Musings on Improved Efficiency During COVID-19 Shelter in Place

Does a time come for every business when the CEO thinks, ‘We really should just get rid of our offices…’? Right now, I’m hoping our CEO is thinking something along those lines. Maybe not getting rid of our offices entirely, but just paring down to a nice place to show visitors and a storage space for all the stuff we can’t really store in the homes of our various employees. I imagine our boss showing a group of investors around a plush meeting room and saying, “This is the magic of MiniBrew.” Inevitably someone will try to look behind the innocuous little door in the back – beyond which lies a storage space that looks like the walk-in closet of a mad inventor or a child who likes to take apart the consumer electronics his parents left him alone with – and my boss with throw himself in their way. “Nothing to see here.”

The company I work for, MiniBrew, like so many companies, has given a “work from home” order in response to the emergence and rapid dissemination of the coronavirus (soon to be re-branded as the Bud-Light virus). It isn’t the first time I’ve worked from home, but it’s the first time I have really noted the stark contrast in terms of what I get done in the office, and what I get done in the same amount of time at home.

In his book, The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement, Eliyahu Goldratt posits the idea that in a truly efficient work environment there is downtime. Basically: if you are constantly working then there is something wrong with your operations management. I read the goal recently and I have thought a lot about this idea ever since. Because, at the office, I’m constantly working and I have done many things to make my processes more efficient and optimize my work life. It never really goes away. The problem is mitigated, there is less stress sure, but I always run out of daylight.

However, in the last few days, I have noticed a very different paradigm emerging. I have time left over. One thing I started a while back, is at the end of a week I look at my tasks for the following week and try to time-box them in my calendar (leaving some wiggle room to shuffle things around, deal with unplanned for challenges, and pick up the odd last-minute meeting). Since I started working from home, I’ve noticed I get ahead of my time boxing (which I’ve gotten really good at estimating). In fact, I am typically done with my planned for tasks by 15:00 (3 PM). I then take a look at what I can do with the last few hours of my day and knock that out.

So, what’s changed? Well not that much. I’m still working the same way, I’m still engaging in the same meetings and scrum ceremonies. I’m still facing the same hurdles, in fact in some cases getting over certain hurdles (like getting a back-end developer to run down a latency in our alpha environment) actually takes longer and that’s mainly because I can’t just walk over to a developer’s desk and say, “Could you help me resolve this issue real quick?” But, guess what? No one else can do that to me. That’s where the difference lies. 

On any given day I must get interrupted somewhere between eight to ten times on average. Most of the time it’s just for a “quick chat.” A hardware developer wants to know what I think about testing a new prototype with users, a software dev needs to understand requirements better, or a customer service rep wants insight on when to tell someone to expect a new app feature we are about to roll out. But it breaks my stride, I have to stop what I’m doing, pay attention to that person, then re-engage in what I’m doing. If each of these quick chats take between five and ten minutes (building in some time spent getting to a good stopping point, switching my focus, and then getting back into it): I’m probably spending around… a ton of time each day breaking my focus in an unstructured way.

When people tell me they hate Slack, I think, ‘Well I don’t, but they’re entitled to their opinion.’ However, honestly, it’s the best. It isn’t like people have stopped hitting me up to have a quick conversation. They just aren’t sitting next to me. I’m not rudely ignoring them if I finish what I’m in the middle of before I respond to their inquiry. And that makes all the difference. 

Sure some people call me and interrupt, but usually, what they’re calling about is pretty important. Most of the time, they are kind enough to send me a quick note first saying, “Hey, can we chat for a minute?”