Is Alone Time Important For the Workplace?

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A benefit of less, or no meetings is having enough “alone time” to let creativity flow and accomplish more without interruption. 37signals also prefers co-worker interaction to be the exception rather than the rule. Fried explains, “The conventional wisdom is to be together all the time. I think it is poisonous. Having too much of anything is bad for you. It’s better to appreciate the interaction you do have. We’ve made ‘away time’ the norm, and ‘together time’ the exception, so it’s something that people look forward to. — Jason Fried (37 Signals)

I’ve been obsessed with Jason’s approach to management and business design for quite some time now, and I’m not sure if it’s because it’s innovative, challenges the status quo, or if it’s just self-affirming for what I envision to be a really awesome and productive environment.

Just last week I discussed tactics for improving meetings stating that I often find meetings to be disruptive. Creative people need significant windows of time in order to process thoughts, develop strategy, code, write, etc. Task-hopping, meetings, and perhaps now togetherness (?) can be detrimental to those windows.

Sure it’s great to be able to turn around and ask a co-worker a quick question, but what if it comes at the expense of the co-workers concentration. Does she lose 10-15 minutes out of her day thinking about the thought she just lost? Getting back on task?

If you sent them an e-mail (or used task management software, Google Wave, etc.) they could answer on their own time, at their convenience, but then does that cost you valuable time on your own project?

I don’t know the answer. Collaboration can be invaluable and it’s certainly necessary, but how does that collaboration manifest itself in your workplace? If you only get together 3 times a week for an hour do people come more prepared with pressing questions and maximize that designated time?

Maybe what Jason is saying resonates with me only because I’m one of those people who needs time to process and work through things. I’m easily distracted, and can have a tendency to task hop. If I’m in the zone I don’t want to be interrupted.

But would it hurt my feelings if I wanted to bounce and idea off someone and they were too busy? Would I trust employees and/or co-workers to determine for themselves the importance of their questions/interruptions/distractions?

Maybe the answer is infinitely more complicated. Maybe a leader knows their subordinates well enough (an employee their co-workers well enough) that they know you can always ask Theo a question because he’s quick on his feet and can easily re-immerse himself. But don’t bother Cynthia because she really values her alone time in 2-hour spurts. If you send her something, she’ll answer during a break.

I certainly don’t know the answer so I’m looking forward to learning from you in the ensuing conversation in the comments.

Is alone time important? Is togetherness potentially poisonous? What kind of worker are you? What’s your ideal working environment for optimal productivity?

Photo Credit: dearoot

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  • I think it’s a bit of both. Individual work should be just that: individual. Back when I worked in an office setting, I would often close my door from 2 to 4 pm, and only answer the phone if I knew who was calling. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t get my work done. And we all know that we don’t get paid to socialize!

    That being said, I think the socializing with co-workers and (some) meetings are necessary, because without them your thoughts become too insular.
    .-= Norcross´s last blog ..Get Snarky =-.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    @Norcross – It’s been too long since we’ve chatted hombre. Let’s catch up soon!

    I think you’re right about it being a little bit of both, and that’s the direction I was leaning. Which begs the question, can most employees discern for themselves what percentage each should entail?

    What about open office environments or a co-working space where one person having a conference call afflicts the rest of the room?

    I also completely agree re: thoughts becoming too insular, which brings up the notion of how much do you share? How much programming could you share with me that makes us more efficient as a team before there comes a point when it’s just faster for you to do it yourself?

    Good thoughts!

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    Norcross Reply:

    I usually stick to the 80/20 rule. 80% is ‘me’ time, 20% is group collaboration. Especially when it comes to something like coding: I want to collaborate with ideas and methods, not the actual code itself.
    .-= Norcross´s last blog ..Get Snarky =-.

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  • Great thoughts Ryan. You are hitting on some cool points. Let me know if you want to chat further.

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    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    @Pierre – Thanks. I’m always up for a good chat. Hit me up via the avenue most comfortable to you.

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  • I agree that it’s a bit of both for many people. Probably what matters is that the team members respect the difference in each other’s work style. If they do, I think the alone/together time issue can be solved easily. If not (I guess the majority of our cases) then one need to fight for his or her alone time – the collaboration people get their opinions through rather easily because of social acceptance.
    .-= Isao´s last blog ..What iPad means: ultimate time killer 1/2 =-.

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    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    Does it fall partially on the person who needs alone time in addition to their peers? I think the person who needs alone time can politely say … “Hey guys, I’m on deadline and would really appreciate a quiet office environment for the next few hours.” I think most co-workers would gladly oblige.

    I think it’s important to cultivate an environment in which co-workers are comfortable discussing these things with each other. I suspect that often times people are inadvertently disrespectful of other people’s work environment because the things they’re doing wouldn’t adversely affect them.

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  • Anita Lobo

    Good question Ryan.

    I think the answer lies in finding what works for you, and then sticking with it.

    I’ve worked in a large noisy open-office [where I learnt to concentrate by tuning-out the noise], then a small start-up open office where I insisted on semi-separating teams; and then into a nice office that had a mix of cabins and open work stations. I had the most productive team in the last office.

    My productivity was best when I could choose quiet time + open-office when anyone could drop in for a chat, or I would go over. I think this approach is essential as we start managing larger teams and businesses.

    Cheers
    Anita

    [Reply]

    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    @Anita – Thanks so much for sharing the Alain de Botton quote. I absolutely love his stuff and have ever since Carlos Miceli introduced me to him.

    You obviously have some experience managing other people. What kind of remedies would you recommend for employees who have trouble tuning out an open office environment? Do you find that most co-workers typically understand/respect each others’ preference?

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    Anita Lobo Reply:

    Understanding has to be nurtured actively.

    We used a combination of [a] discussions during weekly team meetings to openly agree on basic ground rules, and for each person to voice their preferences.

    [b] we allocated a small meeting room [sound proof cabin] for conference calls, and any discussion that required a two people talking for more than 5 minutes. Was also used by people who required silence to think thru an impt document

    The ‘understanding’ was reinforced during the week, by requesting people to shift to the conference room, if a team member was distracted by a chat. It quickly became a habit.

    But the real secret, is people who are committed to delivering on deadlines and will stick with it, no matter what!

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  • Interesting post Ryan. When it comes down to it I think the true answer relies within yourself. I know at times I work best when I’m working alone and I’m laser focused, then again I love working with others to collaborate on ideas.

    I think their should be a good balance of the two.

    I’m looking forward to Jason Fried’s “ReWork” book and his thoughts.

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    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    @Tony – Thanks for dropping by. It’s always a welcome treat to see some new faces. I think you’re probably right in that it should be a good balance. Norcross says his is 80%/20%, have you found an appropriate mix for yourself? For the majority of people you’ve encountered?

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    Tony Ruiz Reply:

    Found that working with others sparks new ideas that can often be molded into stronger ideas then once the vision is clear put your head down and go to work.
    .-= Tony Ruiz´s last blog ..10 Ways to Stay Productive (Online and Offline) =-.

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  • I have to say this is one of my biggest qualms with “open office” environments. While they may “encourage” collaboration they also distractions, inconsideration, and so much noise you sometimes don’t hear yourself think.

    Like Norcross I have no issues closing my doors and DNDing my phone if I’m working on something. If I need alone time to work, I’ll take it. If I need to collaborate I’ll schedule time on a colleagues calendar or call to ask “if I can borrow their brain for a minute.” Course there are 4 of us and a secretary in my office, so that makes it a little bit of a different dynamic…
    .-= Elisa´s last blog ..Love Happens – If You Let It =-.

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    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    @Elisa – I think one of the things that initially drew me to Jason’s thoughts were that I’ve had trouble in the past with open office environments. Even though they do encourage collaboration, you’re 100% right, in that sometimes other people would be collaborating while I needed to be finishing an important report. There are times when you need to be able to hear yourself think. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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  • Ryan,

    I rarely go outside my RSS reader to comment on posts…but this article resonated with me immediately.

    This concept of “Alone Time” in the workplace is an interesting topic. I work in the tech industry and often have two or three chats open, and a live audio chat going while actively doing web development – thus leaving myself open for distraction. But, when I need to really focus, I try to shut out everything – and I mean EVERYTHING. I close the blinds, turn off the lights, close every application that isn’t critical for development, and force myself into solitude for sometimes hours at a time. Both have their purposes, advantages, and disadvantages.

    I like how you concluded your thoughts in the post…this isn’t a cut and dry matter. Some people, like you mentioned, can “bounce back” quickly and others completely loose focus and can therefore waste precious work time. I think you’re right in sensing how people behave differently and may also thrive in different environments.

    I really enjoyed your thoughts – thank you!
    .-= David´s last blog ..The Ultimate List of 22+ DIY iPhone Docks & Stands =-.

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    Ryan Stephens Reply:

    @David – Thanks for your insights. I know most of the people that read this blog are the community/marketing side of things so it’s refreshing to have an opinion from the developer side of the coin.

    And I’m flattered you ventured outside of your reader to chime in! I’m glad you also acknowledge my attempt to maintain some level of uncertainty on the issue. Rarely is something cut and dry, but it takes talented managers to know how to help everyone reach their optimal potential/productivity.

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