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All quiet in the open office

April Six

A bold experiment to increase workplace productivity.

"Don't interrupt me while I'm interrupting." — Winston Churchill

As a marketing and communications agency based in an energetic high-tech city, April Six relies heavily on continuous collaboration. We need to be in a constant communicative state both internally and with our clients—connecting, bouncing ideas off each other, posing top-of-mind questions, and engaging in the ubiquitous “just checking in.” 

In other words, our work gets interrupted a lot. The account team frequently needs immediate answers to answer client questions. The creative team needs to be able to enter and dwell in that mystifying realm of deep, deep concentration to build our clients’ strategies, refresh their brands, develop their marketing programs, and generally come up with big ideas.

That’s why the “You waste a lot of time at work,” infographic resonated with April Six leadership: “Just because you’re at work doesn’t mean you’re getting work done. You’re … constantly interrupted. When do you have time to do any real work?”

Can interruptions be regulated? 

Those lines echo the lament of Basecamp CEO Jason Fried, whose “Restoring sanity to the office” podcast led us to conduct a series of in-office, productivity-minded experiments which we introduced last month in the first blog of this series. Fried bemoaned an “epidemic of over-collaboration and over-communication” plaguing many organizations. He included his business in that group—a rather startling claim because Basecamp develops collaboration tools.

As one of many countermeasures, Basecamp introduced “Library Rules” every Thursday. “Just be quiet for a day,” Fried said. “If you need to talk to someone, just pull them into a conference room.”

The general idea is that the best creative work is done quietly and in a solitary manner—and that it happens in unpredictable, relatively short bursts of time. Also, when people are focused, they don’t want to be disrupted or distracted.

Do interruptions kill productivity?

  • 71% of respondents report frequent interruptions at work.
  • 29% say they can block out interruptions.
  • 44% of those reporting frequent interruptions say their workdays are successful.
  • 67% say their workday was successful when they’ve blocked out interruptions.

April Six was on board for this one. We conducted two separate but related experiments and called them “Quiet Time.” The main rule: Don’t disturb your neighbors.

Trying to make 'Quiet Time' work

In a wide-open, cubicle-free office, three dedicated conference rooms, staff members clustered by job type mostly in groups of four—and eclectic music frequently wafting over the public speakers—this was no insignificant undertaking. Our office design and our carefully nurtured, friendly, accommodating culture just begs for—no, it was designed for and demands—continuous, free-flowing interactions. And, yes, lots of interruptions.

In the first phase, “Creative Office Hours,” the creative staff was encouraged to work without being interrupted—including in-person and electronic communications—between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., every day for one week. 

The second phase, “Library Hours,” prohibited all talking in the office between 12 p.m. and 4 p.m., once a week for one month. If necessary, staff members could convene in closed-door conference rooms to avoid the open-office disruptions. 

Both phases were well-received at the beginning. That was especially true for the creative team members who specifically requested that “Library Hours” be given a try.

Productivity increased 59% in the morning interruption-free zone and 65% from 3 to 5 p.m. 

— "Quiet Time" study conducted by Harvard Business School Professor Leslie A. Perlow

The reaction: Yes ... then no

By department, the creatives were more positive about “Library Hours” than the more draconian “Creative Office Hours,” mainly because they knew there were four hours every day they could count on for what an April Six creative director termed as “glorious, idea-inducing silence.”

“I truly appreciated knowing that I could zone in on my work and that the only interruptions would be my own,” said animator Austin Flint. “I tried hard to take advantage of that time.”

Still, there was no clear consensus among individuals about either proposition. In fact, there are 28 people who work in our office, and an objective observer could have found 28 different opinions.

“I like the concept of ‘Quiet Time’ because I get into this zone when I just don’t want to be interrupted,” said Kyle Thomas, April Six’s lead developer in San Francisco. “But then there are times when I will gladly avoid a bad situation by being able to answer your question quickly to save time on the ground.”

Office workers are typically interrupted every 3 minutes, 5 seconds on average. It takes them nearly 25 minutes to return to where they were before the interruption. 

“The Cost of Interrupted Work: More Speed and Stress,” University of California-Irvine

Senior Copywriter Curtis Green voted a firm thumbs-down. “The truth is that there’s really no way to impose ‘Quiet Time’ rules,” he said. “Working in an agency is so unpredictable, and spontaneity is important. Messaging or finding a room interrupts that.”

There were also those on the account team who said no to both phases of the “Quiet Time” experiment. “It was unsustainable,” Account Manager Jamie Miller said. “After a couple of weeks, it was like we really weren’t doing it.”

PR Account Director Faye Lockier’s work responsibilities fall somewhere in the middle of the account and creative sides. She is a firm proponent of the series of productivity-enhancing experiments, but the entire “Quiet Time” experiment didn’t work for her. 

“I like working in an agency, and an agency has to have a certain buzz,” she said. “It’s exciting and fast-paced. I love hearing people talking and discussing things, and I need to be part of that. I don’t like feeling hindered about when or where I can and can’t talk.”

Bottom line? “I don't think it made us become more efficient,” she said.

Moving forward: A good idea, but maybe not for us

Whether April Six permanently implements “Quiet Time” as formal policy remains under consideration. “It is a good idea,” Creative Director Erik Ulvestad said. “I do like privacy, especially when I’m immersed in a project that takes all of my concentration. Even then, I find myself needing to ask a quick question, or somebody needs to get something from me in the moment. You just can’t regulate that.”

The idea behind “Library Hours” was attractive at first, Erik said. “But when you think about it, a library is a quite place where people go to be individually productive. It’s a collection of individuals working individually. As soon as you need to be collaborative, a library doesn’t work.”

That’s why “Quiet Time” in general is probably more suited to a different type of business, Erik said, “like a law office, or maybe an accounting firm.”

Those other disciplines promote and require a completely different collegial atmosphere than, say, working at a digital marketing and advertising agency. In our unique workspace, quiet time is practically impossible to enforce—especially in an open office where vocal bursts of creative, often frenetic, activity are the norm.

Besides, most of us at April Six would agree: We work in this industry because we love the close, often loud, collaboration, the relative informality, and just basic, vocal cacophony.

Seems we just weren’t cut out to be lawyers or accountants.

“No Meetings Wednesdays,” our next experiment, produced a bit more uniformity from staff in their responses and reactions. That’ll be the subject of the next blog in this series.