Amy M Haddad

Monk Mode in the Workplace

By: Amy M Haddad


Apple’s new spaceship headquarters in Cupertino has been the buzz for the past few years. Its exterior captured many imaginations, from the building’s unique curvature to its immersion in nature. The building “looks like the dial of an iPod,” wrote The Economist, while Wired described it as a “massive donut.”

Now the multi-billion dollar structure is making headlines for another reason: a reported dislike for the interior. It’s rumored that some prominent Apple employees are not happy with the “open floor plan.” Might the open office be undone by the need for quiet, individual workspaces?

Open office floor plans are increasingly popular. Advocates say they foster collaboration and spontaneous interaction among colleagues. However, some people don’t like to work at a long table with colleagues on all sides. Critics find open offices disruptive and inhospitable to mentally demanding work. It’s hard to tune out conference calls, beeping smartphones, and the no-longer-private conversations. Employees want to escape the chaos of the open office so they can focus, as the rumored Apple situation suggests.

Get in the Mode

Employees need opportunities for monk mode: escaping distractions for a period of time in order to focus intently. Jim Collins describes it as “hiding away like a hermit” in his book "Good to Great," while Greg McKeown describes it as “shutting out the world for a time.” McKeown worked in a small office from 5AM to 1PM five days per week for nine months so he could write his book.

Even people who don’t directly use the phrase “monk mode” employ characteristics of it. Bill Gates, for example, famously went on “Think Weeks,” where he’d leave behind his work and responsibilities to head to a cabin, with books and papers in tow. Once there, he could “think deeply, without distraction, about the big issues relevant to his company,” as author and professor Cal Newport recounts in his book, "Deep Work."

Anyone can engage in monk mode. I, for one, get into monk mode on a daily basis, and have been doing so long before I’d heard of the term. When at home, I have a designated, minimalistic space with a standing desk where I work. I’m intentionally difficult to reach during this time: I don’t talk on the phone, send texts, or respond to emails or Slack messages. I work like this for about a two-hour block of time, take a break, and repeat.

Monk mode can be extreme, but it’s absolutely necessary in order to think deeply and produce quality work. I estimate that I get more done in two hours of working in monk mode than three or four hours working in a distractive, chaotic environment. I also think more deeply and creatively in monk mode. Reaching this state of mind is nearly impossible when you’re dealing with digital, physical, and audible distractions, which are commonplace in open offices. These are reasons why workplaces should offer spaces employees can use to escape the chaos.

Monk mode is at odds with open and collaborative workplace model. Naturally, some people view monk mode as antisocial. And they’re right. I’m deliberately not social when in monk mode, in order to be productive. On days that I’m at the office, I find a conference room or an office with a door and shut out the chaos for a few hours so I can focus. However, I’m not in monk mode all day. I make myself available to colleagues and respond to emails and Slack messages outside of my monk mode sessions.

Workplace Solutions

The rumored distaste for the new Apple headquarters is warranted, but there are simple solutions to consider. Basecamp, for example, has “library rules.” This “basically means that …you’re quiet,” explains CEO Jason Fried. “And if you want to talk to someone you go pull them into a room…where you can have full volume conversations.” Companies should also be more lenient about working from home, so employees can work in an environment that’s conducive to their work needs.

Above all, companies need to change their attitude toward productivity. Workplaces are so caught up with “being collaborative” that they forget that opportunities for solitude are also needed. The open office model should be replaced with a flexible one, where employees have the opportunity to work collaboratively or independently.

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