Makers make time to make

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In September 2017, the Growth Street engineering team made a simple change to working hours to boost our effectiveness. Nine months later, our productivity has increased and our engineers say they feel more fulfilled at work. Other teams in the company have now made the same change, and are seeing the benefit.

So what did we change? We decided to eliminate all meetings before 1pm Monday to Friday, to give our talented people long periods without interruption. Now, our engineers start work each morning with several hours dedicated to doing what he or she likes to do best: that is, build technology they feel proud of. We call this time ‘Maker Time’.

Growth Street engineers are not only programmers. We are also at different times analysts, designers, interviewers, writers, trainers, trouble-shooters and innovators. We value an empowering working culture where people can contribute in varied ways. We also recognise the potential for interruption to our work that goes with being part of a vibrant and ambitious company. Maker Time helps us work smarter by encouraging us to use our mental energy for the greatest benefit. Now, we get good engineering work done and still have time for other things.

"You can't write or program well in units of an hour. That's barely enough time to get started."

Paul Graham

Maker Time is inspired by an article by Paul Graham called Maker's Schedule - Manager's Schedule . The article describes the different working schedules needed for creative thinking and management work. It describes how unpopular and unhelpful meetings can be for people who do creative thinking such as programming and writing. This is because creative thinking involves building mental context in short term memory. Building that context takes time and energy, and even a simple distraction can cause that mental context to disintegrate. Rebuilding it after an interruption takes up more time and uses more energy.

How does Maker Time work at Growth Street? Every day until 1pm our teams have interruption-free time to focus on their engineering tasks. We choose the mornings for this because the first hours of the day are best for fresh heads before changes in brain chemistry start to cause fatigue. Early starters get the most Maker Time each day, but those on a later body clock rhythm also benefit by starting their day with several hours of focus which is often then sustained throughout the day.

Our teams use Scrum and run a typical daily stand-up meeting. We moved our daily stand-up from 9:30am to 2pm. Running stand-ups at 2pm means that we avoid breaking Maker Time in the morning, but neatly slots in immediately after lunch. The rest of the afternoon is then potentially available for more interruption-free work if meetings aren't needed.

Everyone organises their Maker Time to suit themselves. Some use Pomodoro Technique, while others work in longer or shorter stretches depending on what they are doing. We try to stay flexible in other ways too - team members often choose to huddle or pair up in Maker Time to make sure the right work is getting done. The net result is focus, but in an energised and productive atmosphere.

Sounds easy? Maker Time can be really easy, but there are some challenges. Managers need to support and respect Maker Time, thinking carefully about the timing of meetings; meanwhile, when necessary, engineers must be prepared to make exceptions. An example is that once a fortnight on a thursday, we sacrifice Maker Time to plan the next sprint of work. By making time to properly understand requirements and scope solutions, we can reduce the distraction caused by ambiguity later in the sprint. We think this is a worthwhile trade-off.

We also make sure there is support for urgent customer-impacting problems. When they occur, these are a priority. Problems are routed only to the engineer on support duty. Support duty rotates every two days and everybody takes their turn, leaving the other engineers free for Maker Time.

Along the way, we have developed better routines for switching off notifications and closing the apps we don't need. Internal messaging and email are sources of interruption and distraction, but now they affect us less than before we adopted Maker Time.

After nine months using Maker Time, 74% of our engineers say they achieve an average of 3 or 4 hours of uninterrupted working time before lunch every day. That's a superb result. We're working smarter on the right things, and taking the opportunity to contribute to company life in other ways. Maker Time has transformed our effectiveness and sense of fulfilment at work. It has become the most important part of our daily routine.

Written on in Product