumb in this season is Jason Fried’s, Rework (Amazon Link).  I haven’t finished it yet, but it points to many of the concepts Dan Pink writes about in his book, Drive (Amazon Link).  The schematic is there.

provide strategic direction > resource the team > hire great people > get out of the way > cheer

I’ll be writing more on this journey and reviewing the two books referenced soon.  Jason Fried recently spoke at TED and had some great words to talk about our work, where we work, and where work happens best.

Key “Take-Aways”

You trade in a “workday” for “work moments” at an office because of distractions.

Sleep and work are closely related.  They both operate on Phase/Stage-based methods:  In sleep, we have to go through early phases of sleep to get to deep sleep.  If you’re interrupted at any of the phases, you have to start over and go through the phases.  This is why we wake up not rested.  We don’t go “to” sleep.  We go “towards” sleep.  Why do we expect to work well with constant distractions/interruptions.  When we are working towards something “deep”, and are interrupted, we usually find ourselves having difficulty picking up where we left off.  It can be very frustrating and often paralyzing in our work.

Fear

What do managers fear?  Lack of control.  They think that if staff work off site, they won’t do work.  Fried suggests we stem this fear by simply hiring the right kind of people.  There are also exceptions based on what kind of work is needed.  Some work can’t be done off site.  It has to be done at an office.  Fried also points out that the fears managers have about off-site work is rooted in the amount of distractions the off-site staffer could encounter.  Those managers suggest that the traditional office’s controlled environment helps nurture work and eliminate distractions.  Fried’s suggests two types of distractions:  intentional and voluntary.  He contends that distractions at home are intentional/voluntary distractions (going for a walk, watching TV, etc).  Distractions at work are involuntary (people popping into the office, etc).  Which one would we choose?

The Real Problems:  Evil M&M’s

Fried is pretty direct when he says the biggest problems in office settings are managers and meetings.  He says, “A managers job is to interrupt people.”  The worst thing managers do is call meetings.  Fried says, “Most meetings are toxic.  They talk about stuff that doesn’t matter mostly.”

Meetings aren’t work.  They are places to talk about things you’re supposed to be doing later.

Meetings also procreate to other meetings with too many people in meetings.  Another great nugget of truth is how much a meeting costs.  Ten people in a one-hour meeting takes 10x $100/hr = $1000.  This can be very expensive.  We need to look at what we really want for the outcome of our meetings to see if we actually need a meeting and then who actually needs to be there.  When we have meetings, we take people away from time where they can be working.

Solutions

1.  No Talk Thursdays. Once a month.  Or even an afternoon a month.  Nobody can talk to anyone.  This is the day when people can actually get stuff done.  If you can do it weekly, even better.
2.  Switch from Active to Passive Communication. Use e-mail, Basecamp, and IM instead of face-to-face meetings.  You can choose how you want to be interrupted with these tools.  There are very few things that are “that urgent” which can be taken care of a different time/day.
3.  Cancel the Next Meeting. Try to stop having meetings all together.  See what happens.  See if things still get done.

Action Steps

As I’m reading through the book, one fun idea I’m looking at is the “No Talk Thursdays”.  Because we’re a smaller team, we can do this.  The only thing we can’t control are the other teams we work with.  I’m going to try this with the team.  We also are moving toward passive communication with our Basecamp implementation.  We’ve put in tasks and projects as well as some basic cross-training.  We have January 1 as our cut-off to have all work done through Basecamp.  As for canceling the next meeting?  I’m not so sure.  We have one weekly staff meeting which lasts for about 90 minutes.  I’m willing to cancel it, but wondering if it’s not the greatest idea at this point in time.  Fried is very anti-meeting.  One thing he doesn’t really address is how his team knows the mission/vision/tasks at hand.  Is it all done via passive communication?  Does the team at 37 Signals ever meet?  There has got to be a balance here.  Where we find it becomes trial and error with a lot of good intentions and grace for our team.  Maybe we’ll find a groove someday.

What about you?  How do you organize your team?  Virtual or face-to-face?  Does any of this resonate with you?

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