At work we are all fighter pilots


5 March 2006

At work, we are all fighter pilots. We have to deal with large amounts of constantly changing data in an environment with many disruptions. Information is no longer a scarce resource: attention is.

The modern office is great for socializing, but good for little else. Now, I’m not knocking socializing. It is extremely important in connecting individuals and teams with common goals, fostering a sense of cohesion, brain-storming and communicating information.

But that is only one part of work. Sometimes you have to get into it, go deep, understand the data or think deeply about a thorny issue. That means closing the door, turning off the mobile and zoning for a couple of hours. That is never going to happen in your average open plan office.

It just goes to show how interrupted I am that I have only now gotten around to an article called Meet the Life Hackers in the NY Times from October of last year. Gloria Mark is a professor in HCI and when she set out to systematically study modern office life she was appalled.

When Mark crunched the data, a picture of 21st-century office work emerged that was, she says, “far worse than I could ever have imagined.” Each employee spent only 11 minutes on any given project before being interrupted and whisked off to do something else. What’s more, each 11-minute project was itself fragmented into even shorter three-minute tasks, like answering e-mail messages, reading a Web page or working on a spreadsheet. And each time a worker was distracted from a task, it would take, on average, 25 minutes to return to that task. To perform an office job today, it seems, your attention must skip like a stone across water all day long, touching down only periodically.

The problem with interruptions is so much the interruption as the havoc they wreak with our short-term memory: What the heck was I just doing?

Why do we design office spaces that are so bad for getting concentrated work done?

Part of the answer is surely that what we have called “socializing” is what managers in a hierarchical organization do. It is their function to bring social cohesion to a team.

And guess who decides the type of office layout you will work in?

Socializing is important. But as the organization changes and becomes more of a collection of knowledge workers, more of a collaboration between autonomous agents, surely the office must change as well?