Human Observability and Work-Life Balance

The world has shifted to a digital-first, contactless, remote operating environment and disrupted our dominant working modes. This shift has forced us to overhaul our current execution, communication, and collaboration methods while adapting to a hybrid work environment. It has translated into long hours of remote working, video conferences, an overabundance of communication, and a drastic increase in meetings.

Video conferencing fatigue is real and, combined with the need to maintain comparable productivity, introduces considerable stress to the workforce. We must adapt to better ways of working if we aspire for a good work-life balance. Lean experimentation and observability are two impactful strategies that we can utilize for success in this area.

Why Do We Need Observability?

Observability is a term from control theory and measures how well the internal states of a system can be inferred by knowledge of its external outputs (Wikipedia). A human is a very complex and adaptive feedback control system that has been exposed to unpredictable and dynamic external conditions, sometimes almost overnight. Therefore, observability is what we need to adapt, now that the environmental complexity around us is surpassing our ability to predict when the world will reach a semblance of stability with a reasonable level of confidence. Observability helps us develop instrumentation necessary for gathering information related to the lean experiments that our human control system has built in terms of controls and feedback loops essential to reach equilibrium.

Finding a Balance Between Work and Life

One of the most significant impacts of switching to a 100% remote working environment has been the overnight obliteration of a distinctive line between professional and personal lives for most of our workforce. What we are going through is existence at home, and this experience has been stressful to many.

Another phenomenon is the uptick in the number of meetings. With everyone confined to their homes, extrinsic factors such as driving to client locations, lunch breaks, or walking from one conference room to the next,  have disappeared. Instead, we now hop from one video conference link to the next, with barely enough time to take a break or to relax – physically or mentally. Gone are the simpler days when people had to work with conference room conflicts; with video conferencing, the barrier to entry is extremely low, especially with unique links with randomized passwords available at the click of a button. 

This sudden increase in meetings has an unfortunate consequence in terms of working hours. While we are still figuring out remote execution and collaboration, throughput projections and productivity expectations have not been recalibrated to factor for remote work, forcing people to work longer hours. This has resulted in widespread degradation of work-life balance, increased stress levels, and lower happiness in the workforce.

How to Get Back Our ‘Joie de Vivre’ (Enjoyment of Life)?

Humanity is resilient and highly adaptive. The adversity we face will drive us to discover better and optimal working methods and elevate our productivity, self-actualization, and overall happiness. Here are a couple of activities that we can introduce for observability to help us in our productivity experiments:

Plan Your Week

Trello Board showing a prioritized backlog and cards in flight

Agile teams understand the value and benefit of a visible and prioritized backlog. These have been predominantly limited to work in the past, but we can also extend these principles to our personal lives.

Here is an example using Trello for planning, as it is simple and accessible on many devices, but you can use any tool of your liking. Tools like Trello allow users to receive that dopamine hit when they move a card from the Doing column to the Done column. The goal is to keep it simple and provide necessary information with visual cues. While it might be tempting at first, try not to invest in a project-planning tool, as that might be overkill. After all, life is a roadmap, not a project (think of the motto: “Life’s a journey”).

The setup:

  • IceBox contains all the tasks that you want to accomplish (backlog)
  •  Use color codes for your cards. Green = Work, Blue = Personal, Orange = Social (blogging, keynotes, conferences, white papers, etc.).
  •  Focus for the week is your prioritized backlog for the week. It gives you visibility into what you will achieve in this iteration (value generated).
  • Today’s To-Dos give you a sense of how your day should pan out.

How it works:

  • At the beginning of the week (preferably Sunday evening), prioritize the backlog for the week.
  •  Every day, review what work you need to perform for the day and move it into the Today’s To-Do’s column.
  •  When you start a task, move it to the Doing column.
  •  Each time you complete a task, add a small comment about what you accomplished or what value you added and move it to the Done column.
  •  Make sure that you have a good balance of color in your completed cards at the end of the day.

Limit Work In Progress (WIP)

This principle comes from Lean and Kanban, and it is essential to ensure that we are not switching context frequently or stressing ourselves. Ideally, we want to have 3–5 cards or tasks (work + personal + social) in progress.

During your lunch break or the middle of the day, take a step back to review and introspect about how your day has been going so far. This activity allows you to assess whether you have to pivot or readjust your efforts in the second half of the day to accomplish your tasks or even pause activities if they are not that valuable.

Track Meetings and Their Value

There has been a proliferation of meetings since we had social distancing and shelter-in-place measures, and the signal-to-noise ratio has degraded considerably.

When setting up meetings, follow these steps consistently:

  • Have a clear title for the purpose/objective of the meeting (‘Touch base’ or ‘Catch up’ are not titles)
  • Have a concrete list of the outcomes expected from this meeting (bullets, not sentences)
  • Make sure that I have the right audience. The people needed for making the appropriate decisions are required attendees. I try to refrain from having optional attendees unless I feel that the meeting might need their expertise to help us achieve our outcomes.

A meeting that does not have a clear purpose or outcomes ends up being a support forum

Assessing a meeting’s value becomes more critical when one gets double or triple booked and has to choose the meeting to attend. Prioritization can be made based on expected outcomes and the role one plays in the meeting. I have enabled my teams to decline meetings if a clear purpose and expected outcomes are not included in the calendar invite, and that has served us well in prioritizing and improving meeting quality, 

Use color codes to provide visual cues on meeting expectations. For instance, use a bright blue color for a meeting that requires you to make a decision or drive to an outcome. Use green for meetings that require problem-solving and yellow for issue resolution (The Six Thinking Hats approach is compelling in prepping you for your meetings). 

Try to limit daily meeting time to no more than 40% of the workday (roughly 3 hours). Have appropriate discussions with teams or meeting owners to explore asynchronous approaches such as polls, collaboration channels (Slack, Teams, Hangouts), or roman votes.

Measure Your Work-Life Balance

At the end of each day, assess your accomplishments, learn from any unfinished cards, and adapt as needed for the next day. A retrospective of the week will provide additional learning. Share your board with your family and have them populate chores or tasks assigned to you. Review your work-life balance with your loved ones and embrace their feedback and insights. Make it a fun family activity that signals the psychological end of the week. 

Summary

As we grapple with evolving and maintaining productivity in this hybrid work environment, we must ensure a good work-life balance to reduce stress levels and prevent burnout. Asynchronous collaboration and communication are key components for a hybrid workforce. Observability is, therefore, crucial in this period of experimentation to provide rich input to feedback loops that our human control system is looking for as we evolve and grow as humans.

Note: Additional approaches to maximize team agility in this digital-first, contactless world are available here.

Author

  • Dr. Gautham Pallapa

    Dr. Gautham Pallapa is an Executive Advisor for VMware. He works with C-Suite and executives at Global 2000 enterprise customers in transforming their strategy, processes, technologies, culture, and people to achieve their objectives and business outcomes. His mantra is "Transform with Empathy" and has successfully led several business transformations and cloud modernization efforts in various industry verticals. Gautham is an agile coach, a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, a SAFe Agilist, and an Ambassador for the DevOps Institute. He writes/talks/works on transformation, elevating humans, helping underprivileged people, and giving back to the community. Gautham was awarded the 2018 Tech leader of the year by AIM for his contributions. He has an upcoming book called "Leading with Empathy" which explores these topics in detail.

Dr. Gautham Pallapa

Dr. Gautham Pallapa is an Executive Advisor for VMware. He works with C-Suite and executives at Global 2000 enterprise customers in transforming their strategy, processes, technologies, culture, and people to achieve their objectives and business outcomes. His mantra is "Transform with Empathy" and has successfully led several business transformations and cloud modernization efforts in various industry verticals. Gautham is an agile coach, a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt, a SAFe Agilist, and an Ambassador for the DevOps Institute. He writes/talks/works on transformation, elevating humans, helping underprivileged people, and giving back to the community. Gautham was awarded the 2018 Tech leader of the year by AIM for his contributions. He has an upcoming book called "Leading with Empathy" which explores these topics in detail.