During a rare visit to our offices, a customer was extremely surprised to find that literally everybody in the office was wearing headphones while doing their work. (Except for me, of course – that would have been rude.)
It also struck him that only a few desks were being used, and most of the others were empty. It was only when I told him why we work this way that it occurred to me that this isn’t how things are done in most other companies. So maybe it’s not such a bad idea to share this story with you on this blog.
There are three requirements for making good products: developers with the right skills, decent product management and ideal working conditions. The reason why so many of us wear headphones has to do with the last item on this list. As a software developer, the last thing you want is distraction: colleagues talking to each other, the sound of a coffee machine, a printer and so on. Distraction prevents you from getting “in the zone”, a state of mind in which you deliver your best work. Call it hyper-focused, if you like. Headphones help you to get there, not only because they allow you to listen to the music or other sounds that are right for you, but also because they block most acoustic input from the outside world. They also work as a “do not disturb” sign.
“But what about human contact and interaction?” is invariably the first question I get asked when I talk about this phenomenon. “Don’t developers need to have a chat with their co-workers from time to time? To talk about the weekend, football, the weather and of course to discuss the project they’re working on together?”
Of course, software development is a collaborative effort, but developers like to limit their interactions with other team members – in frequency, length and impact. That means they will only confer when it’s really necessary, and preferably with chat and video tools such as Zoom, Hangouts and Slack. This allows them to quickly handle their co-workers’ requests and slide back into the zone as soon as possible. An extra advantage of this way of communicating: everything is recorded in logs, so you can look up your colleague’s answer later if you happen to forget it.
Actually, the whole headphone discussion is part of a much bigger story, which I find a lot more interesting and important, and which may help you improve your business as well. One of the things I try to preach to most of our clients is the habit of working remotely. The main reason being that they are having a hard time finding good employees in their area, which can seriously slow down their growth.
But first, let me explain what I mean by working remotely. This does not necessarily mean working from offices in different locations. And it is definitely not about dividing the work so that, for instance, some of it goes to a team in Belgium and some to a team in India or so. What it really boils down to is that you have an office, or multiple offices, but you let the developers decide where they want to work. It may look very similar to the agile New Way of Working mindset, where you have the freedom to work from different places as well, but the underlying reason is different. In NWOW, the focus is purely on efficiency, on losing as little time as possible. Working remotely is more about the well-being of the developer and about the resulting quality of the work he or she delivers. It is a matter of mentality – call it company culture, if you like. Mind you, it is not as simple as it sounds. You need to do it as radically as possible –allowing everyone to work this way, not just the select few – and you need to communicate about it very clearly.
But believe me: working remotely is awesome for your productivity. Meetings are planned better, and there are no colleagues tapping you on the shoulder because they want to “have a word”. For us, this works very well, but most of our clients are – at first at least – very hesitant about switching to remote work. “It is probably great for your company, but it will not work for our organization,” is often the first reaction. The funny thing is that when you actually walk into their offices, you see everyone working with headphones, sending Slack messages to their co-workers. They are already in “remote mode”, because this feels very natural to them.
I have the feeling most people are afraid of going remote because they think they will lose control over their workforce. They want to be able to walk into their office and do a headcount to make sure everyone is working. I’m really surprised that even the founders of SaaS companies are still struggling with this. It basically boils down to a lack of trust in their people. I don’t need to know whether someone is in the office or not. I don’t need to know what time someone starts or stops working. At the end of the day, the most important thing is that the work is done.
I strongly believe that working remotely has helped us immensely to find and hire the employees we need, while many other companies are having a really hard time filling their vacancies. And by going fully remote, we can easily scale our engineering team.
If you would like to take advantage of remote work as well, I’d be happy to show you how it works in more detail. And guess what: we can do this remotely, through a conf call. And yes, we can even wear headphones…