Excerpted from Remote: Office Not Required by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson. Copyright 2013 by 37signals LLC. Reprinted with permission from Crown Business, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group.
If you ask people where they go when they really need to get work done, very few will respond "the office." If they do say the office, they'll include a qualifier such as "super early in the morning before anyone gets in" or "I stay late at night after everyone's left" or "I sneak in on the weekend."
What they're trying to tell you is that they can't get work done at work. The office during the day has become the last place people want to be when they really want to get work done.
That's because offices have become interruption factories. A busy office is like a food processor – it chops your day into tiny bits. Fifteen minutes here, 10 minutes there, 20 here, five there. Each segment is filled with a conference call, a meeting, another meeting, or some other institutionalized unnecessary interruption.
It's incredibly hard to get meaningful work done when your workday has been shredded into work moments.
Meaningful work, creative work, thoughtful work, important work – this type of effort takes stretches of uninterrupted time to get into the zone. But in the modern office such long stretches just can't be found. Instead, it's just one interruption after another.
The ability to be alone with your thoughts is, in fact, one of the key advantages of working remotely. When you work on your own, far away from the buzzing swarm at headquarters, you can settle into your own productive zone. You can actually get work done – the same work that you couldn't get done at work! Yes, working outside the office has its own set of challenges. And interruptions can come from different places, multiple angles. If you're at home, maybe it's the TV. If you're at the local coffee shop, maybe it's someone talking loudly a few tables away. But here's the thing: those interruptions are things you can control. They're passive. They don't handcuff you. You can find a space that fits your work style. You can toss on some headphones and not be worried about a coworker loitering by your desk and tapping you on the shoulder. Neither do you have to be worried about being called into yet another unnecessary meeting. Your place, your zone, is yours alone.
Don't believe us? Ask around. Or ask yourself: Where do you go when you really have to get work done? Your answer won't be "the office in the afternoon." …
Most of the time when you hear people imagining why remote work won't work, they'll point to two things in particular: One, you can't have face-to-face meetings when people aren't in the office. And two, managers can't tell if people are getting work done if they can't see them working.
We'd like to offer a very different perspective on these two points. We believe that these staples of work life – meetings and managers – are actually the greatest causes of work not getting done at the office. That, in fact, the further away you are from meetings and managers, the more work gets done. This is one of the key reasons we're so enthusiastic about remote work. What exactly is wrong with meetings and managers (or M&Ms, as we call them)? Well, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with them. What's wrong is how often they're applied in office situations.
Meetings. Ah, meetings. Know anyone out there who wishes they had more meetings? We don't either. Why is that? Meetings should be great – they're opportunities for a group of people sitting together around a table to directly communicate. That should be a good thing. And it is, but only if treated as a rare delicacy.
When meetings are the norm, the first resort, the go-to tool to discuss, debate, and solve every problem, they become overused and we grow numb to the outcome. Meetings should be like salt – sprinkled carefully to enhance a dish, not poured recklessly over every forkful. Too much salt destroys a dish. Too many meetings can destroy morale and motivation.
Further, meetings are major distractions. They require multiple people to drop whatever it is they're doing and instead do something else. If you're calling a meeting, you better be sure pulling seven people away from their work for an hour is worth seven hours of lost productivity. How often can you say that a given meeting was worth it? Remember, there's no such thing as a one-hour meeting. If you're in a room with five people for an hour, it's a five-hour meeting.
Now what about managers? Managers are good. They're essential. But management, like meetings, should be used sparingly. Constantly asking people what they're working on prevents them from actually doing the work they're describing. And since managers are often the people who call the meetings, their very presence leads to less productive workdays.
Part of the problem is the perceived need to fill a whole day with management stuff, regardless of whether it's called for or not. All those dreaded status meetings, interruptions for estimates, and planning sessions have a curious way of adding up exactly to a manager's work-week. While monitoring output is sometimes quite important, it's rarely a forty-hour-per-week position. Ten hours maybe, but few full-time managers have the courage to limit their presence to that.
Working remotely makes it easier to spot managers drumming up busywork for themselves and others. The act of pulling people into a conference room or walking to their desks leaves no evidence of interruption, and it's all of the synchronous "drop what you're doing right now to entertain me!" variety. But when management is forced to manage remotely using e-mail, Basecamp, IM, and chat, its intervention is much more purposeful and compressed, and we can just get on with the actual work.
M&Ms continue to have a place in the remote-working world, but you'll be more conscious about how many you consume when everything has a paper trail online. That's a good thing. We can all do with fewer M&Ms.