The Productivity Pit: It’s the People, Not the Tools

Originally published at: https://tidbits.com/2019/05/06/the-productivity-pit-its-the-people-not-the-tools/

Real-time workplace communication tools were supposed to improve productivity, but they all too often have the opposite effect thanks to too much chatter.

In 1997 I blogged about falling productivity with office computers:
http://users.tpg.com.au/users/aoaug/ms_dig.html#notalone
“[workers typically] take 4 to 10% of their time to help co-workers solve computer problems…this hidden support lofts the total annual cost to about $23,000”.
You will see that I wasn’t very impressed with Windows at the time (no change there)

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Some people are blaming the overall drop in productivity since 2007 on smartphones and other gadgets. I can’t say that I necessarily disagree.

It’s not a new phenomena - Before I retired (2008) I used to block selected company email users because they were negatively impacting my work.

Precisely my point! It’s not that email is a productivity problem, it’s that some people use email in ways that create such problems.

One of the big problems I’ve seen in Slack is people not creating threads, but just streaming all conversation in the main channel. That forces everyone subscribed to the channel to read it (or ignore the entire channel), whereas with threads, people can easily choose to participate or not and know that the conversation is likely to stay on one specific topic.

Really.

Yes.

OK. Later.

You too.

Lunch tomorrow.

Maybe

OK

Bye

Sure

Later

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At a board meeting.

Them: Why didn’t you respond to my email about people who hadn’t paid their dues?

Me: I didn’t get it.

Them: I sent it last Thursday night.

Me: All I got from you Thursday was an email about Tim’s birthday party in 2 weeks at the pool.

Them: That was it. Didn’t you read it? I just replied to that one as everyone on it needed to know about the dues issues. Don’t you read all emails.

Me: I only read emails that I need to deal with.

Them: WELL. I READ ALL OF MY EMAILS.

Sigh.

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Here’s where Apple could move ahead.

The problem is using tools rather than what humans do best — talk to your coworkers. The problem is the layout of our offices. Take a look at a typical office layout: People are assigned a desk, 1/3 the desks are usually empty. Project teams are scattered throughout the office. It’s the same plan we’ve used since the 1970s — except without cubicles, but with “open office” plans that make environments noisy as hell.

The iPad could be the key to fixing office issues and increasing productivity. The iPad needs some improvement. The UI is a bit too consumer focused, but the tools are there — especially with the Mac/iPad integration of tools, and Marzipan.

Imagine a different office setup based more on conference spaces rather than desks. More meeting rooms — lots more meeting rooms. Tables and chairs tucked away in various areas. No assigned seats. People sit where they want. When you’re working on a project, you can actually sit with the people you’re working with. Teams can simply take a quiet corner, or an empty meeting room. Or, maybe sit in the cafe and have some coffee. The team can work together. Brainstorm together. Push each other forward.

With some work on the software, the iPad could actually handle the vast majority of the tasks people do in an office. It’s easily portable and can be brought from one place to another. Cloud software allows documents to be passed around, or worked at from your iPad to a Mac to an iPhone. I’d like to see Marzipan know when I’m using a keyboard, the size of my monitor, and change the UI accordingly. Imagine Pages switching from the iPad-like version with a touch interface to the Mac-like version with pull down menus if I attach a keyboard to my iPad and put my iPad in a horizonal orientation.

Apple could reshape the office much like Microsoft did in the 1990s. However, instead of focusing on one computer per desk, the stress will be on people and interactions with each person having the tools they need for their job with them when they need those tools. Sometimes, it maybe a work station with multiple monitors. Sometimes, it’s a table with your team members screaming at each other. Sometimes, it’s a quiet corner somewhere with an iPad, a big mug of coffee and your trusty croissant at your side.

I worked in development and discovered that for 70% of my job, I could be more productive on an iPad, talking to the various people I need face to face rather than sitting at my desk trying to get answers via email, text, Slack, or group wiki. A 20 minute session talking to a particular person, and working out the various issues via an iPad was the most productive thing I could do. Sure, having a Mac with two spare monitors was helpful when I actually was writing code, but when I wasn’t, that setup was a chain on my productivity.

A 20 minute session talking to a particular person, and working out the various issues via an iPad was the most productive thing I could do.

I think you’re onto something here, David. I just returned from a programming conference and the best thing about it wasn’t the lectures — it was the informal gatherings on sofas in little corners throughout the hotel, small groups of 2-5 people in deep discussions helping each other out. I heard dozens of stories of how an obscure bug/problem had finally been solved in 20 minutes chatting with an engineer or another developer after months of hair-pulling.

I visited a motoring club’s incident room a few weeks ago. Hundreds of people speaking to customers in an open office (with low screens). They use an active sound cancelling system with speakers built into the ceiling - I suppose it is a bit like noise cancelling headphones. This made the place eerily quiet. So there is no longer an excuse for opposing open offices (says he from his home office!).

For those of us who measure high on the ADD scale, eyes matter also. There have been studies which … oh look at that butterfly over there.

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Thankfully, at our company, we’re extremely diligent with our Slack channel configuration. E.g., we’ll create feat-[feature name] (e.g., feat-onboarding-on-ios) for scrum teams that work on that particular feature, or help-[team] (e.g., help-engineering) to consolidate help requests for a particular team.

When a certain channel is not required anymore, for example because a particular feature has now shipped, it’s archived. Again, diligently.

Nevertheless, the sheer volume of conversations can be overwhelming, and it’s extremely difficult to foresee if any new messages on a particular channel are important enough for you to check on them, so, alas, our experience is “fully aligned” with the description in the article.

A promising fix could be to allow (at least knowledge worker) employees to set aside “do-not-disturb” blocks during which they are allowed to ignore any contact attempts, no matter the channel, to get deep work done. Think, “get into the zone for an hour, or two, and be allowed to stay there.”

Sounds like you’re doing exactly the kind of things you should be, so it’s a little distressing to hear that it’s still being a problem.

You can go into Do Not Disturb mode for Slack really easily, but I wonder if people don’t do that for fear of missing something important or worrying about how much they’ll have to come back to.

Option-clicking the Notification Center icon in the menu bar is among my favorite macOS interactions ever. :wink:

That said, I’d really like to talk to the people in Slack’s design team who considered it a great idea to ship the app with that grating “wooosh-knock-knock-knock” notification sound enabled by default. It’s mindboggling that they did not consider what this means for what they must know is the most typical environment for use of their app, namely open-floorplan offices…

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Much as we like Slack for some things, I can’t agree with the CEO of Slack Technologies predicting the end of corporate email in 5–7 years. Email is never going to die because it’s a better asynchronous communication medium, and async communications are more appropriate at times.

I can really see where slack is useful for some things. But the fire hose can be overwhelming at times.

Anyone expect party line phones to make a comeback?

Wait, hasn’t Google Wave replaced email already? :smirk:

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