Thursday, 26 August 2010

What more important than Productivity?

With modern day communications and old, the proliferation of open plan offices and persistence of micro management I wonder if companies really prioritise productivity enough. (This may be the same issue across business segments and professions, however I only really know IT.)

Jason Fried of 37Signals recently was interviewed about the never ending interruptions at work and how it results in longer working hours, more stress and generally lower productivity. He describes (among other things) the old fashion top-down management style's instance of continuously calling meetings to get status or decisions or walking up to you or calling to get status or feedback. With co workers doing the same as well as calling you over to solve an ad hoc problem the time to actually concentrate and get any of your own work done is almost impossible until the end of the day, and results in longer days.

The same issues I encounter all the time. Useless meetings where I only need to be conscious for 5% of the time. Using tools such as MS Live Meeting from my own desk means I can do other things during the meeting, however also the disconnected nature results in often me not quite following what others are saying and either miss opportunities for vital input I might have or context when I need to respond. It is frustrating that the closer you come to a deadline the more meetings are called for status and less work you can do.... Not very agile.

The meetings however I can deal with, it is the noise and interruptions of open plan office and with micro management that I think affects productivity the most. I did previously blog of my distaste and issues with open plan offices, and suggested solution for layout, the lagoon. Open plan in general is not compatible with developers due to its nature if "increased" communication. Open plan lowers the barrier to interrupt others which may solve your specific problem quicker however it delays not just the person you interrupted but also people nearby that was affected by your "noise". That delay and noise is very expensive for developers whom need to concentrate. But unfortunately the people that plan and evaluate the benefits of open plan offices are management, admin or finance for whom communication is paramount and the need to concentrate very short, so the lost productivity is ignored.

Jason described how the solved some of their interruption problems by using their own products, Campfire, which in general is a visual IRC and IM. This way people can ask for help or discuss subjects asynchronously and limits interruptions as people can respond when they have finished their concentration period. Sure, their individual problem is not solved immediately, but work across teams are optimised. Business critical emergencies should probably still be shouted out about though.

I certainly believe in the use of IM and would love more use of IRC and similar tools at work. I don't like the copy all emails, I detest people calling me for non urgent issues, and find people walking up to me a nuisance when it is the same people over and over again. I try to restrict phoning people for issues that are non critical to the company, as I know how inefficient it is of their time and would be annoyed if anyone did the same to me. However often management and other "communication" roles insist on this type of communication of status. ( But then again the people you need to call for status are often not good with communicating their status. E.g. not updating issue status in tools, or simple email that the issue is worked on or even email response of status when quiet for too long. )

All this disturbance usually results in that I can only really do "proper" development late afternoon. So I usually work 3-4 hours later than colleagues if I have tasks I need to finish as they can not all be done during office hours due to all the interruptions. The lost productivity across the company will vary but all this interruptions due to open plan offices and communication procedures must cost companies a lot of money!

In this time of agile projects, the agile teams usually get to decide their tools to more agile and productive. Projects still stuck with non agile often get told what tools to use. And both agile and non-agile get told what office space to use, irrespective of productivity.

Communication is important, however should not be at the cost of productivity. Agile thinking (KanBan) of focusing on few tasks is important, but always interrupting everyone else to solve your problem is not productive. Using tools to asynchronously communicate with people relevant people, limiting noise by using rooms of fewer / team related / similar people, encourage voluntary quick coffee breaks / rubber duck sessions, applying the pomodoro technique, can mitigate and solve this productivity issue, while still keep up a high level of communication.

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