Sunday, June 18, 2006

Daily Hassles

I've been tracking my time, in part because we were asked to (for budgeting better on the next release cycle) and in part because I just love the data-centered view of the world. Buried in the details of everyday life, we don't see the big picture, and this kind of time tracking exercise helps. (God forbid I do it for my non-work life, that would provide a level of big picture insight I don't feel prepared for right now.)

A while ago there was a small kerfuffle on the 37signals blog about the uselessness of meetings -- the gist of the post from the ballsy, tiny small startup was "meetings are a waste of time, just get down to doing the work." This caused the usual response from the less big-mouthed, possibly more mature crowd of readers with experience at larger companies or on more software teams: "Not all meetings are a waste of time, and maybe you guys are a special case in some ways." I was one of the readers who was irritable, because I genuinely believe that without meeting-time, we can't produce coordinated design work on complex products and we can waste a huge amount of time in email (delaying critical work) and acting on poor or poorly understood information. Project risk increases without meetings as a forum to be sure everyone understands what's going on and what's next.

That said, I do believe there are inefficient meetings, and teams that revisit decisions made in meetings undermine meeting usefulness; and meetings that go badly have the ability to damage relationships and project work as much as they could have improved things and made projects more likely to be successful. To add to the list of my many opinions on this topic, meetings are a place -- sometimes the only place, which is worrying in itself -- for necessary social chitchat interactions (on the meeting margins) as much as for making project progess, and folks who don't care about that aspect of face-time are more likely to have meetings that go bad and cause project damage.

But I went off and did some research on the topic of meetings and stress and found this article: Meetings and More Meetings: The Relationship Between Meeting Load and the Daily Well-Being of Employees (pdf, Luong and Rogelberg).

Defined in the stress research literature as “annoying episodes in which daily tasks become more difficult or demanding than anticipated,” hassles have been found to predict stress symptoms better than most other predictor variables (Zohar, 1999, p. 265). Varying from equipment malfunction to inappropriate behavior of coworkers (Zohar, 1999), such obstacles predict an array of stress-related effects, including burnout (Zohar, 1997), anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions (Koch, Tung, Gmelch, & Swent, 1982; Motowidlo, Packard, & Manning, 1986).

More or less, one of the article's findings is that meetings annoy people because they aren't seem as a goal in themselves, they're a necessary evil that's often, in poor cultures, really evil in practice. They are seen as hassles, instead of work in themselves.

Digression: I remember a friend, on moving from engineering management in which he still wrote code to higher level strategic management, having the realization that meetings weren't getting in the way of work, but instead, "Meetings ARE my job now!" I also remember a developer at Adobe realizing that the number of meetings my UI colleague and I had to have with his project team to move that design forward were the tip of the iceberg in our lives; you effectively multiplied those meetings times the number of projects we were assigned to, to reach the total of some ridiculous number of meetings we were responsible for calling, preparing for, and documenting afterwards in order to produce specs, which was our perceived "real" job. We were always borderline psycho, of course, in a constant state of frenzied stress, prone to freaking out if a pen ran out mid-use or the video conference system needed rebooting and we lost 10 minutes of meeting time.

But back to the above quote. Say meetings are a necessary evil, and viewed in a better light, a significant part of work in themselves rather than a blockage to doing "real work." Then, maybe the other hassles in our workday that are genuinely just hassles rather than misunderstood work might be "fixable." Like the bad pens and video systems.

In one of my favorite books, Management of the Absurd, Farson cites Maslow on the hierarchy of grumbles in organizations. The gist is that people always complain -- it's a human fact -- but the category of complaints is significant. Grumbles about equipment, the "hassles" of the above quote, are the most worrying, because they mean that low-level needs aren't even being taken care of. Hassles that interfere with the "real" work add significant stress, and are invisible to many managers. These could be the equivalent of the food and safety level of office needs. (Admittedly, the threat of arbitrary job loss is something that's a bit more "safety" related and counts as more than a "hassle." So my parallel may not be entirely fair here...)

Farson says that a better company will have people complaining about higher order issues like the source of credit for work, whether there is truth and justice in the office, about the opportunity for creativity and self-expression on the job.

Everyone is working at capacity these days, it seems. But folks who are most stressed may be stressed because of too many daily little hassles. I'd put on the hassle list the inability to schedule a meeting room, or frequently-used intranet software that fails 50% of the time because of a server issue that hasn't been taken care of. People who are already working at capacity are especially prone to not coping well with the little hassles -- but they are actually a lot more fixable than the higher order issues people face at higher order companies. So I guess there's some good news if you go looking deeper at the sources of workplace stress.

(Here's another citation from Zohar's work on work stressors: "When things go wrong: The effect of daily work hassles on effort, exertion and negative mood" (pdf).)

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