The Only True Office Distractions? Managers & Meetings.

The office. That’s where lawyers go day after day, week after week, year after year.

Law firms, like most companies, hire a variety of employees to work toward a specific cause. To facilitate this work, the firm rents a space, a variety of equipment, some mini-fridges, all for the sole purpose of bringing together different associates to complete a certain number of projects.

Jason Fried, in his talk “Why work doesn’t happen at work,” discovered an interesting fact about offices, however. It turns out, “the office” is never the answer to the question, “where do you go when you really need to get something done?”

Answers range from specific rooms—the basement, a coffee shop, the library, the kitchen, for example—to the commute—a train, a plane, a car, just to name a few. Jason Fried explains, in his ten years of asking this question about getting work done, he has almost never heard somebody answer, I go to the office.

“But 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,” Jason Fried teases. Still, all joking aside, it seems that people do not perceive the office as a powerhouse of productivity. Why? Because of all the distractions.

The first thing that comes to a manager’s mind when you say “distraction,” is modern technology. In fact, about 54 percent of companies have blocked social networking websites at the office. And, according to a study by Steve Matthews and Doug Cornelius, 45 percent of law firms have done the same.

Consensus among the blogosphere is that blocking associates’ access to social media sites is a signal sent by administrators and firm partners to say that they don’t trust associates to efficiently and independently complete their own work.

But Jason Fried says, “Today’s Facebook and Twitter and Youtube, these things are just modern-day smoke breaks. No one cared about letting people take a smoke break for 15 minutes 10 years ago, so why does everyone care about someone going to Facebook here and there…? Those are not the real problems in the office.”

In addition to social media at work, law firm partners and company managers also worry that employees who work from home will be distracted by children, or errands, or television, for example. Ironically, the real distractions occur at the office, and they’re not what you think.

“Managers are basically people whose job it is to interrupt people. That’s pretty much what managers are for, they’re for interrupting people,” Jason Fried muses about bosses, like himself.

“They have to check in: ‘Hey, how’s it going? Show me what’s up,’ and that sort of thing. And they keep interrupting you at the wrong time, while you’re actually trying to do something they’re paying you to do.”

At the office, employees are not productive because they find themselves working in just 15- to 20-minute increments. The biggest distractions breaking up an associate’s day are two things—meetings and managers.

“Meetings are just toxic, terrible, poisonous things during the day at work. We all know this to be true. And you would never see a spontaneous meeting called by employees… The manager calls the meeting, so the employees can all come together and it’s an incredible disruptive things to do to people—is to say, ‘Hey, look, we’re going to bring 10 people together right now and have a meeting.’”

Managers often try to justify meetings, claiming they last a mere hour. Collectively, however, a meeting of ten people costs the firm ten hours of productivity. Not to mention the harm done by pulling employees off a particular project just to attend, and then expecting them to continue seamlessly where they left off an hour later.

In addition, there’s never just one, single case-status meeting. It’s usually a weekly meeting, or bi-weekly meeting, or a preliminary meeting in preparation for a bigger meeting in the near future. “Meetings procreate,” according to Jason Fried.

So what are firms to do? Jason Fried has three simple suggestions.

First, instead of casual Friday, try no-talk Thursday. Seriously. Try one day a week or one day a month where nobody in the office can talk to one another.

“What you’ll find is that a tremendous amount of work actually gets done when nobody talks to each other.”

Surprisingly, the second suggestion is to avoid active collaboration in favor or passive, electronic communication. This means no face-to-face meetings or phone calls, but emails and IM chat.

“[These things] are distracting at a time of your own choosing. You can quit the email app, you can’t quit your boss. You can quit IM, you can’t hide your manager. You can put these things away, and then you can be interrupted on your own schedule.”

Finally, Jason Fried’s last suggestion is cancel your meetings. Yes, all of them. Don’t reschedule, just erase. And, you’ll find that work continues to get done and crisis doesn’t ensue.

“People have a more open morning, they can actually think, and you’ll find that maybe all these things you thought you had to do, you don’t actually have to do.”

So, managers, cancel your Wednesday afternoon meeting. At worst, you’ll gain ten hours of productivity (and surely the esteem of your subordinates). At best, you’ll discover a better way for your associates to get work done at the office.

-WB

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