Productivity is something bosses around the world value. Although sometimes what they value and what they implement can diverge. This is a written down version of my Unconference talk at the Cloud Foundry Summit Europe 2018, which can be found here:
How Do We Kill Productivity?
There are a few ways to kill your own productivity. The first one would be distractions, especially synchronous ones, like some other person talking with you. Others are processes which just stand in the way of any work being achieved.
Sometimes you have a good idea, which you later find out is bad, but the Sunk Cost Fallacy binds you forever. Last but not least, you can be focussing on unimportant details, wherefore the big picture is being forgotten.
Here are some examples of widespread practices which are actually harmful to your employees, product and productivity.
Open Plan Offices
The Idea behind open plan offices is simple. We save money for dry walls, seat everyone in a large hall and because of this, they will collaborate more.
Unfortunately there are some drawbacks. Which for a while we just had marketing and some companies telling how great it worked, we now have a study published by the Royal Society which shows a different picture.
They measured face-to-face interactions, as well as Email and Instant messaging usage and noted that the face-to-face interaction went down drastically while a there was a large increase in the amount of Emails and instant messages.
There are also some other effects to be noted. First, there is an above average use of noise cancelling Headphones. Putting on the tinfoil hat, we can assume that this is a concerted move by headphone producers to sell more products.
Also, some unfortunate people will work next to ‘roads’, so most of the office staff will pass by their workplace on the way to the coffee machine, toilets or break rooms. You also make your employees feel observed at all times. Which has been shown to change behaviour.
Slack (and Instant Messaging in general)
Instant Messaging in form of Slack is hip at the moment. Even though the Technology is nearly unchanged since 1990. Back then people used IRC to achieve nearly the same goal.
Although there are some minor deevolutions, like Slack being based on Electron, which works by gluing a reskinned Chrome together with a massive house of cards called node.js, where just the loss of of a trivial library can bring everything down.
That being said, here are the greatest productivity killers from my perspective:
- The default behaviour for notifications is to send you one whenever a message is sent in a channel you are a member of
- This leads to “Ping fatigue” where at some point the notifications blend into the background and you kind of ignore them
- People will not put much thought into each message, so sometimes the intended statement is stretched across multiple messages or between other messages. It also requires people to follow the message trail continuously
- No real archiving. Sure you can search for messages, or specific words, but unless it is a super specific word, it will be hard to find
- When someone starts an open discussion, those can go on for hours, where everyone just looks at Slack because you do not want to miss the point where you can say something
- @sliding. Sometimes people are not there when you @mention them. Some people then will gradually increase the audience of the @mention over the course of just a few minutes until they disrupt the office to start a manhunt for a colleague who is either concentrating on work, on the toilet or on break
How to improve it:
- Avoid @mentioning people multiple times. If they did not respond the first time, they will not respond faster. You will probably annoy them more
- Give People time to answer. Just because you did not get an answer within a minute there is no need to call them or spam them
- Do NOT use @here or @everyone without a very good reason
- Instead of asking an open question which leads to discussions, write a mail
- Or make a short meeting
- Set slack to only notify you on @mentions to reduce the amount of notification spam
- Never use @channel. @here does the same but does not send notifications to people that are away, e.g. it will not trigger a notification on the mobile devices of people in vacation, breaks or out of office. They will still see that there was a mention, but will not be bothered while being out of the office
Why Email Instead of Slack
Emails have some advantages over Slack depending on situation. First, an email message is complete in itself. A complete statement.
For example I, and many other people are guilty of sending one message in multiple Slack messages. Also, there is the chance of people writing across each other, which makes it very hard to follow the discussion if you read it afterwards.
Emails are also easy to archive. You have n emails to a given topic, and you can read them all. If a discussion branches, you can follow each along separately. It is also bound to a topic, so no one usually comes around in the discussion around the UI and asks questions about the backend.
Using Email wrong
Now that I talked about how good email is, it is time to talk about how we make emails bad.
First there is the issue that sometimes people tend to CC too much. If you have a discussion about API functions, why exactly do we need to include 2 levels of management.
As a rule of thumb ask yourself for every CC, does that person need to be included in this? Can that person give insights? The more unrelated people you include, the more likely it is you run into the problem, that those people will want to participate, or you spam yourself with “Out of office” emails.
Another bad behaviour is people that respond with off-topic.
And last but not least, emails which are written in a way that you have to read them twice to figure out what the person intended to say.
To improve this, here is a short checklist for emails:
- Do all the CCs, I added, make sense?
- Is the email short and precise?
- Is it on topic?
- Can someone that is not me understand the text?
- Did I run a spelling checker over it?
Ruining a meeting to the point where no one gets anything out is not hard.
Here are some signs that your meeting is about as productive as browsing Reddit:
- There are 10 or more people and it is not just a presentation (too many cooks)
- The meeting has no moderator so everyone talks over each other or strays off
- No predefined agenda, so what is talked about is rapidly changing
- No time limit is set
- People, not planned to attend the meeting, join in and share their “wisdom”
- Stand ups where you expect 10 people to contribute
For meetings, as for emails, here is a short checklist to improve it:
- Do I have a time limit?
- Those can be hard: “after 1 hour we end” or soft: “as soon as the first person has to sit down, we end the standup”
- Do I have an agenda?
- Is it not in a Slack chat?
- Who is responsible for writing the meeting notes?
- Do we have a moderator?
Here comes the last thing, and it is one of the easiest ways to kill productivity.
Employees can do a good amount of bad things, but the management can mandate this behaviour, so we have to stop them. Signs of bad management include, but are not limited to:
- People get too much direction, or get none at all
- Micromanagement makes employees feel not valued, because if you trust in their abilities, why would you tell them every minor detail they have to do at work?
- Lack of guidance can mean that people do not know the bigger picture, and so it can lead to wasted hours when someone comes in and says “Well, that is not exactly what we wanted”
This can really damage a product. There are enough examples out there to see where serious mismanagement can lead. If you want to see that in the extreme, check for the accounts of ex-devs of the game Wildstar, where management was so bad, that the game and company fell apart.
Make it better
Management should work different from employees. Assuming you did hire good people, try to stay out of their way.
Management is there for macro work, like contract negotiations, getting together what the customer wants while the employees make it real.
For that see managing more as a check to see if the product goes into the right direction. Your employees will cover the fine details and make sure that the implementation is sane. You should always have a bidirectional communication. Employees ask management for direction, while management should regularly ask for status or look at the product, to ensure that everything goes into the same direction.