Here at Surevine we have evolved what we call a ‘heads up, not heads down’ culture. That seems both logical and necessary for us because:
- We work in a radically de-centralized fashion. Most Surevine people spend most of their time working from a workspace in their home (none quite cool enough to have made it as a #featuredworkspace on Lifehacker yet), or else they pitch-up at a local co-working hub. We need to keep ourselves plugged into all the communications channels out there to keep the vibrant, vital sense of team spirit we enjoy.
- We develop Social Software, which seems to be the fastest-paced, most exciting domain you could be developing in at the moment. To keep ahead of the game means we need to be hyper-aware of all the great ideas which are constantly blossoming in this fertile environment.
But with that hyper-connectivity comes a cost: we have a constant stream of interruptions. Most of the time that’s fine, and they are only subliminal distractions, we’ve mostly learned to filter. But context switching can be painful. We need to concentrate hard, and hold lots of context in our head, to tackle some of our more challenging software development problems, and the slightest distraction can mean we have to start from scratch.
That’s why, emboldened by the Rework book written by the guys at 37 signals, we decided to initiate an experiment into interruption free time. Here were some of the issues raised, when we decided we might like to try this, at a recent whole-company meetup:
- What if our customer wants to speak to us? Customers are our number one concern, shouldn’t we drop everything to speak to them?
- How do we know that people working solo at home are still OK, haven’t had an accident, if they don’t ping the team periodically?
- Won’t it be more difficult for those working in client-facing roles to avoid scheduling meetings which clash with the time?
- How do we ensure that other team members don’t get offended, and take the silence as some rude form of ignorance?
- How do we prevent it from undermining the culture of ‘heads up, not heads down’ which is necessary and positive most of the time?
People were quick to respond with ideas:
- Even for those clients for whom we have agreed a fixed SLA and response time on support, no customer is, so-far, expecting an immediate response in person to a query.
- We always have this problem, as people have very flexible working arrangements: some working very early in the morning, some very late at night, and others are in different time zones. We don’t have a way of looking out for each other 24×7.
- Those of us who seem to spend more time in meetings and travelling than at our desk are still able to co-ordinate with the people we are meeting, and it essential that we do this, simply by blocking time out as busy in advance in our calendars.
- The best way of ensuring that no-one internally has differing expectations about our availability is to all be adhering to the same discipline at the same time, that means interruption-free time is sacred, co-ordinated and something which we all co-operate in.
- This seems more of a challenge, and the best way to tackle this seems to be to raise the risk and ensure that we talking about and understanding it
What we meant by interruption-free time:
- Either a whole day (we haven’t been that brave yet) or a number of hours (at least two) spent with no interruptions – with everyone respecting the same period (has to work for people in other countries too)
- Switching off all forms of notification or interruption including (but not limited to): our internal Intranet tools; Twitter; LinkedIn; Facebook; RSS feeds; Skype; e-mail; desktop widgets; IM and Calendar/alerts etc…
- For some reason, the hardest cut appears to be the phone, but in the same way as the every-friendly Surevine receptionists take messages if we are unavailable, switching off the phone (to ensure we don’t get SMS messages either) only means that the messages go through to voice-mail and we can respond later, not that the opportunity is lost for ever
It is early days for the experiment, but to me, it already feels like a real treat, something special, cherished and and much anticipated. We’ve found ourselves “banking up” activities for our quiet time: those activities which require deep, concentrated thought, and would take orders of magnitude more time to do with distractions.
We’ll keep you posted…