Monday, March 18, 2013

March Madness: A Load Test for Workplace Culture

March Madness is one of the best tests of your workplace and the nature of how you work.  The NCAA tournament is one of the biggest live online video events of the year, but what makes it special is that the most exciting phase happens during work hours on a Thursday and Friday every year, and many employees stream it over the company network during the day.

This presents several challenges for traditional offices.  Firstly, a massive amount of video is streamed over the company's network, and some companies don't have the bandwidth to keep up.  Far more interesting to me, though, is the cultural clash between management and employees - managers want employees to stay productive and work heads-down throughout the two days of the tournaments, whereas employees (and some of the managers themselves) want to watch the tournament live during the workday and participate in the excitement in real time.

While the IT staff may see the tournament as a good load test for the company's network, I see the flood of employees who want to spend part of the day watching basketball as a great load test for your company's workplace culture.

In engineering, load tests are awesome because they magnify and highlight inefficiencies and problems that might otherwise go unnoticed in a given system.  Fixing the problems you find from these tests make the system work better even when it's not under load, and give you confidence that the system is solid and reliable when there is significant load.

Does Your Workplace Culture Scale?

What I love about the March Madness effect is that it magnifies and underscores broken relationships and expectations between management and employees.  If your workplace can't handle employees taking a few hours to watch basketball in a modern office setting, something is fundamentally broken with the way you work.  

Whether or not you consider your work environment to be officially "Results Only", most information-based work involves employees who are empowered and trusted to do heads-down work, attend meetings, collaborate with stakeholders, and mentor and assist other team members.  It is incumbent on most employees to balance these priorities and drive towards clearly stated expectations for results.  

Broken work environments in the information economy are structured based on the factory or assembly line model, where productivity is directly related to employees being tethered to a position and doing heads-down work at a fixed position in a process for fixed hours.  The problem with this model is that information-based work is laden with unpredictable dependencies.  A task you thought would take an hour may take 4 hours, a dependency you thought would be available tomorrow won't be, and a task you thought could be done solo may require the effort of a multi-disciplinary team.  Beyond that, creative professionals are more effective and happier when they can make decisions at the ground level - the people doing the work are the best people to decide how the work should be done.  The factory approach is a Soviet style "command and control" model, whereas the method of empowering and trusting employees is a much more flexible and dynamic "free market" approach.

Healthy work environments in the information economy are structured to maximize the productivity of empowered employees who can best decide when and how to accomplish their work and achieve the best results.  Do you need to take your child to a doctor's appointment at 2:30pm today?  Don't ask permission - just figure out how to deliver results.  Allowing that employee to shift their solo work to get done later that evening is so much more productive than forcing them to take a half day off to meet a "butts in chairs" requirement.  Are you blocked on your work for the next 2 hours due to a dependency?  Go run some errands or take the rest of the day off, and free up some extra time to knock out your work the next day when the dependency is available.

Incentivizing results produces results.  Incentivizing 9-5 productivity in an office produces people sitting in an office from 9-5 who may or may not be productive.  This isn't to say that there won't ever be "crunch time" when more hours than usual are needed.  The key is that teams are empowered to decide what that time looks like and how it is organized.

So, when the March Madness tournament comes around, what is the freak-out factor among the management of your company?  If your company is already structured to allow employees to focus on results and manage their own schedules to do so, then March Madness shouldn't have any effect.  A few hours of watching video during the day on Thursday and Friday are no different than a bunch of doctor visits and errands that happen to occur at the same time.

If you can't handle having employees unproductive for a few hours during a weekday, you've failed the load test.  This also means that you really can't handle those doctor visits or any schedule flexibility at a small scale, either.  Perhaps, at a small scale, you allow people personal time when needed, but there's likely tension in the air about it, and employees may be stressed out needing to ask about it.  More importantly, you likely emphasize an illusion of productivity rather than real productivity within your work culture. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Managing Remote Teams

Marissa Mayer's decision this week to require all Yahoo employees to work in Yahoo's physical Sunnyvale office created a nationwide conversation.  

Many in the tech world (myself included) were shocked by the announcement, as working with distributed teams has simply become the way software is made.  Collaborating with a team of people building tools for virtual experiences seems to naturally lend itself to collaborating virtually.  A tech company saying that they cannot figure out how to collaborate virtually to build great products promotes the image that they just "don't get it", and won't be able to build great products for the internet. 

However, if Yahoo's remote employees are truly slacking off at home and failing to contribute meaningfully to Yahoo's culture, it's probably the fault of Yahoo's management.  Fire the poor managers who don't even know if their teams are producing productive output.  The solution here is to set up remote employees for success, not to revert to a model of work tailored to an industrial economy rather than an information economy.  

With poor management and a lack of motivation and inspiration, an employee can be just as unproductive at work as they can be at home.  When the unproductive Yahoo employees come in for their first day back at the office, the poor management structure will still be unaware of their contributions or lack thereof, and that's the root of the problem.

While I certainly don't claim to have all the answers, I thought I'd describe how we do remote work at Vertigo:

I typically manage a project team of ~5-10 people, and there are also 4 people that report to me from an H.R. perspective. Of those groups, at least half are remote employees.  This means that our project teams have to find common ground to allow everyone to work effectively whether at the office or remote.  This typically means that we'll need to use online project management tools rather than whiteboards, screen sharing rather than side by side paired programming, and Skype rather than conference rooms for stand up meetings.  

It's weird when a project team consists of a few people who are all at the office and we realize that we're holding a stand up meeting over Skype with each other, but we've built this kind of consistency into the way we work and we barely notice it any more.

Creating this kind of level playing field for remote and local employees goes a long way to making remote employees feel valued, and making local employees understand that remoteness is no excuse for a lack of collaboration.  

Openness and transparency

A hidden benefit that emerges from this methodology is that our processes become immediately extensible and scale-able to our clients, 3rd party stakeholders, and the world.  If a client wants to see the estimates and flowcharts from yesterday's sprint planning meeting, they're immediately visible and available on the online tool in which they were originally created, rather than sitting on a whiteboard.  If we need technical assistance from a technology partner, our 15 minute meeting discussing the problem with screen sharing showing code can be recorded and played back to get people up to speed.

This openness has a positive feedback loop effect as well.  When everyone can see everything, it's very clear exactly what work is getting done.  Remote employees at Vertigo would never go unnoticed, because their work is visible in the same way that everyone else's work is.  The openness encourages collaboration and productivity, as everyone knows that their work will be discussed and used by the team on a daily basis.


Perhaps the biggest drawback to remote workers is that their day to day "water cooler" interaction is limited with the rest of the staff.  I can't take my half-remote team out for a beer after a big deliverable, and that sucks.  

Building a highly motivated team that coalesces around the work depends on healthy culture, so this is a real problem.  My take on the solution is to try to create opportunities for culture to breathe whenever possible.  

Schedule group meetings with enough time for chatting about the weekend for the first 10 minutes.  Take a minute to show that funny YouTube video halfway through a technical meeting when someone mentions a meme.  

Most of all though, make sure the team knows that they are adults, and as such are implicitly trusted to deliver high quality products.  You can't command and control a team into that mindset.  A culture where I deliver that feature because I know my teammates are counting on me is so much more powerful than one where I try to deliver it because my boss is breathing down my neck.  

I'm looking forward to the new 37Signals book on this topic, "Remote".