Getting Less Done

“We found out we got a whole lot less done when we’re sitting next to each other the whole time.” -Jason Fried, 37 Signals

Easily Distracted T-ShirtThat quote comes from a short interview Jason Fried did with Crain’s Chicago Business. That point of view collides with those like me who promote co-located teams as a way to increase productivity. Co-located teams are often a core value of agile software development. But, want to know a little secret? I think there’s a lot of truth in what Jason says.

I think co-located too often translates to distractions galore. Software developers need to get into “the flow”. When they’re in the flow, developers are at their most productive. Everything starts to click and the results are often astonishing. You can’t get into the flow when you’re dealing with distractions and interruptions. Interruptions don’t have to be direct, like a team member asking you a spontaneous question, they can be the result of an open space environment where every conversation is overheard and tempts you to join in.

There are times when being co-located pays off in some big ways. For instance, when you have multiple developers working on solving a problem together or when someone overhears a conversation, jumps in and a seemingly difficult problem suddenly becomes easy to solve thanks to the contributions from someone not originally involved. However, I often wonder if these instances are the exceptions rather than the rules.

Maybe the balance is to be in the same vicinity but not co-located in an open space where distractions are so plentiful? Co-locating can be reserved for those times when it’s needed by always having available open meeting spaces for such occasions. Possibly utilizing IM and chat rooms for a less obtrusive form of collaborating while not co-located. When people feel that it’s important to meet together, then they easily can. Co-location in this setup becomes the exception rather than the rule. Is it possible to get the best of both worlds?

  • I firmly believe in team spaces, but I also like “my personal space” – meaning I don’t want to be so close to my team mates that I’m so easily distracted (and I can get easily distracted) but close enough that I can interject into conversations when I feel I can add value.

    I walk around many of our team spaces and I see half the people wearing headphones. In fact, I’m sitting in a medium sized conference room with one other person (we’ve taken over this room as our team space for the balance of the year) and HE has headphones on – and this is just the two of us.

    Maybe headphones is the way to go. But I don’t think so. Personally I often need quite time to think.

    One suggestion might be to have designated team-space days – perhaps twice a week the entire team comes together in close proximately (don’t forget your deodorant that day) and collaborates together and the rest of the week they sit at their home desks/offices.

    I suspect most organizations probably wouldn’t have the facilities to support this – but if you do this may provide the best of both worlds.

  • Another thought would be to

    Oooh – pretty butterfly

  • Joshua


    Good thoughts. The point about headphones is a great one. I remember reading the book Peopleware several years ago and seem to recall a study they quoted that showed knowledge workers’ productivity decreased while listening to music through headphones. I think having an open space where a majority of the people are wearing headphones in order to cancel out the distractions defeats the purpose of the open space. There is no perfect solution but it does seem that a balance of open spaces and privacy could be better met.