Monday, May 20, 2013

Mr. Manager, if you think tea-breaks are a waste of time, you don't understand Productivity

A low intensity siren wails every afternoon at 2.30 PM at a factory near where I live.  I didn't know why, until, out of curiosity,  I asked the watchman of the factory one day.  It was supposed to be a break time of 10 minutes.  The workers could have quick tea, snacks, smokes or just relax for 10 minutes.  Not a long enough time in my opinion.  Further, I learnt that the factory was a scrap steel plant and all work was manual.  The laborers toiled hard for 9 hours a day, with a twenty minute lunch break and a 10 minute tea break.

This made me feel grateful of how lucky I am.  I can have a break at any time, and mostly quite a long one; this is in addition to an hour long lunch break.  Perhaps, this is a privilege of knowledge workers.  Although, along with gratitude, I also feel remorse for some of the IT companies and even some of the teams in my place of employment, where breaks were monitored, and sometimes even frowned upon.  I almost cringe at such attitude.  A company for which I have promised myself I will never work with, tracks employees based on how long they are logged in to their machines!  This is not a call center, you fools!

Now that I am over the burst of emotion, I can try and analyze the situation objectively.  What are managers actually scared of?  That his/her subordinates are slacking off? 
Software engineering is an extremely creative and brain intensive task.  Working 12 hours a day programming will only result in poor code and lots of defects later.  This is like studying, because everything we, the programmers do, is something no one has ever done before; it's a whole new thing we are creating.

Productivity science says that in case of tasks requiring the use of intelligence, a longer than bearable period of focus is actually harmful, both to the task at hand and the person doing it.  A break gives the nerves some time to stretch, relax and consolidate ideas and information.  It happens asynchronously.  I have seen many of the tough problems I face being solved during tea breaks or in the solitude of toilet.  It actually happens!  But our managers, whose sole duty is to calculate productivity in terms of person hours, don't understand this.  They pull up employees in meetings for taking breaks.  I have seen this in my humble work experience.  "You are not here to take breaks, but to work", yelled a manager once.  "This is not a labor job.  So my productivity is not a function of time", I responded.  He was irked because he didn't get it.

So Mr. Manager, this is not a FoxConn factory floor where if I put 14 straight hours I will produce more iPhones than others.  This is a place where I create things from my mind, and my mind is not a factory belt.  The person hours in excel sheet includes the term 'person'.  So please go read some productivity lessons and treat intellectual tasks accordingly.

Mr. Manager, if you think tea-breaks are a waste of time, you don't understand Productivity.

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