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Improving Office Productivity

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Our most productive blog post image yet

Question: What happens when you cram an office full of politically aware Internet enthusiasts from all over Europe? Answer: You spend hours arguing over the conflicting merits of capitalism and socialism, devising bulletproof strategies on how governments should be run and generally solving the numerous crisises that plague the world without ever breaking a sweat. Productivity also takes a mammoth nosedive.

Productivity – or rather the lack of it – has always been a bugbear of mine. Don’t work longer, work harder and smarter and all that. A fine philosophy until you find yourself stuck in the office at 9pm on a Friday night trying to finish up all your emails just so don’t you don’t have to work quite so hard on the weekend. Inevitability, of course, can’t be defied and sometimes you will just have too much to do. Sometimes the unexpected crops up and the workload grows, sometimes the schedule for the week just wasn’t flexible enough, and sometimes that darn three day build turns into a hellish, unending nightmare that won’t relent to your CSS will. It happens.

More likely though, you weren’t productive enough: frequent interruptions via the old classic “have you got a sec?” that could’ve easily waited until later; questions from others that could’ve been solved by a simple Google search; the ‘quick’ internal meeting that ended up lasting all afternoon; and the morning coffee break that turned into a wild argument over why Disney really shouldn’t make more Star Wars movies. Really, they shouldn’t. Let the franchise die gracefully. Please.

“People go to work and they’re trading in their work day for work moments.”

- Jason Fried, Why Work Doesn’t Happen At Work

Not that I’m bashing human contact. I like humans, they’re warm and cuddly. But there are ways to interact that don’t pull your colleagues out of the zone and break their hard earned concentration constantly. After all, everyone has work to do and your business has servies and products to deliver. As with all things in life, there’s a balance to be found.

The ultimate office

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Joel Spolsky. Aside from being a top bloke (or so I imagine), a great software engineer and writer, the creator of Trello and hugely in need of a new web site (call us, Joel), he’s an advocate for giving developers the right working conditions to program in. As a result, the Fog Creek office in Manhattan is rather lush.

Custom designed in 2008, it features such items as a communal lunch area (human contact reference above), angled walls with windows to reduce eye strain and glare, adjustable height desks and, most importantly, individual offices for everyone. Like caged beasts, developers remain enclosed, working beaverishly away with a natural barrier to interruption and distraction. Yes, I’m thoroughly convinced that open plan offices are a horrendous idea, dreamed up by someone who clearly didn’t have to concentrate for a living.

Of course, not all of us have the luxury of private offices in our working environment but then there are other techniques that can work.

The Pomodoro Technique

During the early days of Primate, Bart and Espen were heavily into something called the Pomodoro Technique, a time management guideline designed to radically improve productivity. It’s a simple idea really, based upon the concept of short time slots for work divided by quick breaks: a ‘pomodoro’ is a 25 minute work session and after every pomodoro you take a five minute break; after four pomodoros, you have a longer rest. Using this technique can also help with scheduling and breaking down development features into ‘pomodoros’ rather than hours or open ended tasks.

It didn’t last long in our office though. Not a bad technique, by any means, but we found this form of micro timeboxing particularly laborious to schedule for and impractical in an environment when the phone can ring at any moment or people have a genuine need to discuss issues or collaborate together. We also just got plain lazy and failed to enforce it, a huge requirement for any productivity driven work ethic. As much as the Pomodoro Technique wasn’t was us though, we still remained convinced that we could find a practical solution to increase office productivity.

The New Year approach

At the end of last year we held our Annual Review, an all-day meeting to reflect on the previous twelve months of business and, strangely enough, it was quite productive, apt given productivity was one of our key discussion topics. With a small office and six people regularly working in it, we all felt unnecessary distractions where becoming too great and too frequent, resulting in a greater burden of work falling into our ‘spare time’ (I had some of that once). It’s that funny predicament where the supposed place of work becomes the place where the least work gets done all because you’re not having the long stretches of uninterrupted time that good work requires.

Unable to pick up and move shop to a custom built Joel Spolsky-esque office just yet, we brainstormed a simple alternative, mixing the philosophy of the pomodoro with the practicalities of real life: after 10am, we would try to limit non-essential conversation to the turn of each hour. This doesn’t mean you don’t ever talk or spend time collaborating or conferring when necessary, it just means you hold back that interesting tidbit of gossip you read about on OMG! a little while longer. Want to ask your colleague what time their meeting next Tuesday is? Wait 23 minutes. Or send them an email. Got a non-essential question about some Ruby code you’re writing? Wait 14 minutes. Or just flippin’ Google it.

And it works. So far. It’s still early days but in the short trial period we’ve had we’ve managed to change the atmosphere in our office from incredibly fun yet slightly unproductive to incredibly fun and incredibly productive. It’s funny what such a small change can do and I’ll be curious to see how it holds up over the course of time. Indeed, the biggest challenge we face now is going to be maintaining this new measure but I, for one, am enjoying the fact that I can get good, solid, undisturbed periods of work at work, emails and phone calls aside.

Of course, none of these issues with productivity are anything new. Jason Fried, of 37 Signals fame, had similar suggestions of office quiet time and what-not in this his fabulous TED talk which, if you really wanted to be productive, you would’ve been watching instead of reading the meandering tale above. Probably should’ve mentioned that at the start.

Anyway, in case you’re wondering, this blog post was productively written in under two hours. Espen took over four to do the image.

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Author: Gordon McLachlan

Gordon is uncomfortably good looking.

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