Why Offices Suck

by Jim Roepcke

In response to: Why Virtual Offices Suck

(scroll down for Why Working at Home is Great)

People come by your cube or office and it's pretty hard to turn them away, tell them you're busy. They break your concentration, maybe for something important, but maybe for something stupid. At home you can just ignore the phone, not check your email, lock your door, and/or set your IM client to "Busy".

I love going out for lunch with my co-workers, but it's expensive, and if I don't go I feel like I'm missing something. Some days I'd rather work on a personal project or surf or something like that.

Cubes. Crappy Chairs. Corporate decor.... someone's personal decor.

Offices are noisy. Even if people aren't talking, it's noisy. The copier, printers, and computers all hum. People's phones ring, and they're away from their cube, so they just ring and ring and ring.

Meetings. I worked at home last year, and I literally went 9 months without going to a single meeting. I loved it. I just worked... people complain about how much time they waste in meetings, usually because they're boring and meaningless, but I think the reality is even worse than the perception. Meetings break your concentration, time, and that of your co-workers, most of which are innocent victims of meetingitis. I never forgot how much I hated meetings. I was depressed when I started going to meetings again.

Hearing people's phone conversations. Cringe. Hearing people's water cooler conversations. Cringe. Getting trapped into a water-cooler conversation. Cringe. Getting trapped into a 2 or 3 water-cooler conversations in a single day...

No couches or beds. Napping, or "power-napping", if you want it to sound truly worthwhile, is good for you, good for your creativity, concentration. When I worked at home I had a nice couch, and after lunch, if I was feeling a little woozy, I'd just go lay down for a while. I might fall asleep, I might not. Usually I'd lay down for 5-20 minutes. When I got back up I was rejuvinated, refreshed, and often I had solved the day's problem in my daydreams or come up with a cool idea or otherwise had some creative moments. Just try to nap at work... instant humiliation in a north-american corporate environment. Ain't gonna happen.

Crappy desks. Security cards. Having to wear your shoes all day. Having to dress professionally all the time. Being terrified of spilling food or coffee on your clothes at lunch and looking like a dork for the rest of the day.

Relying on oral communication, and oral transfer of knowledge. In my experience, the more people you have working on a team in the same office, the worse the team is at knowledge management. When everyone's nearby, people don't bother to transcribe their conversations, meetings, and work. Code goes undocumented. Decisions are made verbally, no audit trail, no history. Your co-workers brains aren't searchable using any currently available search engine.

Contrast that with working with a fully distributed team. Everything is electronic, or, verbal over the phone but that is expensive so relatively rare, and the results of phone conversations is usually relayed to the rest of the team. Code is commented better and documented better. Mailing lists or web-based discussion groups get used daily. People email each other questions. The whole team is online in AIM or IRC or MSN all day. You can ask someone a question without having to leave your desk, or pick up a phone, and get an answer instantly. The answer might even be a code fragment copy-pasted from the other person's computer, or a clickable URL to the answer.

Every time you leave your desk you lose your concentration, your cognitive connection with the things on your screen. It takes a minute, or more, every time you return to your desk, to reorient yourself. If your concentration is lost you're more likely to check your email or check cnn.com or whatever stocks you're following when you return to your desk before continuing with your work. And the oral (non-searchable) answer to your question might digress into a conversation about sports or news or politics or something else. Sure, that can happen over AIM too, but it's easy to ignore when it's not face to face. Being polite and politically correct is expensive. :-)

The value of IM archives, email archives, list archives, and documentation cannot be overstated, especially for a new employee. Being able to review a complete history of a companies projects, products, thoughts and direction electronically is just awesome. Having to ask people questions you might not even know to answer is not only slower, it takes time away from the other members of the team, and the answer still isn't searchable!

The best company I ever worked for, as far as knowledge management and retention is concerned, was Macrobyte. 11 employees at its peak, no-one in the same city. People in 5 different time zones, 4 different countries. Just about every conversation was electronic, and therefore indexed and searchable by somebody or everybody. Useful IM conversations were often posted to the corporate mailing lists, intranets or extranets, even if they were group chats, because then they became discussion threads, and easily searchable along with the rest of the clump of knowledge out there. Because of the geographic distribution, someone was just about always online, always working, so if you decided to work non-standard hours one day you wouldn't be left by yourself. Of course, Macrobyte made a groupware product and everyone had read Practical Internet Groupware (O'Reilly) by Jon Udell, and this contributed to these habits, but that doesn't mean all companies aren't capable of the same success in retaining knowledge.

Of course, there are places where everyone's together and there's lots of knowledge management happening, but that's exceptional, not normal.

Elevators. Broken elevators. Strangers on elevators. Working on the top floor and having to wait for people to get off on every other floor before you get to the top floor. Stairwells. Public bathrooms. Single-ply toilet paper.

Overtime. Being away from your family even more than normal because of overtime. Pressure to work overtime because there's some workaholics in your department.

Parking. Paying for parking. Having your car vandalized or stolen. Having your personal stuff stolen from your cube or office.

Why Working at Home is Great

There are different degrees of freedom in a home-office environment. There's working at home, working at home with flexible hours, being self employed, and being self-employed with flexible hours. Some of the benefits are exclusive to different degrees of freedom, some are easier at different degrees of freedom, and some aren't possible.

I've worked in all these situations, so I've seen the whole gammit of good, great, and freakin'-awesome telecommuting scenarios.

No commute. Wearing whatever you want while you work. (Maybe nothing :-)) The extra sleep you get by not having to commute and pretty yourself up, or, the extra amount of time you get to work by not having to commute and pretty yourself up.

Your (hopefully comfortable) desk. Your (hopefully comfortable) chair. No cube walls. Your decor. When the phone rings it's for you or your spouse/friend. It's oh so quiet... or, maybe LOUD because you're listening to you're favourite music that the person in the cube next to you didn't like, booming with the subwoofer turned up, or you've got CBC/BBC/NPR Radio going in the background.

No pressure to go out to lunch. You can eat whenever you want. Drink whatever you want. Hopefully not alchohol, but you're an adult, be responsible.

Working your own hours. Some people work better in the evening. Some people work better at 2AM. Some people like to work a litle bit here and there, all day long, but not for one long contiguous period of time.

Deciding to go get groceries and run to the bank at 11AM when Safeway (and your bank) is just about empty (if you have flexible hours :-)). Or, at 2PM. Noticing how beautiful a Tuesday morning it is and deciding to play a quick 9 holes of golf, or go for a jog or bike ride before starting the work day.

Having your toddler come into your work area every once in a while and grace you with their cuteness and love. Playing with your kids in the middle of the day. Seeing them when they come home from school for lunch, or after school.

Being able to choose whatever picture you want as your desktop background.

Having a quickie at lunchtime. :-) Or any time!

If you're lucky enough to have your spouse at home, and doing the cooking, being able to have your diet controlled strictly by someone else. This was great for me, I lost just about 50 pounds in 6 months last year because of this. I gained just about all of it back this year because I'm going out for lunch every day... my co-workers have better metabolism than I do and can get away with eating Chinese or Thai or French or Burgers or Mexican every day of the week.

Having a couch or bed in your office or somewhere in your home, and being able to nap or rest when you need it.

Being able to watch a tennis match or golf tournament live every once in a while. Being able to play video games during your lunch break, or for a while to clear your mind when you need to do that. I found playing Gran Turismo or NHL '99 was great for rejuvinating my creativity in the middle of the day. Perhaps it was the competitive aspect of the games that got me charged up.

No elevators (usually). YOUR bathroom. 2-ply toilet paper.

Having a window office. :-)

Being able to ignore phone calls or IMs or emails, and people entirely, if you need to concentrate or just need a break.

No BOFH sys-admin telling you you can't install that piece of software on your computer, reporting to your boss which web sites you surfed to that day.

No meetings. Or, very few meetings, or, only online meetings. Being able to call a friend during the day and talk about personal things. No manager around hounding you (if your manager does that kind of thing) and giving you dirty looks when noticing your personal phone call.

No security card to remember to bring with you everywhere. Walking around in your socks or slippers. Having your feet (socks, or bare-foot) on your desk and your keyboard in your lap, your chair partially reclined.

Your cat(s) and/or dog(s) come up to you during the day and give you a little attention or demand some of their own. Your pet loves you, and loves you're at home, and can't destroy the house because you're not away.

Being able to be close to your kid or spouse during the day. Getting or giving a neck rub or a back rub or a kiss from or to your spouse or significant other.

Spending way less on gasoline. Putting way fewer miles on your car. Not contributing to rush hour. Not getting so many paper communiques from accounting or HR or whereever, which is good for the environment.

And despite all the things I've just mentioned above which don't sound productive at all... being super-duper-productive. Just imagine being able to do a few, or a lot of the things above, during work-hours, on any work day. Imagine how happy you'd be! Happy people are productive people! Hour after hour of unbroken concentration (because it's easy to arrange this at home if you want it).

Being in the groove, the zone, way more often than you ever remember. Sleeping during the day and working your ass off at night, or vice versa. Searchable archives of conversations with co-workers. Mass-reliance on the intranet/extranet.

If you mess around all day, you get fired. Natural selection works.

Loving your job because you can work at home. Your employer loving your work because you're so productive. When you do see a co-worker or your manager you're genuinely happy to see them because it's not an everyday occurance and their idiosyncracies haven't driven you insane. Having co-workers in different countries, learning about their cultures.

Spending your day where you choose instead of where a bean counter chose.

Living like a human being instead of a human resource.

I love working at home.

Written on November 17, 2001