Peopleware

May 11, 2022

The major problems of our work are not so much technological as sociological in nature. We are not in a high-tech business, but in a human communication business. Our successes stem from good human interactions by all participants in the effort, and our failures stem from poor human interactions.

The Office Environment

The causes of lost hours and days are many, but mostly related. Some days you never spend a productive minute on anything having to do with getting actual work done. Everybody’s workday is plagued with frustration and interruption. Entire days are lost, and nobody can put a finger on just where they went.

There are a million ways to lose a workday, but not even a single way to get one back.

In most software companies, the work space given to employees is noisy, interruptive, un-private, and sterile. No one can get much real work done there. Yet, for most organizations with productivity problems, there is no more fruitful area for improvement than the workplace.

It’s dumb that people can’t get their work done during normal work hours. To be productive, people may come in early or stay late to even try to escape entirely, by staying home for a day to get a critical piece of work done.

Many companies provide developers with a workplace that is so crowded, noisy, and interruptive as to fill their days with frustration. That alone could explain reduced efficiency as well as a tendency for good people to migrate elsewhere.

It matters a lot who your colleagues are. You tend to absorb the characteristics, both good and bad, of your colleagues.

Office Space

Office trend is toward less privacy, less dedicated space, and more noise. The obvious reason is to keep the costs down. However, this comes at a significant cost of lost productivity and effectiveness at work.

Sure, the savings of a cost-reduced workplace are attractive, but compared to what? Saving money on space may be costing you a fortune.

Advocates of open-plan seating plan produced not one shred of evidence that effectiveness would not be impaired. They really couldn’t.

Productivity

You may be able to punish people to make them active, but not to make them creative, inventive and thoughtful. There is nothing more discouraging to any worker than the sense that his own motivation is inadequate and has to be “supplemented” by that of the boss.

People under time pressure don’t work better - they just work faster. In order to work faster, they may have to sacrifice the quality of the product and of their own work experience.

In a healthy work environment, the reasons that some people don’t perform are lack of competence, lack of confidence, and lack of affiliation with others on the project and the project goals.

Organizational busy work tends to expand tot fill the working day.

Easy non-solutions are often more attractive than hard solutions.

The manager’s function is not to make people work, but to make it possible for people to work.

Parkinson’s law gives some managers conviction that the only way to get work done at all is to set an impossible optimistic delivery day. However, it doesn’t apply to most healthy software companies. Treating your developers as Parkinsonian workers doesn’t work. It can only demean an demotivate them.

Flow

Developers usually get most of the work done in a state called flow. Flow is a state where you are in deep concentration and time just flows by.

I began to work. I looked up, and three hours had passed.

For anyone involved in engineering, design, development, writing, or anything related to knowledge work, flow is a must, as these are high momentum tasks. It might take some time to get started, but once you get going, you get a lot of work done.

It is during this warm-up period developers are most sensitive to interruptions. An environment filled with constant interruptions and distractions can make it very difficult to attain flow. Each time you are interrupted, you require extra time to get back into flow. Repeat this a few times, and your whole workday is gone.

The developer who tries and tries to get into flow and is interrupted again and again is not a happy person. Instead of the deep mindfulness that the flow state provides, they are dragged into the surrounding ocean of distractions that is the modern open plan office.

If you are a manager, it can be hard to empathize with your developers seeking the state of flow. After all, your job requires that you do most of your managerial work in interrupt mode, which is management. But your developers really, really need to get into flow. Anything that keeps them from achieving flow will reduce their effectiveness and the joy that comes with it.

Working with Music

You become less creative. Many of the every day tasks performed by knowledge workers are done in the serial processing center of the left brain. Music will not interfere particularly with this work, since it’s the brain’s holistic right side that digests music. But not all of the work is centered in the left brain. There is that occasional breakthroughs that makes you say “Aha” and steers you toward an ingenious bypass that may save months or years of work. The creative leap involves right-brain function. If the right brain is busy listening to background music, the opportunity for creative leaps is lost.

The creativity penalty exacted by the environment is insidious. Since creativity sis a sometime things anyway, we often don’t notice when there is less of it. People don’t have a quota for creative thoughts. The effect of reduced creativity is cumulative over a long period. The organization is less effective, people grind out the work without a spark of excitement, and the best people leave.

Management should make sure there’s enough space, enough quiet, and enough ways to ensure privacy so that people can create their own sensible work space. Your employees want to do good work. Trust them. Let them do the work.