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Balancing Communication and Uninterrupted Work

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A recent study referenced in Business Week, this week, suggests that 28% of the U.S. worker’s day is made up of interruptions. This is a net loss of $650 billion in lost productivity. As a design company that has completed more than 300 projects in three years we are obviously not big fans of interruptions. We’d like to believe we are a well oiled machine but we’ve definitely made our share of mistakes in the pursuit of productivity.

We are, however, huge fans of time saving, outsourcing and productivity methods. Books like the 4-Hour Work Week, The World Is Flat and The 80/20 principle are essential reads for any manager or entrepreneur in the 21st century. There is a flip side to reducing your day-to-day involvement in the operations of the business. Service companies don’t have the luxury of retreating into extreme remoteness.

Communication cannot be outsourced

Unless you’re running a drop-ship website operation you probably have a few other people working alongside you. You’ll need to communicate with these people and I’m sorry to tell you that email and IM just doesn’t cut it. In this era of outsourced and remote business your team mates might not be on your continent so email and IM are essential but face-time and real telephone conversations are still the best way to build real relationships. It doesn’t really matter how much technology there is, people are social animals. You cannot outsource your client or team communication.

Designers face the added challenge of having to communicate a complex set of ideas from client to team and back again. Firms generating over a few hundred thousand in revenues will have the additional challenge of working with several vendors.

Face-time is an economic advantage

We have done analysis on our closure rates on prospects. Clients that we meet with face to face are three times more likely to sign contracts with us than those we only ‘meet’ via email or phone. There are obvious other factors like location preferences and travel expenses but the results hold true for even for local clients that we just don’t get an opportunity to meet.

Local service companies like design firms have a distinct advantage over remote or outsourced companies. This might not be true of service companies like call centers but if Dell’s awful experience with Indian outsourced call centers is any indication I could be wrong. Customers of Dell were so turned off by the company’s call centers the company was in serious trouble for a while.

Good communication is more about content and less about context

I feel like most people confuse the desire to reduce interruptions with reducing communications. Meetings and interruptions are the enemy, not the desire to communicate. As my wife reminds me often, “remove content from context to get the real story”. Reducing meeting time is a great way to add more time to a businesses productivity time but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.

For months we used to have a bi-weekly scrum meeting that was a very short catch-up session with our team members based in Massachusetts, New York, Ottawa, and Iowa. The time was non-negotiable and attendance was strongly suggested. The meetings were helpful but often team members couldn’t keep the stringent schedule. Real life just got in the way and as the team grew it became a longer more frustrating event. The result was the meetings fell off the schedule. Losing the meetings felt okay at first but then we started to notice little things going wrong. Team members would miss out on subtle changes in client  work which would snowball into bigger issues.

We’ve learnt our lesson that there needs to be a balance between reducing interruptions and good old fashioned talking. We still don’t have more than one big internal meeting a week but anything more or less than that might not be optimal. It’s a constant exercise to experiment with what level of meetings or interruptions we can tolerate without losing our edge.

Author Richard Banfield

As CEO, Richard leads Fresh Tilled Soil’s strategic vision. He’s a mentor at TechStars and BluePrintHealth, an advisor and lecturer at the Boston Startup School, and serves on the executive committees of TEDxBoston, the AdClub’s Edge Conference, and Boston Regional Entrepreneurship Week.

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