Why People Can't Get Work Done At Work : The Indicator from Planet Money Today's summer book recommendation offers a different approach to the modern workplace.
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Why People Can't Get Work Done At Work


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Hey, everyone, it's Cardiff and Stacey. And...



GARCIA: ...It is yet another day on THE INDICATOR when we are talking about business and economics beach reads.

VANEK SMITH: Because who says that you can't take economics to the beach? Not me.

GARCIA: Definitely nobody in this room - probably a lot of people, though.

VANEK SMITH: It's a small room (laughter).

GARCIA: Yeah. Yeah, it really is.

VANEK SMITH: It's a small room.

GARCIA: But, yeah, these are books that are readable and fun and will teach you something hopefully about economics. Today on the show, our recommendation is "It Doesn't Have To Be Crazy At Work" by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. We talked to Jason for this episode. And if you've heard THE INDICATOR before, you know that I am fascinated by the tension between the environments, the surroundings that people need to get meaningful work done.

VANEK SMITH: You will also know that Cardiff hates the open office.

GARCIA: Yes. That...

VANEK SMITH: We work in an open office.

GARCIA: Yeah, I know. So the tension between what people need to get their work done and then the environments of most actual workplaces. They're a disaster. We talk about three things. Yes, the open office plan, but also the use of online chat to keep up with our colleagues all day and the shared calendar. And then we tie it...

VANEK SMITH: The dreaded shared calendar.

GARCIA: And then we tie it all together.

VANEK SMITH: (Imitating calendar alert).


JASON FRIED: So my name is Jason Fried. I'm the CEO and co-founder at Basecamp and also the author of the new book "It Doesn't Have To Be Crazy At Work."

GARCIA: Why are open-plan offices so maddeningly awful?


FRIED: Well, first of all, do you agree?

GARCIA: Yes, of course.

FRIED: Yeah. We probably agree for the same reasons. The main reason is it's very difficult to focus. In some roles, focus may not be quite as important. But it's really hard to do that while you're being constantly distracted by noise or by people moving around or someone tapping you on the shoulder or just the general commotion that exists in an open space when you don't have your own private space. And there's also the anxiety of just people creeping up behind you, like, seeing what's on your screen, that kind of stuff. And no one's doing it maliciously. It's just the nature of an open space.

So I think if you want to make an open-plan office work, you need to make some cultural adjustments. Culturally, we follow this idea that we call library rules, think of our office as more of a library of work. It's pretty clear. Everyone kind of immediately knows how to behave. So keep your voice down. Don't bother people. Assume people are deep in thought and studying and working and thinking.

GARCIA: It's like nobody's really given too much thought to that. And it almost feels weird because it is so acceptable to have the open part of the office - have a default setting of everybody can talk, everybody can interrupt. If you're there, you can be talked to regardless of whether or not you want it.

FRIED: The problem with interruption in general is that it's actually a pretty arrogant act. Now, people aren't intentionally being arrogant. But when I interrupt you, I'm basically assuming that what I have to say to you or whatever question's on my mind or whatever I need from you is more important than what you're doing because I'm saying, stop doing what you're doing so I can talk to you.

The other thing that's insidious these days I think is the expectation of immediate response when it comes to chat and instant messaging and chat rooms and stuff, which basically turns every office, even if it's a closed office, into an open office and actually even worse because now you're expected to pay attention to notifications and get back to people instantly whenever they ask you a question. So there's a lot of bad things brewing I think in the modern workplace today.

GARCIA: Yeah, that's actually the second category I wanted to talk to you about. There's a couple of passages at least in the book about the availability of being on, like, a chat app all day long. This is typically looked at as a very good thing. You see it as something that's actually quite, as you said, insidious.

FRIED: Well, I think it was seen as a good thing. And I think more and more people are starting to realize it's maybe not such a good thing. I think people are beginning to realize this about the nature of online chat, specifically around the expectation of having to follow in many cases dozens of real-time conversations all day long. That is a terrible burden for anybody who's also expected to do their job. And we've turned work into basically a 24-hour news ticker across the bottom of a screen. We're actually essentially long-form talking, which is how people talk.

In a chat room, it'd be one line, and then you'd talk and I'd talk, and then you'd talk and I'd talk. And it's very difficult to actually have a real deep, thorough conversation. And so I think the key is - again, it's a cultural shift. You have to think about, what are the costs to all this speed, and are the costs worth it? And I think in many cases, they are absolutely not worth it. In fact, it's quite costly to speak quickly in that sort of medium.

GARCIA: OK. And then the third category I wanted to talk to you about before we tie them all together has to do with availability to one's colleagues. And you approach this from a few different standpoints. One is open-plan offices. Another is online chat. But another way in which you talk about it is your availability just on, like, a shared calendar or when people can feel comfortable coming to you for something that they can't figure out themselves. What are sort of some of the rules that we should have in place around availability to one's colleagues? Because I think for a lot of people, they want to be good colleagues. They want to be helpful.

FRIED: Yeah. And I know we're weird here, but we believe that the shared calendar is one of the worst inventions in modern software history, let's call it. When everyone can see everyone else's time and you can see which blocks people have available, it becomes really tempting to take blocks from people. And when you start to think of time as blocks, you begin to play what we call calendar Tetris. We end up filling each other's calendars up, which means we end up taking each other's time.

But I think it's actually the root of a lot of the evil actually in corporate America today, which is everyone feels like they're in meetings all day long. And everyone's busy. No one has time. It's because it's really easy to take up other people's time. That's the problem.

GARCIA: Yeah, it's kind of interesting to me also that usually the kinds of things that you put on a work calendar, whether it's shared or not, are not the things that have to do with actually getting your job done. They're the things that have to do with not getting your job done.

FRIED: (Laughter) Exactly.

GARCIA: So like, it's a meeting, or it's an HR thing. It's usually not, hey, from, like, you know, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. I'm going to be quietly working on the thing I'm working on. That space you just leave open. It's sort of like a chronicle of distractions rather than something that helps you manage your time.

FRIED: Availability is a tricky thing. You know, like you said, you do want to be available to your colleagues but within reason. And what people end up doing - you know, you mentioned how, you know, if you - you don't block off work time, like, your own work time on calendars. But in fact, that's what people end up having to do. So what I've heard people do is they make up fake appointments and fake meetings because you never would schedule something during someone's meeting. But if says someone has, like, quiet work time, oh, perfect then. They're easy to interrupt then.

GARCIA: Well, I asked you about these three categories, Jason, in part because I'm actually fascinated by how people often ignore what the design of their day actually is, what their day actually looks like. I have a couple of theories about this, but one is just that I guess it sometimes feels, like, comparatively wimpy to ask about what your day's going to look like.

When I - and when say comparatively, I mean relative to other things that you think about before you take a job. So for instance, if I'm thinking about taking a new job, like, it's sort of normal to ask what my salary's going to be or to ask, like, what my benefits package is going to look like - those kinds of things that feel tangible.

If I ask in an interview, well, like, what does my day look like; like, am I surrounded by people all the time; what's the noise level; will I have a chance to go get focused work done, it feels sort of - it feels sort of different. And yet this is - we're talking about how I'm going to spend, like, most of my time five days a week. And people don't ask about it. But people probably should.

FRIED: What is my day going to look like is a great question. How much time am I going to have to do my work - great question. What if I need long stretches of time; will I have that - great question. These are really enlightened and important questions. And I think that perhaps people are so used to not feeling like those environments are possible that they don't even ask those questions. Or they just assume that like, well, my last work - my last job, which was full of meetings, is going to be like my next job, which is going to be full of meetings. And it's going to be loud and difficult to work in.

But I think that people should be asking these questions because it's going to - you know, when those kind of questions come up and employers begin to hear those questions more frequently, they're going to go, oh, there's something going on here.

GARCIA: "It Doesn't Have To Be Crazy At Work" is not out just yet. It comes out October 2. But you can already preorder it.


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