Monday, February 16, 2009

The Office

Suppose you had no specific reason to be on campus. No classes, no talks, no scheduled meetings with students/advisors, no meetings scheduled. Would you go to campus that day?

Not that long ago the answer would be of course you would. Maybe you might need to read a paper in a proceedings in your office or a journal in the library. You might have to have a short conversation with a colleague. You would need the computer (or secretary) at work to type up your paper.

Of course all of these activities can now be done electronically. Most of the time we spend at work gets spent on the same Internet we have access to at home or in the coffee shop. So why go to work?

We miss those random meetings. The people we bump into in the hallways. The tangents we have in lunch time discussions. Sometimes these meetings turn into important research projects or grant proposals. But more importantly they bring a sense of community. Often we get ourselves less attached to our departments, our colleagues and universities as we used to.

I'm not the first to say it, but as we get more connected we get more isolated. Technology will continue to push us in this direction: Who knows when we will all will take, if not teach, our courses on-line. Just remember you can't network if you are an isolated node.


  1. There have been several times when, as I'm working on a problem from area X in my office, I realize that tools from area Y seem like they'd be useful. I then rush to the office of someone who knows Y really well and start talking with them. Phone/email would let me talk to them too, but I personally find it lot easier to convey handwavy ideas when the person's in front of me, so that I can draw on paper or on a board. I'm also only productive when social -- I never get any work done sitting at home alone (I just keep falling asleep).

  2. My answer: Definitely, no. I find I'm much more productive away from the office. Cafes, coffeeshops, almost any place, as long as it's not my office.

  3. I have been a long time advocate of working at home. Despite some claims to the contrary, most people admit to being about 20% more efficient while working at home as opposed to the office.

    Yes, it is great to be able to just go and have a random chat with prof. Y about subject Z, but have you ever considered that this chat is maybe time wasted for professor Y?

    Of course, we still waste time at home, from emails or the web. The web is the greatest time thief ever invented. Yet, I find it a lot easier to stay focused at home. For one thing, I can settle into a nice routine. Routine is great to get actual work done. A little bit each day is all I need.

    As for teaching, there is absolutely no question that it will move online. Soon. The only limitation is bandwidth, and that's quickly going away.

    Of course, not everyone works like I do. Some people will find it annoying not to have actually classes to go to, not to have physical white boards... but in overall, it is just far more efficient for most people. So that's definitively where we are headed.

  4. I like working in my office. My office computer is better set up as a work environment for me, and I don't have to sign on to a semi-flaky VPN to get access to journal articles online.

    However, I can't say it produces much more human interaction, since most people in this particular department seem to work from home or keep their doors closed when they're not in obvious meetings.

  5. Maintaining availability for students (and others) is definitely a factor for being at the office at least for a sizable portion of the work time. When I was a student I experienced this from the other direction, nothing beats physical availability for a natural workflow.

    As for remote teaching, this is related to teaching the same way doing social networking is related to being in a party. That is, the same way orange flavored Kool-aid is related to orange juice.

  6. Interesting post. Personally, I feel that the office/department should cultivate a sense of community, and that can happen only when people show up daily to work, rather than being cooped up at home.
    A researcher working from home may feel productive in the shorter term, but is hurting him/herself in the long term for the lack of those serendipitous collaborations.

    I wonder whether there is any data that shows how research productivity/novel ideas are correlated to being in the office.

    As a crude indicator, is it the case that departments with good success rates at top conferences/journals have more people who show up to their office than those that work at home?

  7. Apropos of nothing much, I have a challenge for the complexity theorists here: How could the British and French have securely and symmetrically exchanged information about their nuclear submarine patrol paths, sufficient to guarantee collision avoidance, while giving a little information as possible about the actual path?

    There's both a considerable mathematical challenge *and* practical significance here!

  8. [submarine paths] ... never mind ... solved it!:)

    The harder question is, why don't they *do* it?

  9. > Yet, I find it a lot easier to stay focused at home.

    You don't have any children, do you, Daniel?