In 2016, my average day looked like this:
- Standup (15-30 minutes, YES I KNOW)
- Requirements / story writing (1 hour) for next sprint of main project
- Discuss detailed design issues from current sprint (30 mins to 1 hour) for main project
- Visioning/discovery for next release (2 hours 3x week) for main project
- Meeting for secondary/tertiary/quaternary project (1 hour per project)
- Office hours for Developers’ questions and technical issues (1 hour)
- Meeting with Scrum Master for planning and scheduling future releases, setting agendas, etc. (30 mins)
- Team meeting / staff meeting / whatevs (1 hour 1-2x a week)
On any given day, I lost about 5 hours a day to meetings. The leftover 3 hours were almost never a single block. I worked from home one day a week (“no meeting day”), which was the only truly productive day I had. The rest of the week I got my work done after dinner, at home – frequently until as late as 2am. I wasn’t alone. The Project Managers, Business Analysts, Product Owners… all of them did their real work after hours, to prep for the next day’s meetings.
Project scheduling is a cultural issue that we like to blame on the people doing the work.
The schedule-setting management team, and indeed the majority of the organization, assumed that if I was 100% assigned to a project I was doing work during 80% of those hours, not gathering data or discussing results. Nobody asked if this was true. They built the assumptions into the budgeting and schedule.
The same people who made those assumptions insisted that everyone needed to be kept abreast of all changes, and that project teams needed to be large, every stakeholder involved, etc. Because nobody could do their work in the office, the only way to communicate changes or decisions was at meetings (or in giant email changes that ended with “set up a meeting…).
And those same folks insisted that people with up to 15 projects(!) who couldn’t get their work done in the office were not managing their time properly. It wasn’t the fault of the schedulers, clearly, because quality people gave their hearts to the project.
Even staff assessments and promotions reflected a baseline assumption that the next pay grade up worked longer hours and accomplished more work. Junior staff were told, “If you want to prove you deserve a promotion, you need to step up and do the work that level requires. Once you’re doing it, you’ll get promoted. We want to encourage you to prove yourself.” That didn’t mean “get smarter”, it meant “work independently, work harder, run your own meetings, take on more projects”. In addition to scheduled work, we were expected to hit “stretch objectives”, projects that we took on with our own time, to prove that we were ready for the next level.
The result was not a finely-tuned development machine. It was an organization that got lots of work for free, and an office full of people who believed they had to hustle harder than the guy next to them or they’d never move up. Changing the culture was out of the reach of the front-line employees, who had little to no authority over the schedules or expectations of the project teams.
But if you had asked me in June of last year, I would have told you that of course this is how it works, how could it be any different?
In 2017, I changed organizations. I work in a place where the elevation schedule isn’t set a year in advance by people who don’t even know what the requirements are. Here, I average 1-2 meetings a day(!) and spend the rest of the time at my desk thinking through those meetings and producing quality designs. I don’t have to work late anymore. IT’S AMAZING. I’m not spending all my energy talking to people, so I have so much more energy to get my work done. I look forward to work in the morning. My designs are more cohesive and stronger because they’re designed in one to two sittings instead of sixteen 30-minute slices. My quality’s up, my speed’s up, my happiness is up. I don’t know how long it will last, but I hope it’s the way this culture maintains itself.
The average UX Designer I’ve met is an introvert. The average UX Designer got into design not because they like to facilitate meetings and discussions but because they like to diagram things and analyze data and draw systems and think really hard. Yet, the average UX Designer I know spends more time facilitating and talking and keeping people up to speed and planning than they do building and creating and designing. It’s exhausting to live meeting-to-meeting. It doesn’t have to be this way.
If this describes your organization, know that it can only be changed at the level of the folks who set the schedules — as a front-line worker, it’s not your fault. I’ll say that again for the folks in the back because I barely believed it myself — it’s not your fault!
If you are one of those folks who set the schedules, bad news: it is your fault. You’re responsible for the culture you set. You’re responsible for how that culture impacts your employees and you’re responsible for what you do about it when you discover the problem. Yes, velocity is a critical part of an organization’s success, and delivering faster and better is an admirable goal, but not if it comes the expense of quality, efficiency, and people’s health.
Design Managers, please, look at your staff’s workload. No one’s calendar should be more than half-full of meetings; if it is, the staff is exhausted and not getting their work done at work. They’re burning out. Even the extroverts are burning out. Then look at your own calendar, and repeat the analysis. You are so much more effective when you’re not fried by your workload and your staff work with you you better when you’re not exhausted.
Is it time to staff up? Cut workload? Shift schedules? Push back on a toxic culture to the best of your ability? The solutions are not easy, and let’s face it, you’re probably trying to find them while you’re exhausted, but they’re worth the effort.