Why I struggle with working in a traditional office setting

+ learn how I cosplayed as a productive coworker 💅

I want you to answer one question when you’re done reading this article, and that is: can you relate? Please comment here, or wherever I’ve linked this article. Thank you.

Now that I’m not working in a traditional office setting, I have time to reflect on why it wasn’t working for me. This traditional office setting doesn’t pertain to working on site, the phenomenon I’m about to describe can also happen when you are 100% remote.

With traditional, I mean that you are working in a team, not alone. You are part of a bigger whole and your work only makes sense when it’s combined with the work of others.

My traditional office experiences have mostly been in the realm of software development teams, but at the beginning of my career I worked in a call center. I was part of quite a large team (20+ people) and my day was coordinated from beginning to end. I hoped that in a software development team that would be less so, but that was only partly true.

Yes, working in a software development team meant I could decide for myself whether I needed to take a piss (for real, when I worked in the call center, I could only use the bathroom after manager permission), but other than that the Scrum rituals and other rituals still highly dictated the flow of the day.

Let’s put it bluntly: I struggle immensely to be productive in this setting.

I always thought it was me who was at fault, but now that I can plan my own day and play to my own strengths, I find that I can get a lot done!

In the traditional office setting I experienced very little control over how and what I could get done during a workday and I could not play to my own strengths. Instead, my weaknesses took over, and I felt that most of the day was wasted on trivialities. This made me unhappy about myself and ruined the way I view traditional office work.

Example time.

I would start my working day (remote or in the office, doesn’t matter) with a plan. I had a to-do list with things I wanted to achieve that day in my role of software tester. It usually looked something like this: do an exploratory test session on User Story X, check if the issue I found in User Story Y is already fixed, spend some time expanding on my API test automation, do a pair programming session or pair testing session with a team member. This list was already made with the caveat: it has to fit in with any meetings and Scrum rituals that are already planned for that day.


The number of times I could execute my plan is probably zero.

Y’all know the Time Management Matrix from the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People? The urgent & important, non-urgent & important thingy?

Yeah, that one.

Well, genius that I am, I finally figured out what went wrong for me. I like working on the top right stuff: important but non-urgent things. The things that Scrum says we should do.

But my day would always be hijacked by crises, interruptions and a lot of distractions.

The test environment would be down, polluted, FUBAR. That’s urgent, and I’d have to find people to help me fix it.

Someone would DM me or come to my desk. At best, they would interrupt me with something work related, at worst they would distract me with small talk. All nicely meant, but getting into the flow after such interruptions seemed to elude me.

On a superficial level, I don’t mind a bit of chaos. Keeps things interesting, you know. But every day? Not being able to execute your plan every day? It does something to you.

I have felt mostly frustrated at work, if I have to be really honest. It hurts my soul to have what I think was a well-thought-out and well-meaning plan to get deep work done and never being able to execute said plan. I never felt in control, and we all like some manner of control over our life. A large part of our life happens at work, so this also means that we like a manner of control over how we plan and do our work.

There was always so much bla bla around autonomy and ownership in the workplace coming from well-meaning managers, and it pissed me off to no end. I never felt that. I didn’t have the autonomy to get through my working day the way I envisioned. Sure, I had the autonomy to create a plan, but the plan never survived first contact with the enemy1.

I hear you think: well, it must be your plan, then! Your plan is wrong.

Perhaps. I truly feel that I tried to make a plan consisting of tasks that supported reaching the goal for the team. I included tasks that had to do with other people, it wasn’t a purely egoistical plan. As a tester, you can almost never be egoistical. It’s a job that is highly dependent on the work of other people.

Now that I’m working alone, I can 100% play to my strengths and quirks. There are no crises, there are no interruptions. Distractions are there, but they are of my own making.

I know that I have to do my deep work first thing in the morning. That’s when my concentration is at its peak. In the office setting, I couldn’t do this. This is when most meetings were planned, when the daily scrum was happening, when people would distract each other the most with small talk and coffee requests.

A second problem I have is that starting a task is hard for me. I have to very purposefully reduce barriers. This is much easier when there are no distractions and when I manage to start, it’s like “ok, now the train is moving, let’s leave it moving for as long as possible”. In the office, the train was constantly stopped (by interruptions) and I’d have to start the process of removing the barrier to start up the train again. This takes a large amount of mental energy. This is the core reason why I felt so frustrated with how little I got done. After a couple of distractions, I simply gave up trying to get started again. You cannot get interrupted if you haven’t started something. *taps forehead*

One of my quirks is that my mind is like a rollercoaster. This is fun and not fun. On good days, I am on this rollercoaster and I just see where it takes me. Being on the rollercoaster can lead to surprising insights and spurts of crazy productivity (like typing this article in 30 mins!). It’s exciting! On bad days, the rollercoaster is like a raging river of thoughts and I cannot get on board. At such a moment, it’s a hindrance and a huge source of distractions.

In the office, I actually used the rollercoaster to my advantage. It’s thanks to this ability that I still cosplayed as a productive team member (also huge fuel for imposter syndrome, though!)2. However, on bad days it made me feel extra hopeless. If I couldn’t use my rollercoaster, I was so lost and felt so bad about myself because I didn’t get enough done.

At the moment, the idea of returning to a traditional office setting doesn’t sound enticing to me. I now hope you understand why. It’s pretty hard to describe in words why a traditional office setting has been problematic for me. As I said at the beginning of this article, I have one question: can you relate?

Let me know.

1 https://www.oxfordreference.com/display/10.1093/acref/9780191826719.001.0001/q-oro-ed4-00007547

2 it is not possible to use this ability 8 hours a day, as it is very draining.

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