How I Want to Work

I’ve had a chance to interview a few new hires at NewsGator recently. I always tell them that three things predict success for an employee at NewsGator:

  1. You love to learn
  2. You work hard
  3. You care

I suppose this is true at any company, but it seems to be particularly important here. I’ve always felt good about my ability to work at NewsGator because those three things feel really natural for me.

But this week, I’ve been thinking about how I want to work. Reading through Brad Feld’s post on why his smartphone is not working for him finally pushed me to the point to write this blog post. I think Brad’s post is correct, but I think it’s a symptom of a bigger problem. We have too much signal in our lives and technology falls short of what we need to work effectively.

At any given moment, we all have too many choices. We can work on a bigger task like writing a document if we feel we have a big enough window of time. We can work on a smaller task like updating the status of a project. We can try to take in information. We can look at new requests and attempt to deal with them. Because smartphones have become more powerful, we can do nearly all of these things from our phone. So that just means that the pressure of these choices stays with us for more of the day.

The result is that every person is forced to come up with their own strategy and develop their own habits to try to make the right choices. And every person bears the pressure of correctly following their strategy and adjusting it to the changing conditions in their world. It’s no wonder that some people long for the “simpler days” where you worked in the field when there was sunlight because you couldn’t plant crops in the dark.

Before I can describe a possible system for how I want to work, I need to understand a few things about what drives me. I know, for example, that I can’t do the same thing all day every day. In fact, I need some change within the day. I love to learn, but I also have a very strong need to see things getting done. I like helping people, but I also need time to myself. Creative, thoughtful activity is what energizes me – most other activity consumes energy. On top of all this, I imagine there are other motivators and de-motivators for me which I don’t recognize at a conscious level.

OK – so can I really expect software to take responsibility for all this – even for stuff I don’t know about? Yes… eventually. The reality is that a very large amount of my work happens through computers. My calendar knows what my day is like. My main priorities for the short term are quite clear. I think my “control center” should be able to look at these inputs, incoming emails, and the items passing through my activity stream and help me out. If my control center sees that I’m already booked for three meetings in one day, then I think it would be cool if it proactively booked some time on my calendar to let me catch up and recharge. If my control center knows that I’m nearing the deadline on a big project, maybe it could not only block out some time, but it could also create a nice status update and an auto-email response that allows people to see that I’ll be slower getting back to them. And, it would be very cool if my control center would do more to prioritize those items that may be getting backlogged while I’m doing a more time-consuming task. In the best case scenario, the control system understands the broader implications for my team and my company. So if I’m effectively “offline” for some kind of work, it could help balance out the load by directing some things to others automatically.

To create a system that’s making all these kinds of choices, a lot of data needs to be collected. From that, it’s possible the system will start learning things about me and my co-workers that we couldn’t express as conscious preferences. If I stayed up late last night trying to get a project done, maybe the system will help me find a few easily-accomplished but important tasks to help me get going today. Perhaps, it could even gently remind me that I’ve been working on this blog post for longer than I planned and that I need to get back to a couple of emails that look like they are urgent.

For software to be truly “social,” it needs to understand humans – both individually and in groups. To me, the possible pay off from this is that it will simultaneously make me happier and productive. Brad is trying to figure out what can work based on trying some experiments, but my guess is that almost every strategy will produce some significant shortcoming because the software won’t help him enough. But I do think that software can make a huge impact here. At the end of the day, I think basically everyone wants to work and contribute. So I’m excited to see software progress toward letting us work how we want to work.

How do you want software to help you work the way you want to?


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