How We Protect Our Team's Time

Director of Engineering
5 min read

The engineering team at Float is growing. When I joined as the Director of Engineering last year, we were a team of 12. As I write this, we are now 18 team members and counting (with a pair of new hires set to join us in the next month or so). It's exciting to see the team grow and new roles and ideas taking shape.

Much like the engineering team of any smaller product-led organization, we spend most of our time working on project work that supports and enhances a product that is used by thousands of satisfied customers across the world. We devote six weeks at a time to delivering major new features in Float to help ensure that we maintain the level of quality and value that our customers expect.

Respecting each engineer's time and giving them the space to do great work is critical in maintaining our team’s continued health and success and, ultimately, the success of Float itself. We embrace asynchronous communication to encourage our team to respond to messages and requests at their convenience, which allows them to devote large uninterrupted blocks of time to do their best work.

Of course, this isn't always easy! Let’s explore some of the approaches we're taking to protect engineering time while also recognizing that there are other important demands to balance.

Protecting time is a challenge we’re always ready to tackle

As teams grow, the volume of communication also expands—following a so-called square law—meaning that if the number of team members doubles, communication will quadruple.

Suppose that in a team of 10, each person spends an hour a day communicating with the rest of the team. Scaling up to a team of 20 would result in each person spending two hours a day communicating, and the time they devote to focused work would be reduced by around 14%. If the team size doubles once more to 40, each team member would now spend half their day communicating rather than producing! Of course, no team member will be talking to every other team member every day—there are natural groupings and batched communication.

However, that’s not the only challenge teams face trying to protect time.

Context switches are a risk

An arguably even bigger danger to a team’s time is context switches. These happen when you have to shift your brain from thinking about one thing to another. Context switching as an engineer is a very real problem (each shift may take minutes to hours to occur fully), particularly when going back to the deep work that engineers are generally striving to do.

Each time a person comes out of their focus bubble to respond to a message or to check Slack, some context is lost, and it takes time to regain it. Even if replying to a message takes less than a minute, the time lost might be closer to an hour, depending on how deep the person was in their bubble.

Minimizing the number of context switches is one of the critical challenges for remote teams. All the productivity advice in the world can't help you if you can't get sufficient time to concentrate on a task and be productive. Naturally, communication is an important way to share knowledge and context. But managing that communication flow to respect and protect time is key to retaining a productive and engaged engineering team.

Four ways we protect time at Float

1. Reduce the number of meetings

Our number one approach is to minimize meetings as much as possible. As a company, we make a big deal about this. We don't have meetings for the sake of having meetings, and if you look at a typical Float engineer's calendar, you'll see huge swathes of uninterrupted time.

This goes a long way to providing a reliable baseline for productivity.

2. Minimize disruption caused by meetings

We try to arrange the meetings we do have in such a way as to minimize disruption and context switching. Generally, this means scheduling meetings together and abutting a natural breakpoint (such as the beginning/end of the day or lunchtime). This approach leads to more productive meetings while keeping context switching at a minimum.

3. Focus on clear asynchronous communication

We reduce the need for meetings by being deliberate about writing clear and accurate documentation and status updates. If we can provide information for others before they know they need it, there is no need for a flurry of communication to get that information to them promptly.

4. Encourage flexibility

We actively encourage our team to use the flexibility that remote asynchronous working provides to find the routine that best fits their schedule. We can't always plan for distractions at home or where we're working, but we can seek to minimize them.

For example, working earlier in the day when others are asleep to be productive and provide quality time with one's family. We call this approach finding our best work life.

Working asynchronously is a huge boon and makes many of these approaches possible in the first place. If you're available 24/7 for someone to tap on your shoulder (either physically or virtually), then there's always a risk of distraction. By setting things like Slack notifications to specific hours of the day, we can be confident that our team can focus while still being available in case of an emergency.

We’re always improving

By no means is our approach perfect, and we're always looking for ways to improve. For example, we recently recognized that responding to newly reported customer issues takes up a lot of our engineers' time during the day. Based on the volume of tickets coming in and a conservative estimate of one hour per engineer per issue, some engineers are spending up to half their day troubleshooting these issues alone!

To spread that load around, share knowledge, and provide a more predictable schedule, we have implemented a rotating schedule of on-call for customer issues that allows us to remain responsive as a team while respecting each person's time. When you are the point person for customer issues, you can use that day to investigate, (potentially) fix, and generally work in the area of customer satisfaction without fear of falling behind on other work.

It's early days still in this experiment (only four weeks in!), but so far, the feedback has been promising from both the engineering and customer success teams.

It's about reducing distraction, not eliminating communication

Figuratively speaking, time is money. Protecting your team's time enables them to be more focused and productive, which results in deeper understanding and better solutions. Those things lead to happier customers and a more successful company that can continue improving and growing in a virtuous cycle.

Be mindful of what your team is spending their time doing. Provide them the flexibility to manage their schedules (as much as possible) and reduce or eliminate sources of interruption and distraction. Humans are social creatures, so I would never advocate eliminating meetings and social connections altogether. However, with a healthy dose of skepticism, see what you can do to move more of your day-to-day communication as a team over to something more asynchronous and engaging than email alone (e.g., Slack or short Loom videos).

Use your imagination and experiment. Above all, ask your team what works for them—and what doesn't—and do more of the latter so your team can start living their best work life.

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