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Why the office is the worst place to work

By Jason Fried, Special to CNN
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Jason Fried: Work doesn't happen at work
  • Jason Fried: If you ask people where they work the best, they rarely say the office
  • He says the office is a place where people are constantly interrupted
  • Meetings often prove to be time-wasters that hurt productivity, he says
  • Fried: "Cancel your next meeting. Or just don't attend it"

Editor's note: TED is a nonprofit dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website. Jason Fried is the co-founder and president of 37signals, which produces software enabling teams to work together online, and is co-author of a new book, "Rework."

(CNN) -- Companies spend billions on rent, offices, and office equipment so their employees will have a great place to work.

However, when you ask people where they go when they really need to get something done, you'll rarely hear them say it's the office.

If you ask, you'll usually get one of three kinds of responses: A place, a moving object, or a time.

They'll say their house, their back porch, an extra bedroom they've converted into a home office, a library, the coffee shop down the street, the basement. Or they'll say their car, or a train, or a plane -- basically, during their commute. Or they'll say really early in the morning, really late at night, or on the weekend. In other words, when no one else is around to bother them.

I don't blame people for not wanting to be at the office. I blame the office. The modern office has become an interruption factory. You can't get work done at work anymore.

The modern office has become an interruption factory. You can't get work done at work anymore.
--Jason Fried

When people walk into the office, they trade their work day in for a series of work moments. It's like the front door is a "time Cuisinart" -- shredding it all into little bits.

When you're in the office you're lucky to have 30 minutes to yourself. Usually you get in, there's a meeting, then there's a call, then someone calls you over to their desk, or your manager comes over to see what you're doing. These interruptions chunk your day into smaller and smaller bits. Fifteen minutes here, 30 minutes there, another 15 minutes before lunch, then an afternoon meeting, etc. When are you supposed to get work done if you don't have any time to work?

People -- especially creative people -- need long stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done. Fifteen minutes isn't enough. Thirty minutes isn't enough. Even an hour isn't enough. How complexity can yield simpler solutions

When's the last time you had three or four hours to yourself to get work done? It probably wasn't at the office. A phone call, a co-worker tapping on your shoulder or knocking on your door, a required meeting -- all the things prevent you from having long uninterrupted stretches of time to get things done. Good work requires thinking, and thinking requires time.

I believe sleep and work have a lot in common. I don't mean that you can sleep at work or you can work in your sleep. I mean sleep and work are phase-based activities. You don't just go to sleep or go to work -- you go towards sleep and towards work.

You aren't sleeping when your head hits the pillow. You start the sleep process. You have to go through phases to get to the really beneficial sleep. And if you're interrupted before you get there, you have to start over.

The same is true for work. You don't just sit down at your desk and begin working effectively. You have to get into a groove. You go towards good work. It takes some time to settle in, clear your head, and focus on what you need to do.

I don't think anyone would expect someone to get a good night's sleep if they were interrupted all night long. So why do we expect people to get a good day's work if they are interrupted all day long? The walk from "no" to "yes"

So how about some solutions? OK, I can do that. There are a lot of things you can do to discourage interruption at work and give people longer stretches of uninterrupted time to get things done.

1. Instead of casual Fridays, how about no-talk Thursdays? Try it. You won't believe how effective it is. On Thursdays -- and you can just try this once a month if you want -- no one in the office can talk to each other. You'll be blown away by how much work you'll get done that day. I'm just asking for one day a month to start. Try it, trust me.

2. Use passive instead of active communication tools. When someone calls your name, knocks on your door, or stops you in the hallway, you can't avoid them. Even if you try, you're already distracted. So, instead of relying on so much face-to-face communication and collaboration -- what I like to call "active" communication -- try more passive methods of communication. Use e-mail. Use instant messaging. Use collaboration software. Here's why: If people don't want to pay attention, they can turn that tool off. They can hide it. They can put it away. You can't put away a knock on your door or someone calling your name. But you can quit your e-mail app for a few hours. Then, when you're ready, you can open it up -- on your own schedule -- and get back to people.

3. Cancel your next meeting. Or just don't attend it. I'm not suggesting you boycott all meetings -- just the next one. Life will go on. And all that stuff you thought you had to talk about with eight other people around a table will get worked out some other way. You'll gain an hour of time you can spend on more important things. And so will those eight other people. Work can happen without that next meeting. Once you recognize that meetings aren't as necessary as you thought, they'll become a last resort instead of a first resort.

Sorry to bother you. Now get back to work.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jason Fried.