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Friday, November 16, 2012

Minimizing context switching is why perks matter

When I think of employee perks, I think of one key thing: minimizing context switches. You want to keep your people in their respective happy places and thinking about great things they could be doing as much as possible. This means removing distractions and other things which could disrupt their flow.

I hinted at this sense of immersion in last week's post where I called for "cogs" to "know when to fall off their wheels". In that post, the context I was talking about was broken teams, and what happens when you're the only one who really "gets" what the team is there to do. This time, I'm thinking more about the apparent priorities put forth by a manager or entire company.

There are a lot of little things someone can do to provide an environment where life is relatively uneventful. Things just keep going on as they always have, and you don't have to worry about fundamental stuff changing on you. You come to expect certain items, services, or other features, and thus no longer have to spend mental cycles on figuring out how to obtain them.

A perk could be as simple as installing a water fountain. Previously, your people might worry about where they'd go to get water. Obviously, they're not going to fill up a bottle in the bathroom -- yuck. They'd probably also skip the break room sink after seeing what sort of mayhem happens in there when people think nobody else is looking.

If you're someone who really likes to drink a lot of clean, fresh water, having a nice source available means you can check off that particular item and focus on other things. You can start scaling the pyramid and start doing creative things for yourself, your team, and your customers.

Now let's say you thought that was a solved problem, and then one day it disappears. It's not "down for maintenance" or anything like that. It's been pulled as a "cost-cutting measure". Now, you have to figure that out all over again. Until you do, it's just one of those things which takes tiny little timeslices out of your day when you really should be focusing on something else.

Maybe you start bringing your own bottle to work. That is all well and good, but now you probably will start rationing yourself to make sure you don't deplete it before the day is out. This starts lowering the amount of water you get to consume, and whatever benefits you might have been realizing from that slowly evaporate. It's also still a small source of distraction since you're probably subconsciously measuring it every time you pick it up: is it too early in the day for it to be this low? Should I slow down?

It sounds silly, and again, any one example is going to be mighty silly in isolation. Oh no, now you have to think about water. If that's all that happens to you, consider yourself lucky. It could be far worse.

Note: the water fountain situation did not happen. That's just an example to get the haters all riled up because they see it in isolation. There are plenty of other things which actually have happened.

Your company could just start pulling the rug out from under you on a great many things. Maybe you rely on one of those private shuttle bus services to get to and from your job. They might decide to unilaterally change the services to something which fits their idea of a better budget. They may or may not reconsider this if enough people cry out in pain.

They could start messing with the food situation, and I don't mean "promise it as part of your salary and then cut it back". I've talked about that already. Instead, I mean, they could do some subtle changes which introduce more of those "background worries" which sap your attention and energy throughout the day. Case in point: let's say you have a relatively hard time finding acceptable food without going great distances. Then they decide to make a major change in what's being served, like "meatless Mondays".

This touches off a big battle between people who say "it's no big deal" and those who make a big fuss and go on to basically stage a demonstration by cooking their own meat-based meals in the parking lot. Because of the presence of this battle, it becomes impossible to express that you have been inconvenienced by it without seeming like you're somehow involved with it. You aren't. You just have needs which aren't being satisfied now, and it leaves you hungry as a result.

Keep in mind that if you grab your purse and go hop in your car to get lunch somewhere, it might be noticed, and it might be seen as "not being a team player" because you're "doing your own little silent protest".

I didn't want to be seen as part of any of this, so I just found a way to dodge the lunch train and just worked through lunch at my desk. This wasn't too unusual, given that I ate many a lunch at my desk anyway. On this day, I just didn't have a plate of food between me and my keyboard.

Then, much later in the afternoon, I jumped in my car and drove to a nearby place to grab something. It was sufficiently late to where nobody would realize what was going on, and I had a good chance of actually finding a parking spot upon returning. I brought it back up to my desk and had a very late meal, and then dropped the bag into my trash can and went back to work.

Other days, I think I worked from home so as to avoid it. Or maybe I came in sufficiently late to where going to lunch would have been silly. Either way, I basically went to lengths to not become a part of it.

I was still getting work done, but you can't seriously think that it was anywhere near the level of output I'd probably realize normally. I'm a person, not a robot. Things happening around me affect me. I hope that applies to everyone else reading this, too.

I think the most obvious example of stupid cutbacks that I saw was when all of the video conferencing people were let go in a massive culling of contractors. This sure sounded good on paper: who needs support, right? These are just big computers, and we know computers, so we should be good.

Then there was an engineering all-hands meeting which was delayed some 45 minutes because nobody could bring up the multi-way video conference stream to connect all of the remote (sorry, distributed) sites. Everyone just had to sit there and stew while they ran around and tried to find someone who could fix it and make it work for real. I think once or twice they may have actually just written off the VC and went on with their meeting anyway. I guess the people who weren't physically present didn't matter that much.

Did they save money by cutting the VC stuff? Sure, why not. That budget almost certainly shrank. Hooray. Of course, other parts of the company felt the pain and probably started delivering less often, or worse results, or both, but that doesn't show up on a balance sheet in black and white. It's also a lagging metric, so when it does happen, you can pick some coincidental event as a scapegoat, do some hand-waving, and pretend it's unimportant.

When the tissue boxes start disappearing out of your conference rooms, you have to ask yourself what's really going on.