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Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work (TED Talk Video)



On a recent trip to the east coast to visit the in-laws I got into a long discussion with one of my wife’s cousins about working from home. He works for one of the world’s biggest banks as a database engineer and absolutely loves it. Why? It’s not because he got a big pay raise, a promotion or extra vacation time this year. It’s because the bank now allows him to work from home full time.

We talked about how there’s really no excuse for a lot of people to work at an office and how it’s a drain on resources all around. Companies pay thousands of dollars (sometimes 10’s of thousands) per year for each employee to have a cubical or office, equipment and other facilities at a central office. Employees spend countless hours commuting to and from work, which means that eight or nine hour work day is more like 10 or 11 hours away from home, especially in major metro areas.

The worst aspect of working in an office, at least in many cases, is coworkers and bosses. The endless chit-chat about ball games, politics and personal business takes a serious bite out of the work day. My wife’s cousin doesn’t deal with any of that any more, instead chatting with co-workers about WORK when needed.

He no longer lives in North Carolina, a place he didn’t particularly enjoy living since his family and friends are all in the Tri-State area.  He now lives in New Jersey and is as happy as can be working for the same bank. He says he gets a lot more done these days in fewer hours. He completes his work on time, but he works when he wants to.

Another thing we talked about is how much time work takes out of your day before you even get to work. Showering, shaving, getting dressed, doing laundry, dropping off shirts at the dry cleaners are all things that eat into your work day. Obviously, you’ll have to do some of the above items at some point, but the ability to wake up at 6a.m. and be at work as quickly as you can open a laptop and punch in an RSA security number is really important when you’re on a tight deadline.

As I ate a late breakfast this morning in my home office, I visited to catch up on the Ted Talks series. Jason Fried, the founder of 37 Signals, gave a talk about Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work. He addressed many of the issues my wife’s cousin and I discussed. He added that meetings and managers are two of the biggest time wasters at work. I couldn’t agree more.

My wife’s cousin says he’ll never be able to go back to working at an office full time again. His company is allowing workers to work from home for two primary reasons. The first is to save on office costs. The company doesn’t have to build more offices, buy office equipment or make food for those that work from home. The other reason is so that it can retain employees with what many consider the ultimate perk. While he currently resides in New Jersey, he’s toying with the idea of living and working from Brazil for a few months since his boss really doesn’t care where in the world he is, just as long as he’s getting things done.

This TED Talk brought back flashbacks of my former corporate life. When I used to work at a big corporate media company, I spent well over half of my day not working. Instead, my typical Monday looked something like this:

7 a.m.: Leave home, drive to work on one of the most congested streets in downtown San Francsico. Drop off wife at her office

7:45 a.m.: Park (thankfully work gave me a parking spot) and run to coffee shop.

8 a.m.: Run upstairs to get to conference room in time for 8 a.m. meeting w/manager and colleagues. Spend first 15 minutes hearing jokes (‘Where’s my coffee?’), wait for everyone to show up (Oh my Gosh! Theere was Traffic…sorry!) and how awesome some club was on Saturday night.

8:15 a.m.: Manager would go over some goals for the week (same as every other week), highlight a few successes (that co-workers already bragged about last week) and then talk about his wife’s charity, his new car, trip to N.Y., etc for the remainder of the hour. For added fun, he’d scold me every so often for playing with my phone (in front of everyone), despite me showing him that I actually used my Palm Treo for things like taking notes, scheduling and alerts…

9 a.m.: The team would head down to Starbucks to get that coffee I didn’t bring them. I’d be hungry by this point and would join them to grab a bagel or pastry.

9:45 a.m.: Return to office. Begin work…

9:46 a.m.: A co-worker would stop by and recount how awesome his sons did in their hockey games (I think the oldest was 9). Yes, every day since super-dad coached the hockey team. If there wasn’t a game, we’d hear about practice. Or travel plans for the next game.  Or what new piece of hockey gear he was going to buy one of his sons….

10 a.m.: Start working again. Phone calls, emails, spreadsheets, reports, complaints from clients…apologizing to clients for co-workers’ mistakes. Scheduling meetings for the next few days.

11 a.m.: ‘So where do you want to eat lunch today?’ e-mails start coming in. Indian take out, Subway, burritos, Japanese noodles? A group discussion would ensue…

12 p.m.: Lunch time!

1:15 p.m.: Stagger back towards the office to get laptop, head out to meetings.

1:30 p.m.: Drive for an hour to meet client in Palo Alto

2:30 p.m.: Meet with client, talk about how we could help them. Chit chat about tech.

3:30 p.m.: Drive to the nearest Kinko’s to check email. Yes, we all did this as work was too cheap to pay for BlackBerry devices

4:30 p.m.: Leave Palo Alto…sit in traffic.

6 p.m.: Arrive in downtown San Francisco to pick up wife…wait for half an hour as her boss or clients always seemed to have a crisis or two towards the end of the day.

7 p.m.: Arrive home…check email to make sure I didn’t have anything urgent. Get sucked into a work discussion of some kind

7:30 p.m.: Done for the day

In the year 2010, there’s simply no excuse for herding hundres or thousands of employees into a single office building, most of whom never interact with more than a handfull of others. It’s an extraordinary waste of resources for many of these people to commute. The daily grind of commuting and dealing with all the distractions can be far worse than work itself.

If my former boss had axed those early morning meetings, I could’ve accomplished the same amount of work in about a third of the time. I could’ve met with my clients in the middle of the day, reducing my travel time. I probably would’ve been far happier as a result and sold more widgets.

Too many companies are mis-managing their human resources, forcing them to work in the same manner as they did 40 years ago.Of course not every job can be done remotely, but there are millions of people sitting slouching in cubes right now that should be happily working away at home, in cafes and libraries with smiles on their faces.



  1. Jesse B Andersen

    11/30/2010 at 8:32 pm

    Jason’s got things right for the “desk” or “creative” jobs. Creative minds require uninterrupted periods of time. Manual labor is obviously different.

    Jason’s speech reminded me of John D Carmack when he used to lock himself in a hotel for a few days to create game engines. He would even avoid the internet during these times. Carmack is the creator of Doom, Quake, Wolfenstein and Rage.

  2. GoodThings2Life

    12/01/2010 at 1:22 am

    There are many desk jobs that are very suited to working from home. There are many others that are not. Moreover, it depends more on the discipline of the individual, considering that many people are NOT self-motivated or self-starters. The three of us on my IT team at work are excellent and can be very productive from anywhere, but we have several areas of our job in which we deal with people who absolutely collapse if something doesn’t work. They just give up doing other work until we fix whatever their issue is (oh, their icon got moved from column 1 to column 2). There are others who, as described in the post, feel a need to sit and chit-chat for a while.

    Frankly, I think it’s utter nonsense that we expect people to be productive every moment of their day and to work such rigid deadlines. It’s no wonder people are crazed workaholics! People are no longer separating work and personal, because there’s no way to adequately do so and still meet the demands of society.

    As a system administrator, I discourage my users from accessing email and programs and documents from home… sure, I give them VPN, Remote Desktop, or web access as needed, but I discourage them from doing it and insist that they take the time off… afterall, the work will most certainly still be there tomorrow. Besides, I assure you the CEO’s and CFO’s and other top brass aren’t thinking about those things!

  3. VuLN

    02/28/2011 at 2:15 pm

    Well, good news for me, thanks!

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