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Monday, November 26, 2012

Burnout and how space shapes culture

The response to last week's post about "the stupid hour" has been magnificent. It landed on Hacker News and proceeded to get tweeted and reshared and mailed around to lots of people. It also seems to have transcended the "programming" theme as some folks have been finding analogs in writing and studying after being up too long.

I also got a bunch of great feedback, and again I thank everyone who writes in, whether for this or anything else. It really makes all of this worth the effort to know there are people out there who care about reading it and are getting something from these posts.

I received a suggestion to write a followup which focused on burnout, specifically focusing on things I'd seen companies do to shoot themselves in the foot by breaking their people. This seems like an issue which needs more attention, so here we go.

I've talked about the "sick building" situation I encountered when the company I was working for picked up and moved us from downtown to suburbia. We went from inhabiting multiple floors in two different multi-story buildings to being on the top floor in a two-story building. This new building had no windows anywhere near the support floor, and it had evil fluorescent lights which were effectively stuck on due to various political decrees.

A couple of days after we got there, I noticed how much different I felt now. My commute had gone from 50 miles a day to 25, but I was feeling much worse. One day, I finally found the words to describe it to some of the others on my team: "if I had been shown this space after my interviews, we wouldn't be having this conversation right now". In other words, I wouldn't have accepted a job in this environment, but since I took the job in a good environment and then they moved us, I was stuck with it.

I decided to take a week off to clear my head. I did go back and continued working as a good little drone, doing my tickets and calls, but some people honestly thought I wasn't going to return from that particular vacation. Looking back, I probably should have bailed right then and there, but I didn't.

Months went by, and things didn't get any better. We started having these sessions where our shift would end at 10 and a few of us would meet up somewhere and just try to figure out what was going on with us. Why did we feel so bad all of the sudden? What can we possibly do about it? None of this had happened before we moved to that new place.

One night, I heard an interesting nugget of information. The internal developer folks who had written the provisioning and ticketing systems from scratch were miserable with their new situation, too. They had bad lighting, bad cubes, and all the rest. Of course, this isn't too surprising, since they were just wedged in a corner of the support floor. They had to suffer with the noise, the lack of windows, and the terrible lighting, too. Also, they no longer had their own space. Now all of those "peons" doing the support work were right there.

You see, before the move, we had the 7th floor to ourselves, and it was dark, cool, and quiet, and the developers had a good chunk of the 2nd floor. They also had similar conditions (dark, cool, and quiet), but they didn't have the ever-present buzz of phone calls and techs talking about things going on. They only had to share their space with other people just like themselves.

The person who was telling me about the dev team went on, and said something which really stuck with me: "it's now a 40.0 hour week". People used to stick around and work loose hours to get things done. Sometimes they'd work a short day and sometimes they'd work a long day, but it was all fluid based on how inspired they were feeling. Now, when 5 PM rolled around, they all made for the door. They used to stick around and do stuff like play shoot 'em ups with each other, but now that was gone.

This isn't just my memory speaking here. I actually found a post by someone who visited those guys back then, and just look what he had to say about the old days:

The days were spent solving both complex and interesting problems, but about 6pm the gang would take a break and play Return to Castle Wolfenstein. This included everyone -- from the newest hire to the VP. It was a true "work hard/play hard" environment and it was a lot of fun.

All of that died when the company relocated.

I had worried about this before the move ever happened. I even came up with a line for it: spaces shape culture. Then we moved, and sure enough, the good space went away and the good feelings went with it. Nobody really understood what I was saying at the time, and too many failed to understand it even after we moved and the problems started appearing.

This might sound familiar to readers who have dug deep through the archives. Indeed, I talked about some of it in an early post called "Opening umbrellas indoors on purpose", back in June 2011. If you haven't seen it before, you should check it out. There are pictures to explain just what happened.

The point of today's post is to expand the scope beyond just the support people like me. There were people who didn't have to put up with screaming customers, incessant ringing phones, and overflowing ticket queues. They got to work as coders. However, since they were in the same miserable environment as the rest of us, they suffered just the same.

What causes burnout? That's easy. It's stuff like this as a first order cause. Then, to complicate things, it's people running the show who won't even acknowledge this is a real problem. Now you have a second order cause.

If you have people making decisions about space for their workers and they haven't heard of Peopleware, you're in trouble.