08/27/2013 10:04 am ET Updated Oct 27, 2013

The Truth Behind Your Inefficient Workday

A few weeks ago found me at the office of a friend, who let me borrow it for an hour while in-between meetings.

Soon I overheard some chatter next door. It went something like this:

" then I arrived for the procedure and the doctors weren't ready for me... and then they didn't even apologize. And then I had to fill out my insurance information all over again...and then..."

I took a break and peeked in. That's when I saw our medical victim continuing her rant to the poor woman who sat trapped behind her own desk, checking her watch and praying, no doubt, for an unexpected phone call to rescue her.

Neither of us got much done that hour.

Later that day I tried again to get some things done, this time while working in one of my Starbucks "satellite offices." I finished everything in 45 minutes.

It's a common thought that the office (and the meeting in general) is crucial to bringing everyone to a single place and getting things done efficiently. Having both worked in one and been on my own I can say this...

Not even close.

Why? Because the office space, which is about bringing people together... is about bringing people together. And what do people need? Human interaction... which is why:
  • Mondays find us in the break room first thing, discussing our weekend adventures
  • Meetings begin with social chit-chat while waiting for people to arrive, which continues after they do
  • Our stories and opinions get interjected into business discussions, throwing the topic way off-track
None of this is bad. It's normal. Relationships, after all, are one of the most important and delightful parts of living.


Let's not kid ourselves about our offices and meetings. Let's not pretend that our interaction needs don't often trump our business needs. Let's not pretend we're getting it all done efficiently. Let's accept it and feel less frustrated.

But, let's find also the balancing act:
  • Of helping people get their human needs met... and the business needs met
  • Of meeting the morale needs of our staff... and the expectations from our bosses
  • Of allowing for social interaction that's a little less than those who want a lot... and a little more than those who want a little
Putting this balance into practice, of course, is a whole lot easier said than done. The first thing to do is become aware of your own social interaction needs, and recognize that others are different.

Then, plan ahead. If you need lots of interaction, figure out how to get some of it met outside of work. Be sensitive to others.

If you don't need lots of interaction, know it's still part of the office/meeting deal and so things will be less efficient than you want. Plan your deadlines accordingly. Be sensitive to others.

All of this being said -- and as delightful and necessary as human interaction may be -- sometimes the chit-chat just isn't possible. The deadlines loom and people don't get your hints. You need to get things done but really don't want to offend anybody.

How to tackle this sticky problem?

A few ideas:
  • When you get to a meeting or someone pops in, tell them first thing that you are on limited time and need to get back to work soon. Give an actual end-time if you can.
  • When chatter goes on too long, stand up. Nicely back away from folks and tell them you need to go.
  • If you're trapped in your own office, stand up anyway. Break the pace by taking a quick walk down the hall or visit the bathroom.
  • Put stuff on your extra chair. People can't sit and get comfy if there's nowhere to sit and get comfy.
  • Close your office door if you've got one. If needed, let your boss know the reason ahead of time
  • Work outside of the building if possible. Find your own satellite office, then don't abuse it.
Pick your favorite strategy or two and start there, and do remember that interactions aren't just necessary for us humans, but can be quite enjoyable. So enjoy them.

And just accept that there will be times when someone has a bad medical experience...and needs to tell you all about it.

This week...
Accept the truth about the office.

Examine your own human interaction needs, know everyone is different, and make your plan to balance things and get it all done.


Now, go do good...and do it well.