Why Jason Fried's 37signals is Very, Very Quiet

Last Updated May 19, 2010 11:20 AM EDT

One of my favorite themes to explore on this blog has been how the modern office setup kills creativity and innovation. But silly me, one of my arguments has been that our instant availability via technology is the culprit responsible for ruining our concentration. A distracted worker is an unproductive worker.

But Jason Fried, CEO of productivity app maker 37signals, has a different take. He argues brilliantly in this video on BigThink.com that what really takes us off task are human-to-human interruptions -- the boss dropping by your cube to chat, the inconsequential meetings, the phone call from a team member.

His solution: His team relies mainly on instant messaging to communicate, even if the person wishing to contact you is in the next cubicle. 37signals must be a very quiet place to work.

"Our whole workplace ... it's structured around removing interruptions. And one of the best ways you can do this is to shift your collaboration between people to more passive things."
His point comes down to this. You can always turn off or ignore technology communications, but you can't ignore someone yelling, "Hey Jason, Jason!, JASON!!!"

So the culture at 37 signals is not to bug people in person unless absolutely necessary. Instead, employees send queries using a chat or instant messaging system, which the recipient is free to ignore until she has time. The culture values uninterrupted time more than it values face-to-face time.

This thought must give many managers the whips-and-jingles. As Fried puts it:

"Management means interrupting. Hey, what's going on? How's this going? Let me call a meeting because that's what I do all day, I call meetings. And so, managers are the real problems here and that's got to change, too. So, as managers of our company, we don't really manage people, but we prefer people to be managers of one. Let them just figure things out on their own, and if they need our help, they can ask us for it instead of us always constantly asking them if they need help and getting in their way."
Does this policy make you want to work for 37signals, or run screaming the other way? It sounds a little impersonal to my liking. Maybe Jason has that social aspect built-in to the system somehow.

What do you think?

Related Reading from BNET
Shuuuuttt Uppp! Why Your Company Needs 'Quiet Time'
(Image by Kevin Lawyer, CC 2.0)

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.