Monday, April 14, 2008

We're just practicing

I've worked in a lot of different environments, from straight-laced, suit-wearing corporate to cheek-by-jowl shared cubicles, from being plunked down in the midst of a call center to private offices for every person. I've toiled for companies that had concierge service, and for companies that wouldn't give away a paper clip. I've worked for companies that offered major resources for self-education, and companies that would begrudge your spending 10 minutes on the Internet to find a better way to accomplish a task.

Having spent most of my career as a software developer (or in jobs associated with software development), I've had ample time to examine the ways in which programmers can work effectively. Moreover, I've seen fads come and go, most driven more by the desires of the business than the needs of the workers. For example, I worked in a company that laid off so many people that there were vast tracts of empty cubicles, rows and rows of dark spaces where only the abandoned machinery was left. I suggested to my manager that, perhaps, for productivity and morale purposes, we might move from our two-to-a-person cubicles to some personal space. He reacted as if shot, telling me that he could never suggest such a thing to his management because, "there were rules." (I think part of his reaction was that he saw it as a major perk that he got his own cubicle.)

There have been studies on productivity over the years, but, strangely enough, the gold standard for programming productivity experiments was done 30 years ago, in IBM's Santa Teresa Laboratory. Gerald McCue's paper remains a primary reference. Without getting into the specific results, so quaint do they seem now (private offices, sufficient storage room, etc.), what is so striking is that a major corporation actually created a whole lab to study this issue. There was a sense, back in 1978, that making programmers as productive as possible was a worthy objective.

Needless to say, that is no longer a business objective. The assumption now is that people will accommodate themselves to whatever work environment they're given; minimizing overhead is paramount, and the office designer plays a key role. (There's a larger issue here - can a company really be successful if it's constantly engaged in reduction, rather than expansion? They've elevated cost-cutting over profit-growing, and that doesn't seem like a good long-term strategy...right, long-term, ha, ha.)

What we've moved to is soft solutions, the idea that creating a pleasant meta-environment beats creating an actual environment, especially when there is very little cost to the company. These are the sorts of things that fall under the term, "work-life initiatives." Programs like flextime, telecommuting, and family leave are touted as major productivity enhancers.

Naturally, most of these things are granted by the company, rather than seen as anything to which an employee has a right (family leave being an exception, but it took contentious legislation to get that done). So, if you build your life around one of these options, be prepared to change at any moment that the company decides to pull it.

Something that I've noticed, especially with new technology companies, is a sense of self-congratulatory righteousness when they decide to bestow these programs on their employees. 37signals is a Chicago web development company, noted most for their development of the Ruby on Rails platform. Their blog, Signal vs. Noise, is an entertaining look at one company that goes back to at least October 2006 (it may be older, but the Looking for something older? link leads nowhere, which is kind of amusing for a web development company).

Jason Fried is the CEO, and the main poster, and he has reported on 37signals' experiment with the four-day workweek. Hey, it's a success, and proves, at least to Jason, that "urgency is overrated...self-imposed and morale-busting." He explained their institution of this policy last month, where he also touted their program to "fund people's passions," where the company helps pay for things like flying lessons, and discretionary spending accounts, because they trust people.

I'm generally in favor of such alternatives to the status quo, but there's a "hey, look what we invented" quality to these posts that ignores that such experimentation has been around for quite a while. You have to ask at some point, if these are such universally wonderful policies, why haven't they been adopted by every company? If they work, they should convey a competitive advantage, forcing all others to offer them. But that hasn't happened.

Not to say that I'm ruling out general corporate timidity. I worked for a company that had every other Friday off one summer, and never mentioned it again (questions about it the next year were not warmly regarded). There was no evidence that it worked poorly, that customers were ill-served. My guess is that the increasingly corporate managers they hired just didn't like it.

But people are also people, and most of these policies offer many possibilities for abuse and resentment. If the company is helping Mark with his flying lessons, others will want to be sure their dream is being funded at the same level. And the discretionary accounts will work for a while, but having no policy as to their use invites problems down the road. Contrary to the beliefs of some, rules and laws don't just spring up to irritate good people, they're necessary to guarantee equity and the overall goals of the entity.

[Note: added to the obnoxiousness of the sense that 37signals is the first company to think of these enhancements is a kind of arrogance bred of success. An exchange from comments to the post, Urgency is poisonous:
Commenter: I’m certain you already know how lucky you are to be able to set your own deadlines. Most of us in the real world, however, work for a customer.
Jason Fried: Ah, the mythical, absolute “real world.” The real world is the one you choose to live in. Your world is no more real than my world. I’m sorry you’re trapped in yours.
More from Jason:
Clients expect what you tell them to expect....It is up to you to set expectations. Clients don’t set expectations, you do.
And even more:
Oh yeah? When is that deadline? On Friday at 6pm? And if you aren’t live by 6:01pm Friday what happens? All the work that’s gone into what you are building is just thrown away? Or do reasonable people say “How about Monday or Tuesday? Can we get it out by then?” And if they don’t say that, and they pull your money because you didn’t hit a specific deadline with no wiggle room then consider yourself lucky. That working relationship was doomed from the start. A missed deadline and killed deal was just a symptom of a deeper infection. I can’t image a worse working relationship than one devoid of reason, fairness, and understanding. Anyone who wants to pull the plug on you because you are human is barely human themselves.
Not that I wish ill on someone who is trying to create a good work environment, but for a CEO to show such massive misunderstanding of the world in which he lives is breathtaking. What interests me here is how a blog can demonstrate the thinking of a Gates-in-the-making, someone who is creating his own little solipsistic world around himself. We don't have evidence as to how a Randall Stephenson got the way he is, but we can actually watch a Jason Fried become self-absorbed. Interesting.]

[Edited note: I was a little harsh just above. I'm not a fan of name-calling, even on the anonymous Internet and, in thinking about it, I've edited the preceding paragraph. I still think the comments show some myopia about the world most of us live in, but I went too far.]

1 comment:

Jason Fried said...

For the record, we never once suggested we invented any of these ideas. We stand on the shoulders of many companies before us that have tried all sorts of things -- some with success and some with not -- to make working there a better experience.

Re: 2006... We've been around (and blogging) since 1999, but unfortunately our older blog post were deleted when the old blogging engine we used way back when "exploded." ;)

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