Management Underwear work days

Reinventing the Hallway

Tony passes me the hallway at lunch, basketball in hand, and the conversation goes like this:

Me: “Hey Tony, how was basketball?”

Tony: “It’s good. I was playing with Phil and he mentioned his team was working on Gimbleflibbits.”

Me: “Gimbleflibbits? That sounds a whole lot like our effort on Trimbleflibbits. Did you mention we were working on it?”

Tony: “No, I thought we were keeping it on the down low.”

What to do? I call Phil and we have a have Flibbit heart-to-heart and I learn, yes, he’s working on the exact same project and he’s fully staffed and four months ahead of me.

Well, crap. I was kind’a looking forward to nailing Gimbleflibbits, but Phil’s on the ball and he’ll pull it off, so I sit the the team down and finding a different direction.

What happened in that hallway was this. I would’ve spent five engineer’s time over six weeks working on my particular Flibbit implementation before word got to me through regular communication channels that Phil was far ahead. If you assume a base salary of $100k for these engineers… that’s about $75k just in salary that I might have wasted on a project that someone else was already doing.

I’ll simplify. I saved the company $75k randomly bumping into Tony in the hallway.

The Organic in me is just fine with this. The Organic in me knows that most interesting developments in a company happen because someone ran into someone else and said the right thing at the right time. Mechanics hate this idea and they’re constantly running around redefining process to make sure that, somehow, my Tony conversation occurs according to some master plan, but that’s not happening… people are messy.

As I said in Remotely, the absence of the hallway conversation is my single biggest problem with remote employees, but we’re in the process of reinventing the hallway for both remote and local employees…

SKEF wrote: “I think the secret here, which almost no one ever tries, is to switch completely to forms of communication that work remotely for a while (a month or two) and from then on have days where you do that.”

The idea has merit. Instant messaging has replaced a lot of email conversation in my past two companies, but I’m certain there is a small percentage of folks who get it, but haven’t tried it. A new communication media day seems like just the thing to force folks to try something new whether it’s IM or Wiki or Skype.

ERIK SCRAFFORD wrote: “… everyone must be on IM all the time in office and out.”

The myth of the 8 hour work day is fading. Yes, I tend to work 8-10 hours a day, but I also spend 30 minutes in the morning and probably another hour in the evening doing things which can only be called work. Why am I not freaking out about 11 hour work days? Well, first, I like what I do, but, more importantly, my constant presence on IM allows me to always be available to co-workers and friends when they need something from me. It’s like this:

Winston @ 10:50Pm: “Rands, did you see the crash bug fix?”

Me: “Why are you working @ 11pm?”

Winston: “Couldn’t sleep and wanted to knock off a couple of bugs.”

In a non-24/7 IM world, Winston would’ve had to wait another 12 hours before he got a response me. Multiply that experience by each of the 200+ people on my buddy list and you’re talking about productivity no longer bound by the imaginary 8 hour work day.

For remote folks, my opinion is it’s their burden to make themselves readily visible in as many mediums as possible because, well, they’re not visible.

MARTIJN DEKKERS wrote: “The off-site worker should have very clearly defined and well structured work to do that requires minimal interaction with other team members”

DAN also wrote: “Either give remote employees standalone components, and make sure the interface is well defined.”

Giving remote folks clearly defined, standalone components that requires minimal interaction with the local team reduces risk that a local (or remote) person is going to be stalled because of remote communication latency. This makes sense. I get this. Problem is, this approach only furthers the distance between the local and remote folks. It strikes me that you want to give remote folks a project that will force them into communication habits that keeps them in touch with the team.

DAN follows up his comments by suggesting, “Or, pair remote people up with some else and make them work together very closely.”

This seems like a more productive practice. It’s going to be harder for local and remote folks to communicate, but if I got remote folks, that’s what I want them working on… improving communication.

DAVID GOODLAD wrote: “I’d worked with the company for about a year before I moved out of town, and the team’s pretty stable, so I know everyone that I work with very well.

MARTIJN DEKKERS also wrote: “[schedule] frequent back-to-base meetings”

To me, this the strongest piece of advice out there. Make sure your remote folks know the rest of team. Yeah, we got phone, mail, IM, skype, wiki, blah blah blah, but nothing replaces sitting around the table and understanding who is on your team by seeing their faces.

I’ve been trying video conferencing with one of my remote employees and I’m getting over the fact that I’m talking to my monitor, but I still feel the miniscule awkward lags in the conversation that occur because of the technology. This jumpiness makes our conversations feel slightly artificial, but it’s ok, I worked with the guy for months before he left, so I can fill in the gaps.

TREBORINATO wrote: “The team’s perception of the matter is vital, and they may not be easy to reveal how they really think about the situation.”

I hadn’t even thought of this problem until I read it and realize it’s severity. Many local folks are jealous of the remote employee because of the perception the remote folks are privileged. “How come Phil gets to work at home in his underwear?”

At my prior gig, there was an active subconscious effort to discredit the remote employees and it was based on the fact the local folks had no clue what the remote folks were doing. They assumed they’re weren’t doing anything (wrong), grew bitter about it (bad), and stopped collaborating with the romote folks because of spite (screwed).

In this case, I think the burden of communication is on the manager to keep their local folks aware of the contributions of remote folks. Meanwhile, remote folks need to operate knowing their local folks are fretting about underwear work days.

BEAR wrote: “What I’ve seen in the past is that the reasons that remote people fail is not because of the technology – heck, I was doing remote work back in the days of 9600 baud modems, but rather because of the process (or lack of.)”

… and that’s the point. The hallway conversation occurs because folks happen to bump into each other. There’s no HR guideline which says, “Randomly walk around the building until you bump into someone interesting”. It just happens. The way to create that chance productive hallway meeting has little to do with the technology you spread all over the team, it has to do with keeping those remote folks in the front of your mind rather than that guy out in bumfuck who appears to be doing his own thing.

10 Responses

  1. Some of my best thinking is done walking down the hall. Thinking about what just happened or what was about to happen. Kinda like mowing the grass. Another place I do a lot of thinking.

    Problem is my last manager hated hallway conversations because they were generally undocumented. He actively sought to eliminate them. Instead he would have endless meetings with no agenda to ‘cover all bases’.

  2. Those 37Signals guys look like they’re always “hanging out in the hallway” with their Campfire app.

    Rands, does anyone you know just set up one big IRC chat room just to hang out in for team conversations?

  3. Brian 18 years ago

    Your engineers make $100k? I’m there!

  4. Always on IM is a productivity killer. If you can set your IM to “leave me alone” fine, but nothing is worse than a window that demands LOOK AT ME RIGHT NOW!!!

    Hans nailed it: Hallway conversations are good, but intranet blogs (or Basecamp) are better.

  5. Nathanb: I set Gaim to just blink the status bar icon when a new message comes in (instead of popping up the full windows). If I’m deep in concentration I just let it blink away, ignoring it.

    Having all the developers hang out in an IRC channel is great for this, by the way. General questions can be answered by anyone who happens to be paying attention. If you are busy with something, there will be a conversation log for you to skim through

  6. Your people must be more sociable than mine, because if we depended on hallway conversations to detect this sort of redundancy we’d be doomed. Rather, adding the sorts of communication outlets that tend to help support remote people also tends to increase communication among the entire team, not to mention that many forms (IM, blog, wiki) create a readily-accessible archive for future reference.

    Also, I don’t know how big your company is, but your scenario seems far more likely at a large company than a small one.

  7. “I’ll simplify. I saved the company $75k randomly bumping into Tony in the hallway.”

    No, the company almost lost $75k because they fail to make it clear who is working on what. Especially when there are many teams, there should be a place (possibly a website) where one can immediately find out what each team is working on, or is going to work on, in order to avoid this kind of situation. Otherwise the company shoots itself in the foot by not having a decent communication channel. The hallway conversations helped here, but are really no substitute.

  8. Rands has it – IM, IM, IM.

    While it did feel a bit odd at first, I’ve grown used to working with a bunch of remote folks. Once you get over the mental hurdle at the beginning, it’s easy.

    We are all on IM all the time (it is an official business policy) and generally make very good use of status messages (in a meeting, out to lunch, available, brainstorming, etc).

    The best part is that we can have “hallway converstaions” at any time (and do) without having to wait for the chance bump.

    We also do a lot of back and forth on specs just to be sure the idea that product marketing had is fully understood by the final developer.


  9. Derek 18 years ago

    How about an internal newsgroup? That way people can go off chatting in their own threads without disturbing everyone else with message spam.

  10. JohnO 18 years ago

    We all have Jabber accounts using GAim (since we run Debian), and Gaim has an excellent feature which you can deny IM windows from popping up. The dock icon flashes to let you know someone IMed you, feel free to ignore as long as you’d like.