A couple years ago I heard a story from Jason Fried of 37Signals about why work doesn’t happen at work. He observed that the most productive moments for his team were those where they worked for long periods of time without interruption. That being “in the zone” is like REM sleep. It takes a long time to get into that state and any interruption will wake you back up. At that point, you can’t just pick up where you left off. Being interrupted for 2 minutes actually causes a 30-40 productivity loss.
A few years ago, my partner Dave and I put a policy in place to prevent this from happening. We called it the no tapping on the shoulder policy. The idea was simple, very few issues are so urgent that they warrant an interruption. Instead of interrupting each other, we should send an email or put a note in Campfire. We agreed to hold each other accountable to this policy and over time this would correct our bad habits.
It was a miserable failure. In fact, we tried it several times over the years, and it never stuck.
Our company has grown a lot over the past year. As we added more people, this problem became worse. We’re in a big open space and it’s very tempting to interrupt your neighbor with a simple whisper (“psst”), or a hand wave over their monitor.
This escalated into a pretty annoying problem. Every time someone innocently broke the rule, they got a reminder from their coworker about what they had done. These little reminders started to make people feel guilty. And so, since nobody on our team wants to hurt anothers feelings, the reminders stopped. And once the reminders stopped, the policy was no longer enforced.
Our simple policy had good intentions, but actually caused more harm than good.
Policies exist to discourage bad behavior. They are reactive. What we actually wanted to do was encourage good behavior. We wanted a culture where people respect their own time and attention enough to also honor the time and attention of others around them.
So, I tried an experiment. I asked a simple question to the team one afternoon: “When you’ve got a serious problem to deal with, where do you go when work has to get done?” My theory was that this would get the team to understand what it looks like when each of their coworkers is “in the zone” and therefore would be more likely to recognize that state before interrupting them.
It worked. We haven’t talked about it since, and we’ve become more productive in almost an instant.
Policies are important. They certainly have their place in every business. We find them in employee handbooks and on the walls of break rooms. They exist to prevent and punish bad behaviors.
Policies are easy to create, but hard to enforce. The breaking of the policy can lead to swift and serious action, which is painful for everyone. So, they should only be used in zero-tolerance situations where disciplinary action is an appropriate response:
- Sexual harassment
- Taking new projects without a contract
Culture is on the opposite end of the spectrum. It’s possibly the most important aspect of a healthy work environment.
Culture is hard to create, but easy to enforce. It requires team buy-in. You can’t force a culture on anyone. Your team members must be willing participants.
Culture promotes good behavior, and polices itself with positive reinforcement when things go wrong. We’ve worked hard to create a culture that:
- Promotes the respect of the families and friends of your coworkers
- Keeps work at work and minimizes the need to call or email each other after hours
- To not call meetings unless absolutely necessary.
What can you flip-flop?
If you want to instill a new habit at work, or want to correct some kind of behavior, try changing the policy into culture or vica-versa. You might be surprised at just how effective it can be.