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Jason Fried on getting it done: is office culture destroying productivity?

'Businesses are spending all this money on this place called the office and they’re making people go to it all the time, yet people don’t do work in the office. What is that about?'

Those are the words of Jason Fried, co-founder of 37signals (creators of Basecamp and other collaborative business tools) and the co-author of ‘Rework’.

In his TED talkWhy work doesn’t happen at work’ Fried shares his rather radical theory about work: that the office isn’t the best place to do it. Work, Fried believes, is an activity, not a place.

This begs the question: are we limiting productivity by working in an office?

The importance of being alone

Getting quality work done requires uninterrupted alone time. If you’re a maker (someone who spends their day creating), it’s a necessity.

Fried uses the analogy of sleep to explain the importance of uninterrupted work time. Sleep, he says, isn’t something you just do; it’s something you fall into gradually. You don’t just close your eyes and enter deep sleep, it takes time to progress to that state.

The same applies with work. You need uninterrupted time to fully immerse yourself in a project and do productive work. But can you have that in the office?

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Managers and meetings

Jason notes two big issues with office culture: managers and meetings. It’s a manager’s job to check up on employees, and holding interruptive meetings is the way to do this. As he explains on his blog:

'A one hour meeting with six people is a six-hour meeting. A 15-minute meeting with nine people is a two-and-a-quarter-hour meeting. Even a 15-minute meeting with four people costs an hour of collective work time.'

These distractions are costing businesses. In a study of time budgeting at large corporations, Bain & Company found that just one weekly meeting of midlevel managers was costing an organisation $15 million a year.

The cost of ad-hoc interruptions add up too: author and researcher Jonathan Spira estimates that interruptions waste up to 28 billion hours a year, costing the U.S. economy a cool $1 trillion.

Makers vs. managers

A manager needs updates, but a maker needs no interruptions. How does that work?

Another of Jason’s blog posts shows his calendar for January 2017. This is how it looks:

Jason Fried on productivity

‘Time is the raw material of creation’, as technology pioneer Kevin Ashton explains, and Jason has an abundance. This is what enables him to immerse himself in projects and problems, and to do real work.

What do I mean by real work? As Kevin explains:

‘[It's the] work of becoming expert through study and practice, the work of finding solutions to problems and problems with those solutions, the work of trial and error, the work of thinking and perfecting, the work of creating.

It’s the kind of work that makes a difference – more so than answering endless emails and attending pointless meetings, the hallmark of office culture.

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It’s not all bad, though

Even though the office might not be conducive to the ideal work environment, office culture does come with its perks. These include:

Social life

After work drinks with colleagues is common practice. ‘Employees who have positive workplace relationships are happier at work’, explains author and speaker Alexander Kjerulf.

'We know that people who are happy at work are more productive, more creative and more successful overall.'

The Danish are a perfect example of this theory in practice. Their adoption of Hygge – the feeling of true contentment – has made them the happiest country in the world.


There’s something to be said for getting up in the morning, putting on the corporate uniform and sitting in the office from nine to five. It makes the office the place of work, and home the place of fun and relaxation.

This separation of church and state is important for both productivity and mental health, but it’s something that people who work remotely or from home don’t always have. Remote work takes a disciplined mind that knows when – and how - to switch off.

A happy medium?

Jason Fried offers some solutions to the problem of workplace distraction. One insight is ‘no talk Thursdays’, where for one day a week, people in the office are not allowed to talk to one another. Absolute silence.

Other solutions could be:

  • No management Mondays – Every Monday, managers are not allowed to engage with employees. Let them work.
  • Talk Tuesdays – Every Tuesday, whatever needs to be said, gets said. Maybe it’s just an afternoon. But, the whole office talks through their work and everyone can offer solutions.
  • No phone Fridays – Every Friday, people are not allowed to answer the phones. Workers must communicate through passive means like email, which allows the worker to respond on their own time, at their own pace.

"Being stingy with your time is part of leading a creative, productive life"

Being stingy with your time is part of leading a creative, productive life explains Kevin Ashton. One way of doing so is to follow Fried’s mantra:

'Say no more.'

What do you think? Is office culture destroying productivity? Comment in the box below! 

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