The Office Door Effect

This post originally appeared on appendTo’s blog on September 11th, 2014.  I’ve cross-posted it here for posterity.

Here at appendTo, we are a fully distributed company. We all work from home offices across the country and world, rarely connecting with one another in a physical space during the normal course of our work day.

The key to making this a success has been our perspective of translating the normal human interactions we are accustomed to in a physical office into the virtual environment.

One of the simplest habits we train every employee on is the Office Door Effect. When you work in a physical office, depending on the layout, humans observe when others enter or exit the building.

We replicate this by asking everyone to drop a message into a chat room when they arrive for work, when they leave, or when they briefly step away.  We’ve tried accomplishing this through chat status notifications, but it is never quite the same.

This creates a chat room with many small comments of, “Good Morning” or “Stepping away for a moment” which may seem like noise, but has had an incredibly positive impact on our culture.

It brings everyone together because it demonstrates commitment to our jobs by indicating whether we are focused on work at any given time or doing something else in front of our computers. It provides an easy and asynchronous way to discover where people are when they don’t immediately respond to a chat message.

The other important thing dropping a message into a room conveys is the duration of absence.  If you say, “Out for a few hours”, we know when to expect your return. If someone needs to connect with you, they can then decide whether to wait or proceed with other tasks until you return. If a client contacts us and needs access to a particular developer, it can also help us mitigate their need by giving them a specific availability time frame, or offering the services of a developer who’s immediately available.

We have a special “heads down” status that typically means someone is online for “emergency” purposes, but otherwise should not be disturbed because they are concentrating on a particular task or problem.

We use Slack as our platform to communicate all of the above, and love using it as our chat system. However, Slack is currently set up so that we have to manually type status messages into the chats. Adding an automated feature that would do this for us would make communicating on Slack a more seamless process. That said, we’ve recently submitted a feature request to Slack, to which they’ve been responsive and all around awesome.

How do you indicate presence in your organization?

Maker Time

My friend Joe McCann was riffing on a busy meeting schedule this upcoming week. I could relate and shot back a response on Twitter. I’ve fought this for years and thought I’d write a quick blog about it.

One of my favorite habits that I’ve followed from time to time is scheduling what I call “Maker Time”. After starting appendTo four years ago, my day to day work is filled with meetings, writing emails and generally solving problems of all shapes and sizes.

The transition to this role from being a full time software developer left me wishing for the days where I could sit and code all day long without interruptions. I loved software development and I loved the challenge creating something new. Even though a long day of coding could be exhausting if I didn’t keep up my caffeine intake levels, it never felt like work because the act of creating something was motivation to keep going.

Paul Graham wrote an amazing essay that describes the differences between managers and makers and the schedules they each keep. I read this early in my career and was influenced by it quite a bit. However, I always thought managers and makers were mutually exclusive roles.

It’s only as I’ve stepped into more full time management that I’ve discovered that building in “Maker Time” has been foundational to keeping my sanity. Rather than choosing between being a “Maker” OR a “Manager”, I realized I needed to choose both to stay balanced.

Maker and Manager

I’ve solved this by forcing myself to make time each day to “Make” something. Anyone who’s in a management role knows that if you don’t make time for it, it won’t happen. So, I generally schedule my own “Maker Time” for the first two hours of my day. This is when our virtual office is most quiet and I can easily focus.

I view this Maker Time as foundational to my role as a Manager, managing people who make stuff. Putting in the effort to make something every day makes me a better manager and helps keep the priority level high for “Maker Time”.

Maker Time Rules

Along the way I’ve developed a short list of rules to keep myself accountable to my “Maker Time”. I’m not a very religious habit person and I view life more like jazz music then a line dance, but guidelines like these help keep me pointed in the right direction.

  1. Schedule “Maker Time” first to keep it a priority. I generally find 2 hours a day works for me.
  2. Shut out all distractions to keep focused.
  3. Ship something by the end of each session. It could be a blog post, piece of code or an update to a contract template, but create something new and SHIP IT.

That’s it, it’s literally that simple. Sometimes, my maker time feels like the most productive part of my day. Other times I feel like I get nothing done. What matters to me is that I am keeping my creative muscles strong and focused. It is a discipline that I feel makes me a better manager, but to really measure that you’d have to ask my team.

If you’re a manager, do you make time to make something? If you’re a maker, what do you think of a manager who prioritizes “Maker time”?

The Third Way

Two roads divide, I took neither. In fact I climbed up in the BullDozer and paved a third.

It didn’t start out this way on purpose. In fact I set out to do things the way I was told.

When appendTo launched the first thing we did was hire a COO. Someone that knew how to do business the way business was supposed to be done.

Jonathan & I were the creative team, and we wanted to focus on delivering great customer experiences, not on processes and management.

But when the going got tough, the person we hired to lead the company didn’t believe in the vision of the company. So he left.

Revenues were tight and we were staring at a second business venture sinking. I knew the opportunity to build a business around jQuery was big, but it hadn’t started out the way I planned.

I sought advice from others who had started similar ventures and they pushed me to go get revenue the way all businesses did.

“Hire a Sales Team” they all said to me almost in perfect harmony. I wasn’t a believer. I didn’t feel that salespeople could properly represent us they way it needed to be done.

It was value that they were after. A great product and deliverable. Not someone banging on their door begging for the order. That was the way of yesterday and I knew it was wrong for appendTo

I Took the Third Way

The Third way meant doing what I knew was right even when it wasn’t popular.

Whether it be walking away from money when I know that we aren’t the best fit for a project or refusing to hire a sales team for a company that needed to be built through a network from the inside out.

The third way started out by accident when I couldn’t get on board with the way things have always been done and has morphed into a philosophy that I use for growth hacking.

When two roads divide I don’t take the one less traveled nor do I take the one most traveled. I take the one that makes the most sense which sometimes isn’t a road at all.

Understand, this isn’t about one way being right and one way being wrong.

This is about doing business in a way that reflects what we as an organization believe. Something that I aspire to see from more and more companies in the future.

Begging the question.

When 2 roads divide and neither option makes the most sense for your business, what is your approach? Better yet, what is your third way?