Work Near Someone


Yesterday I encouraged you to let other people see what you're working on and thinking about. Today I want to share research that says you should make sure you spend some part of your day working near other people who are working.

I love to work remote. I always feel as if I get so much more work done on days that I work from home than on days I'm in the office.

It turns out that, for me, that's measurably true.

It is, however, hard to separate cause from effect. Because I work remote, when I'm in the office, much of my time is spent meeting with people. It's important for us to build our work and personal relationships during that time we're together.

One of my first big remote jobs was for O'Reilly Media managing their Java websites. The producer and I had never met. We didn't know what tone to ascribe to each other's emails. It's not that there were problems, but things weren't smooth.

I didn't understand how my words were being read. When I would write, "what are you thinking", I meant it as a question trying to understand why she preferred to do something in a particular way. I was hoping to learn. She read it as disdainful criticism.

Pause a moment. Read the line "What are you thinking" in both of those voices. It works perfectly well in either case. It's not that she was wrong or I was wrong - it was just that one of use delivered lines in one voice and the other read it in another voice.

The misunderstanding didn't just go in one direction. She was trying to be helpful to me and I was new to the job and was reading it as a lack of confidence in the job I was doing.

Fortunately, we met in person at a conference in Portland a few months later. Once we met, we understood each other so much better. We heard each other's voice and we knew that we were both on the same side trying to get the best out of our sites. She is still one of the most impressive people I ever had the fortune to work with.

In another job as a contract programmer, I had to visit the team once a month. During these three day periods we would have meetings much of the day and carve out the requirements for the next sprint. I would leave reinvigorated with clear direction for the following month. I also would go out for meals and walks with team members to catch up on other aspects of their lives that you don't feel from afar.

I love working remote.

The daily buzz of an open environment filled with cubicles that are filled with coders dulls me.

And yet, when I work remote, I will often head to a coffee shop for some part of the day.

It was Kim's idea.

"You can't," she said, "sit in that chair all day with no one to talk to but the dog."

It turns out, she was wrong.

I could and I did for weeks. Finally, I listened to her other bit of advice to start meeting other people who worked remote for coffee.

We'd meet and catch up a bit. Then we'd open our laptops and work across from each other. Every once in a while one or the other would get up and say "I'm getting a refill. Want anything?"

What's the point? Couldn't we be staring into our laptops alone at home?

Sure, but recent research says there's a benefit to working near other people who are working creatively.

This article in Big Think pointed me to this article in Research Digest which refers to a study that says...

"Mental exertion is contagious: if a person near you is straining their synapses in mental effort, their mindset will automatically intensify your own concentration levels."

Whether you're writing your book or working on code or some other traditional solitary activity, try working near other folks who are working.

Note that if you're working near too many people who aren't working, that's contagious too.

I'm off to meet my friend Craig. We're both bringing our laptops.