Offices and The Creativity Zone

I’ve been thinking a lot about offices and work environments recently. A lot of people are getting interested in the coworking phenomenon. There’s also the recent discussion about Jason Calacanis’ article about saving money when running a startup (and the 37 Signals response).

Additionally, I know a handful of people who are in the process of changing their work environment. My friend Dan Cederholm recently opened up a new office (and he’s hiring a helper monkey, too). Some of my past-coworkers in Austin, Texas are researching office space, and a local team of developers here in town recently made a transition from working at home to working in an office.

And of course, there’s my own situation, working from my home office with a new baby in the house. I feel incredibly lucky and privileged to be in this situation, and although there are certain challenges with this arrangement, they are easily outweighed by the incredible benefits.

But I’m in the minority here. Most people’s work environments, most typical offices, are actually harmful to the ability of developers, designers, writers, and other creative people to get into The Zone (see below).

Think about it: you’re hiring somebody who needs to concentrate to be productive, and then you’re putting them in a situation where they can’t.

Why is this? It has to do with something called The Zone, and if you’re a creative person, you already know exactly what I’m talking about.

The Zone

Getting into The Zone is almost like getting lost in a good book. You’re sitting comfortably, you have your favorite beverage in hand. The house is quiet and you’re without distraction. You’re reading, the book is great, you’re engaged in the experience. Uninterrupted, you could continue like this for several hours without even noticing the progress of time – and without feeling like you’re exerting any real effort.

This is what The Zone feels like, but instead of reading, you’re creating.

Most people who create things will enter a state of mind where the activity of producing something, the act of creating, become effortless (or at least easier). Writers often describe the sensation of their hands flying across the keyboard, words coming out without pause or difficulty, the message clarifying before them on the page (or screen). Artists often describe a similar sensation, as if their brush was being guided by their subconscious mind. And although many people think of software development as a kind of science, there is a great deal of creativity involved in writing code, and it works the very same way.

Unfortunately, most people can’t simply step into The Zone. In the very same way you’d want to find the right time and place to read a book, creative types need to setup the specific conditions they need to enter The Zone. For some people, this might mean listening to a certain kind of music. It might be fueled by caffeine and a dark room late at night. Some people work best in the silence of the early morning. It all depends on the person.

Now compare this to the typical office scenario. Most cubicle-style offices are plagued with distractions: other people’s phone conversations, music, and discussions. The annoying neighbor hanging over your cube wall, dangling his coffee-cup, talking to you about his new sofa. People shouting in the conference room next door. Big bells ringing when The Closer makes her sale. The incessant bellowing of the VP as he storms through the halls, entourage in tow, blackberries clicking.

You can’t turn these distractions off.

The so-called “open office” is even worse. Instead of giving people the imagined, mock-privacy of a cubicle wall, you’re exposed to the world on all sides, without shelter, without a place to focus. Entering The Zone becomes darn near impossible.

There’s no choice about how or when you’re expected produce, or under what circumstances. Here is your computer, here is your workstation, you have the tools, the florescent lights are turned on, why don’t you go ahead and get to work, thanks, bye.

You probably wouldn’t chose to read a book under these circumstances, but you’re expected to do your very best work and be your most productive this way.

This won’t be news to most employees in the jobs I’ve just mentioned, but it often surprises me that so many managers and operations officers have such a big misconception about productivity in relation to how these people actually work.

Of course it makes sense why corporations work this way, but that doesn’t mean that this is the right setting for creative people. The corporate world rewards based on perceived productivity rather than accomplishment. People who arrive at work at 8am, take a 30 minute lunch break (at their desk), and leave at 6pm are usually congratulated regardless of their real accomplishments, while those who struggle with corporate schedules but produce brilliant work (delivered on time) are often penalized.

So what do people do? They wear headphones to cope with the distraction. They deal with the lack of privacy. If they have an office door, they shut it and risk being labeled a pariah. In a best case scenario, they do a mediocre job and feel OK at the end of the day. In the worst case, they’re miserable.

Creativity doesn’t always happen on a predetermined schedule.

Don’t get me wrong – offices do have some incredible benefits, especially on a social level. There’s something to be said for getting together as a group, brainstorming, working through a problem on a real whiteboard, seeing people’s expressions. In-person communication helps people feel more connected, more a part of a team. It’s a big part of team building. It’s even more important when you’re doing things like Pair Programming, or working very closely with another person on your team.

But generally speaking, working in a group office is usually not essential. I’ve spent many years working from my home office with colleagues in different states and countries, both in leadership roles and as a member of a team. We rely heavily on instant messaging, collaborative software, and phone calls to get our work done. And not only has it never been a problem when working with other virtual team members, it’s been a huge benefit. 37 Signals talks about this in Getting Real – Alone Time. In an article about his Bionic Office, Joel Spolsky writes about the effort he put into creating an office that’s supportive of the way developers work.

This is a big subject, and there’s plenty of room for different opinions. What do you think? What’s your ideal work environment, vs. what you have right now?

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