OFF-time: A pragmatic solution to leaving each other alone

37signals preaches staying away from your employees. Google’s well-known for their 20% rule (allowing engineers a day a week to work on their own projects). Companies that want to thrive, not just survive, need ways of allowing that to actually happen.

We’ve found (not shockingly), that we’re far more productive when we take the occasional day to work from home. Perhaps it’s simply extracting yourself from the nagging feeling that there’s a client call looming, or someone needs help on something right now. But, the reality is, we also serve clients that sometimes need lots of attention, and sometimes we need lots of attention ourselves.

Welcome, OFF-time
A few months back, I instated OFF-time. It’s a way of mimicing the “get-outta-my-face-and-just-let-me-work” rules that other companies implement, without much compromising to our client’s needs (a.k.a. calls, emails, and general attentiveness). Here’s how it works:

We have 2 hour shifts of OFF-time for each developer, every day. Here are the 5 commandments of OFF-time:

  • No emails need to be answered.
  • No meetings. You are unavailable during this time.
  • No phone calls.
  • No co-worker IMs you.
  • No co-worker talks to you.

During OFF-time, you place a white flag on your desk. If you’re at home, then you just put your away status on AIM. After 2 hour’s off, you check your email, your phone calls and generally come back to the world. Then, proceed as normal. The golden rule is simple: Just don’t bug the next person on OFF time.

It would be great to have company-wide off time, but it’s unreasonable. It means WAM essentially shuts down from any client or internal communication for two hours. It’s a hard feat given we are still primarily a client-oriented business. Instead, we set up three staggered shifts. They look something like this:

  • Shift 1: 10am-noon daily – Ka Wai, Michael
  • Shift 2: 2pm-4pm daily – Anthony, Mustafa
  • Shift 3: 4pm-6pm daily – Tom, Craig

Because shifts are staggered, only one or two people are off at any time. So, the company doesn’t just shut down. We are, for the most part, available.

Someone else can help you
Another key is pairing up different roles for each OFF-time shift. I tend to work closest with Mustafa, Tom with Mike, and Anthony with Craig. So, we don’t share the same OFF-time. That means, if there’s an urgent issue, a natural counterpart is available to discuss it. If Craig has a question for me at 11:30am, he goes to Mustafa. If I have one for Tom at 4:30pm, I can ask Mike.

Interruption as a last resort
And, as Craig just mentioned yesterday, it also makes you think twice about interrupting someone. Is this something you can solve with a little research? Interruption is becoming a last resort.

OFF-time gives each of us 10 hours of interruption-free time a week, with almost little disruption to our availability to clients and ourselves. I’d love to know if anyone has a similar process in place.