Distributed Management and Work-Life Integration

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This was posted on my office wall recently…
Dilbert.com

It brought home what the last decade of international teams and ubiquitous business email access has achieved for many of us software professionals.

Since the late 1990’s I’ve worked in globally distributed or virtual teams. There’s a huge amount of positive things to be said about the working experiences I’ve had with these teams over the years.

  • My cultural boundaries have stretched
  • I’ve had opportunities to work with great people all over the world
  • I’ve learned a mountain of cool stuff
  • I’ve met hundreds of new friends
  • I’ve visited amazing places
  • and…

  • I’ve left my family at home most of the time.

Sadly small children and transcontinental business trips don’t really mix. My family have been incredibly tolerant and I always look to bring something back for them. They have a pretty tough ride but they support what I do and I appreciate their patience.

However…

With teams in the UK, India and the US there’s almost always a full working day of support, conversations and questions that happen outside the normal working timezone. As the pressure to deliver and support these teams has increased I find myself checking my work mail when I should be attending my family.

I recently reached the point where I was clearing my emails down during public holidays so that I could filter through and achieve something when I got in the following working day.

I check my email during breakfast at 6 or 7am and reply to things that came in during the US evening or India morning.

I commute to work and check my mail again to find another series of mails from India and a few UK early starters.

I check my mail when I get home from work to respond to anything urgent that came in during my commute.

I check my mail before bed in case there’s anything new that will derail my plans and priorities for the following day or that I can respond to before the US working day is over and 24 hours are lost on a decision.

(I also occasionally make time to write this blog, enjoy my family, study and maintain the house)

If I don’t clear my morning and evening international backlog my day job doesn’t have time & space to get done but this is all at the expense of other parts of life.

So how do I get things back under control?

WIP Limit vs Buffer Overrun

Here’s where Scrum, Lean & Kanban meet personal time management…

Set yourself a WIP limit. When that’s full, decide what doesn’t happen or has to be traded out. If you don’t make a decision, something will fall on the floor and chances are you’ll have a pile of half-done stuff. (a buffer overrun).

Build a visible backlog and keep it groomed. When new work comes in, prioritize and size it. (Take a look at the Covey Matrix as a powerful means of prioritizing). If I don’t have clear visibility to my backlog of work (not just my email inbox) then once again my mental buffer overruns and things fall on the floor.

This is where my problems are – relying on my mental buffer and inbox to be my primary and secondary backlogs!

Determine how big your backlog should be and whether it should be tiered (e.g. week, month, quarter). Just like a mature agile team, don’t build a backlog that’s bigger than your planning (or thinking and coping) horizon. If it’s important it’ll come back when you have the capacity.

Next, just like your agile projects, get your backlog visible. When new work comes in, take your stakeholders to the backlog and have a prioritization and trading out conversation.

Some things will have time deadlines and some of these you can’t avoid so what else has to give? If you have more items with time deadlines than you can cover, take your stakeholders back to your backlog and force the prioritization discussion again.

I recommend pipelining work into “emergencies“, “small“, and “not-small“. This is enough to provide an interesting mental mix but aim to limit multi-tasking to a maximum of one item in each area. (Clarke Ching has some fantastic insights and demonstrations on why multitasking is evil).

It’s also worth rewarding yourself. You’ll find items that fall in the “distraction” quadrant of the Covey matrix are often where some rewards lay hiding. Identify a few interesting, fun things and make sure they get some airtime in with all the priorities to pay off some of your priority fatigue.

Simple right?

OK, this won’t break the email addiction but it will help manage the personal backlog and priorities more effectively.

When it’s personal rather than a project this seems so much harder.  With all that time teaching teams to trade out and prioritize, it’s time I started to eat my own dog-food.

Epilogue: This article has been waiting in my backlog for a couple of weeks to be rounded off before publishing. Yesterday the manager I’m pairing with planted a large kanban board by my desk with a list of the top priority management goals and activities that we have on our planning horizon right now down the left hand side and the associated tasks and states all prepped up! It’s not our entire backlog but it’s well more than we can achieve in the next 2 weeks and covers all the known top priority things.

Now it’s time to start managing the load properly again.

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