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The benefits of uninterrupted focus time
Issue 4: How Onfido implemented focus time across our tech organization
I love productivity tools. I think part of having the mindset of a designer is that the tasks you have to perform to get a thing done, often feel sub-optimal or unnecessarily difficult or unclear. When a little app comes along and solves a little problem (especially one you have multiple times a day), it feels great to optimize those little annoyances out of your life. 3 seconds here, 25 seconds there, they all add up over time in ways you don’t often realize until you try to use a new machine that doesn’t have these apps installed.
Having said that, as much as I love these optimizations, I have to be honest that when it comes to actual productivity, they are a drop in the bucket when compared to having large chunks of uninterrupted focus time.
A modest proposal
In early 2020, Onfido’s VP of Design Mark Opland managed to get tech-wide (Product, Design, Engineering) buy-in for a focus time initiative. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning from the start of the day until lunch would be a block of dedicated focus time.
During this time, everyone on the team is given permission to decline meetings and do what they need to focus on work without interruption. If two people want to meet about something and are both OK with it, sure they're allowed. But no team meetings, recurring meetings, or anything that would put pressure on people to break that focus time.
Mark’s memo to the company summarized the problem well:
As we moved from the office to being a distributed workforce, we’ve taken all the bad habits we had from our office life into this new world of remote work. As bad as those habits were in an office, they are much more harmful now that we are not co-located.
An informal poll showed me that over 80% of my team do not have a block of two uninterrupted hours on their calendars on more than one day per week.
Think about that for a moment.
Our workdays are sliced into tiny, fleeting moments that we try to squeeze in between the meetings that dominate our lives at work. We have no opportunity to get into a state of flow in which countless studies have shown results in better outcomes.
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Implementation & reaction
We had a big calendar reset, and had a few weeks of trying to fit all the meetings we previously had into 20% less time. Initially it felt impossible. Managers often would be responsible for multiple teams, with grooming & planning sessions for each, retros, 1:1s with direct reports, stakeholder management, all-hands, and stand-ups. There was tension, but on the whole, people pushed back and stuck by the recommendations.
The result was that people started to ask, “Do we really need a meeting for that?”.
One of my teams switched to async stand-ups on slack twice a week. Another switched from SCRUM to Kanban, and grooming became ad-hoc as needed, and largely done in slack threads or smaller meetings with only the relevant people invited.
As a manager myself overseeing multiple teams, I (eventually) opted out of most standups, planning, and grooming sessions. In their place, I tried to empower my reports to lean in and take more responsibility within their teams for these meetings, and to nurture relationships with engineering and product peers that I'd previously lead before. Honestly this type of team empowerment is just good management practice in most contexts, but having a forcing function was a nice nudge in the right direction.
Challenges and pushback
Of course it's rare to find yourself in a company that will back this kind of initiative. It was done as part of an internal shift to remote-first working during the pandemic, to try and make that mode of working as successful as possible. I feel privileged to have experienced this without having to fight tooth and nail for it, and it has by far been the biggest single factor for improving my productivity week to week.
I asked Mark what the biggest challenge was in getting this approved, he said:
I got a LOT of pushback that five hours twice weekly was too much time. To start with one day. But sticking to two days proved to be the best decision I made.
Let's be honest with ourselves that nobody can 100% protect focus time - there is just too much competing for our attention. If we only had one block it would always be violated, which would mean it would not be useful and folks would just remove it.
Out of five hours set aside twice per week, if most people could get two to three hours uninterrupted on those days, that's a win.
After the pilot ran for a couple of months, a survey was conducted to see whether it was a success, and whether there were adjustments or improvements to be made.
When asked “How valuable are the focus blocks to you?”, 75% responded positively (rating it 4 or 5) and 14% negatively (1 or 2).
The vast majority also responded that they had more time to do their work, and that they were more effective in the work they were doing as a result.
It wasn’t all perfect though, many people responded that they didn’t have fewer meetings, so other days got busier as a result, and also the meetings they were having still weren’t the best use of time.
This caused a series of initiatives around improving meeting habits (written agendas and actions), encouragement of more async communication, whether through Loom-style videos or written documents.
So like anything, this is all still a work in progress, but nearly three years on, these two focus blocks remain in my calendar, and are where I get some of my best work done in the week.
Thanks so much to Mark Opland for pushing for this initiative, and contributing his thoughts and data to this piece.
Design Systems Manager/Consultant Amy Hupe has been participating in “National Blog Posting Month” (#NaBloPoMo), and has written a series of 22 pieces this month. I recommend Down with Dogma, Single Source of whatever, and the evergreen reminder that It’s OK.
The Atkinson Hyperlegible Font proves that things can be both beautiful & accessible. It’s a font designed for low-vision users to be able to differentiate characters easily, designed for the Braille Institute. You can read about its creation, download it directly or use it via Google Fonts.