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Deep Work vs. Collaborative Environments

The typical knowledge worker functions on some blend of the manager and maker schedules — sometimes they need to do deep work without interruptions, sometimes they need to look up from their desk and communicate to make sure their output is aligned with the company. A private space free of distractions facilitates the former but an open plan is actually pretty good for the latter.

The best solution (I’m surprised more companies have not implemented this) is to provide both environments and give the employee some guidance in terms of where they choose to work. Most knowledge workers will not benefit from the monastic strategy described in this article but almost all will benefit from a bimodal or rhythmic strategy.

If you already have an open plan office this is as easy as telling the employee he/she can work remotely a few days a week as long as they select a quiet space that’s free of distractions (so if they have kids running around at home during the day, maybe better to advise them to go to the library instead).

The manager should provide some guidance in terms of how much time the employee spends remotely vs. “on the floor” with everyone else. Graham’s maker vs. manager article is great on this topic, engineers often err a little too far in the direction of isolation, managers err too far in the direction of having everyone in the collaborative environment, the solution is a little dialogue.

With very light guidance and very little additional cost to the business you can improve both productivity and morale this way. Our team functions best very far down the deep work end of the spectrum — we have one day a week where everyone goes into the office or gets on calls and gets aligned. For the rest of the week communication is mostly async and work is mostly remote.

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