Keep Your Door Open at the Office

In his talk titled "You and Your Research," Richard Hamming implores researchers and scientists to pick hard problems to work on. Along the way he says the following:

I noticed the following facts about people who work with the door open or the door closed. I notice that if you have the door to your office closed, you get more work done today and tomorrow, and you are more productive than most. But 10 years later somehow you don't know quite know what problems are worth working on; all the hard work you do is sort of tangential in importance. He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important. Now I cannot prove the cause and effect sequence because you might say, "The closed door is symbolic of a closed mind." I don't know. But I can say there is a pretty good correlation between those who work with the doors open and those who ultimately do important things, although people who work with doors closed often work harder. Somehow they seem to work on slightly the wrong thing – not much, but enough that they miss fame.

It's important, in other words, to have one eye looking down at the work on your desk and one eye scanning the horizon to make sure what you're doing is still relevant and important.

Thus the thorny challenge: How to create a work environment with the optimal amount of distraction?

13 comments on “Keep Your Door Open at the Office
  • Fascinating notion. Although I think the author is pretty close to reality, it’s more a both/and issue…both open and closed. It’s like having faculty hours. I’ve noticed, as he, that over the years faculty who kept their doors closed lost touch with important realities in spite of their authorial production. I had to work out the best approach years ago, and it was more like 60-70% open, the rest closed for research, etc.

  • Optimal amount of distraction ? Go no further than the old seamstress on a park bench. May be she found knitting has been very conducive to thought, helped stitch her stress away. Sewing mends the soul? Not too sure. Guess it must have been nice to knit a while, put down the needles, write a while, then take up the sock again.

  • Workplace choice should no longer be “open” or “closed.” There is great opportunity to design the workplace for the beneficial openness that yields information flow, and yet provide a diversity of places and spaces for focus, learning, socialization, etc. My studies have shown that most “assigned” workspaces (offices, cubes) are occupied and utilized only 40-60% of the workday. This is a huge waste of infrastructure, a huge cost to the corporation, and a clear sign that we are designing barriers to performance into the workplace by not designing for how people actually use the workplace.

  • This is a great post.

    I have been grappling with this myself. I used to work in a “bullpen” right alongside my people. I always felt in touch with what everyone was doing. I also felt that my collaboration with my employees was very strong. Unfortunately, I simply could not do any deep thinking or planning during the day.

    I recently moved to a private office away from people. I have been doing more market analysis, research, and planning than I had accomplished in the previous year. Unfortunately, no matter how many times I run to the bullpen to check in, it does not the same.

    I think this post may have inspired me to alternate! 1 month in bullpen. 1 month in office! We’ll see…

  • One of the great blessings of work-alone self employment is that I’m much more able to focus. I’ll confess to having the attention span of a gnat, and being in an open office environment only makes this problem worse.

  • Nitin might have a point about the alternating, though I would recommend it a little differently.

    Why not just find a balance of open & closed?

    I put my door in 3 positions: fully closed when I need to get work DONE, slightly ajar 1-2″ when I need to focus but emergency interruptions are OK, and completely open when it’s OK to stop in as long as you have a reason.

    I find that doing this actually allows me to have my door open longer than I used to, as even I better recognize when I need to be working hard & when I don’t nowadays.

    Some people close their door too often because they need to convince themselves that they’re doing hard, important work. Some people open their door too often because they need to convince themselves that they’re really a “nice guy” and just want to satisfy everyone. Neither of these have to do with extroversion or introversion, though they certainly come into play in terms of door open/closed preferences.

  • My impression is that in science, to think that “having the door open” if meant literally, is also to remain cloistered. Because it assumes that those in your immediate physical environment are those who can contribute the most to your understanding of the context. Spending time with people in other departments, going to conferences, etc. – these are the things that provide the larger context.

  • You have to be able to see the web of conversations in order to contribute. Whether it be in the office, with friends or online.

    A closed door also gives off the wrong vibe to open door folks. You may be getting work done, but your colleagues think you’re trying to be better than they are.

    Whether you like it or not, office culture must be adhered to. I’ve seen many outcasted and then fired from the organization. You have to have your foot in and out the door.

  • “Open door” does not work for me because my team is upstairs.

    When I am in my office, I like “closed door” so that I can fully concentrate on my projects with minimal interruptions.

    When I am upstairs in the “bullpen,” it is a truly open space with constant interruptions, conversations, and ad hoc collaboration.

    I suppose I am just a person of extremes. Either I am extremely distracted, or I want extreme privacy. No in between.

  • I have to say that I’m reading this because I had an argument about closed/open doors and I never thought that some people were actually working with open doors. This is like a shock to me.

    So my door is always closed and I’m still funny and liked. People just knock and enter to get it all.

    And I’m surely not trying to convince myself that I’m working hard because I surely don’t work all the time and that’s really okay. Just need my danm space!!

  • I guess, the question of open door – open mind depends very much on the working collective, purpose and target. Sometimes you just need to close the door to concentrate deeply only on your matter, however, when being creative, distractions are welcome as they may enhance your creative juices flow.

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