Everyone knows you can justify writing about any trend as long as you have three examples. So I was absolutely thrilled to see this tweet:
The time has come. Join me as I overthink elevators.
Elevators are a big deal because interruptions are a big deal. There is almost no length of time spent working that would be better spent if it were arbitrarily broken in half. In my taxonomy of interruptions, there are two kinds: autopilot-on and autopilot-off. Autopilot-on interruptions don’t break your train of thought; you realize you’re out of iced coffee, and muscle memory takes over.
Autopilot-off interruptions are anything that forces you to actually focus on something else. Phone calls, office visits, push notifications that get your attention, etc. These are toxic to productivity. It’s not just the interruption itself, which forces you to reload everything into your working memory when it’s over. Even the prospect of an interruption can break the flow, or at least encourage you to focus on relatively straightforward tasks. I’m at by far my most productive before 7am and after 6pm, when I’m either the only one awake at home or still at work after the extroverts have left.
The elevator is an interesting category of interruption because it’s right on the cusp of breaking your concentration:
- Elevator trips are variable in length, so they’re not amenable to real muscle memory. You can’t keep doing whatever you were doing before you got in, unless you’re reading something really engrossing.
- You don’t know whether or not someone will get out of the elevator, so, once again, you have to spend a tiny amount of mental energy making a decision.
- At many of the office buildings I’ve worked at, the elevator is a venue for advertising.
In-elevator media and ads are generally quite bad. It’s a captive audience! How could they not be? But the content is insultingly poor at times. Captivate, the biggest player in the industry, used to list the day’s highest-volume stocks. They’d usually be recognizable names, but at the top of the list was “Powershares.” Powershares is an ETF sponsor, and their Nasdaq 100 product is indeed one of the most frequently-traded equities, but calling it “Powershares” is like saying your favorite spice is “McCormick.”
What message does it give employees if, every time they step into an elevator, they’re seeing ads for middle-shelf liquor and discount brokerages? It says: your concentration is not valuable; we will metaphorically scoop out your eyeballs and sell them for what is surely an embarrassingly low CPM. At companies that rely on long, unbroken streaks of concentration from employees, any ad that’s distracting enough to be effective is just setting fire to the furniture to skimp on the heating bill.
I don’t know if Stripe has in-elevator screens, but I kind of doubt it.
There is an alternative to Stripe’s flexible, power user-oriented approach, though: as I mentioned in an aside months ago, Bloomberg LP has extremely fast elevators and a very certain post-elevator experience. Nobody in Bloomberg HQ is allowed to wander around, pantomiming “I’m not lost, you see; I’m in approximately the place I’m supposed to be, but not exactly, but I can’t tell which of you will be offended if I ask you for help.” Anyone who’s ever interviewed at a company with an open office and no receptionist knows this dance well.
The Bloomberg elevator, and the post-elevator security guard, is a symbol of a company that values employee time, which makes employees feel valued. But it’s also a symbol of a company that expects everyone to be be fully engaged.
This, and Stripe’s elevator-deselection, are a symbol of something else, too: a willingness to sweat the small stuff. It can’t be a coincidence that both Bloomberg and Stripe start with the idea that there’s a part of the job of a well-paid professional that is literally orders of magnitude more complicated than it ought to be. Every improvement to Bloomberg or Stripe affects numerous direct users and an uncountable number of indirect beneficiaries. Highlighting a fierce commitment to making literally everything optimal is a winning move
I don’t know what fast elevators cost, or what floor selection costs. I don’t know how much ad revenue Captivate splits with landlords, and how much of that goes to tenants. But I know a good arbitrage when I see one — and a bad arbitrage, too.