Down the Docks

September 11, 2006

Workplace Stupidity

Filed under: Technology, Work — ealing @ 12:55 am

Don’t get get the message, it will make you stupid.

In Peopleware, Tim Lister and Tom DeMarco argue that the physical workspace, and in particular the noise and disturbances in it, are important factors in determining the productivity of developers. This was backed up with masses of evidence. Last year FuturePundit blogged about a report in New Scientist that linked frequent interruptions to a ten-point IQ drop. Smoking marijuana, by comparison, was linked to a drop of only four IQ points.

Your emails, IMs, text messages, eavesdropping, phone calls, conversations with the guy at the next desk and walk-up queries are making you stupid. Even if they’re all work-related, you’d probably be better off ignoring them, at least in the short term.

Interestingly, the affect was less pronounced in women. My own anecdotal evidence would agree that women mind being interrupted less than men, but I’d originally assumed that that was entirely explained by their tending to take work in more exception-driven roles, such as project management.

In Peopleware, the authors noted that companies seem deaf to this issue – unable to understand that it could be an issue at all. My own experience certainly backs that up. An attempt to institute a flag system was universally disregarded. When I admitted that the rate of disturbances was a problem for my performance, I was told that I would have to learn to deal with it if I wanted to get on.

I wonder if this can be fixed somehow – if companies can be made to see what an issue it is for their bottom line. Even if the cost of new work spaces is high, a cultural change in office etiquette need not be expensive. Until that happens, I will keep turning peoples’ mobile phones off when they ring in the office.



  1. “Why Men don’t Listen And Women Can’t Read Maps” is an interesting read. Though it comes with a list of references in the back it’s not rigorously cross-referred, so it’s hard to work out how good the science part is… but it states that women actually have a speech centre in the brain that allows them to talk while doing other things. Men do not, so conversation forces them to stop what they are doing. This is why a man will turn the TV down to answer the phone.

    Comment by sweavo — September 20, 2006 @ 6:16 pm

  2. Finding a job with a company that considers these things important is certainly very difficult, but I’m told they exist.

    Mind, I think there are really two distinct issues here… the “acceptable”/work-related interruptions and the background of unjustified distractions.

    I can see how companies can debate the need for reasonable interruptions. What I find inexplicable is the attention given to fixing latter. Such “noise” can _only_ have a negative effect on productivity.

    Comment by tOnY — October 10, 2006 @ 1:32 pm

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