Sunday, 26 August 2012


What makes a great work environment?

I've had a lot of time to think about this one over the years, mostly when working in cramped, overcrowded, smelly, noisy, unsafe or otherwise distasteful locales.

I always used to think it would be in a context of setting up my own team in a new office.  Now that I've gone Indie, that's still true, but it's a team of one.


The most critical element in the work environment is space.  You need enough space to have all your working equipment easily accessible.  I like to have everything already plugged in and ready to go, but switched off at the wall.  And don't forget to move around and stay active, so I've setup a typing station, a coffee station, a thinking station, a reading station, a print/scan/copy station, an audio recording station etc, etc,  each already prepared for a particular type of activity.

If you're a fan of John Cleese, you'll know that low ceilings encourage closed thinking modes, and high ceilings facilitate open thinking modes.  Factor that in the next time you book a meeting room for a brainstorming session (high ceiling) or triage session (low ceiling).


How many times have you heard, "It's done when it's done!"

For many creative tasks, you can estimate how long something will take, but not very accurately.  I find it useful to work in blocks of around ~2 hours. I pick a task I think will take an hour to do, and work on it, until it's done.  If there's still 2 hours left before the next planned disruption, I'll pick another ~1 hour task, and work on that.

It's crucial to finish every day with a win.  Ernest Hemmingway says it much better than I ever could:

"The best way is always to stop when you are going good and when you know what will happen next. If you do that every day … you will never be stuck. "

Some employers believe in billing for hours worked, and still others believe in crunch.  If you're in a creative industry and you're being micro-managed like that, and want to have a career rather than a burn-out,  I strongly recommend considering your options.


The day doesn't stop when you walk out of your office.  You still need to get home (or to the gym, or to the pool, etc)  How much is that commute costing you in terms of money, time and stress?  Is the parking lot safe? Can you even find a park when you need to? Can you commute when it's raining/snowing without getting wet?

Working from home is great, but be sure to separate work from home with a doorway or even a staircase.

If you're forced to reuse equipment, then create separate user accounts, facebook accounts, email accounts etc, and be sure to log in and out every time you transition from home to work and vice versa.

If you're a real digital nomad, why not setup separate home and work environments on different USB sticks using portable apps?


There's a lot of literature about setting up your chair, desk, keyboard, monitor for comfort and usability.  It really does make a difference.  If you're still a skeptic (like I was up until recently), just try it for a week.  If you don't see an improvement, you can always go back to your old bad habits.

...And don't be shy, help out a neighbor.  If you see a colleague struggling with RSI, or squeezed in to the wrong sized chair, bring it up, maybe it's something you can help with.


Headphones are not enough.  You need a reasonably quiet, connected space.  We humans are social animals, so complete silence can be too isolating.  We need to feel connected with our colleagues, and with the wider environment too, but not distracted from the task at hand.

Oh, and a pet-peeve of mine, a place to take private phone calls.  I hate reciting credit card numbers in a hallway frequented by programmers with eidetic memories.

What else?

What makes your work environment great?  How could it be even better?

Friday, 3 August 2012

Status: Blocked

I'm blocked.

It's not writer's block. It's a different kind of blocked, one that's considerably harder to unblock.

Efficiency and Effectiveness

When measuring (or estimating) the output of a team, it's sometimes convenient to look at two different axes:

  • Efficiency - How much work/effort/resources are expended to produce a given amount of output. 
  • Effectiveness - How much output is produced in a given amount of calendar time.

Our natural instinct is to try and optimize efficiency, trying to reduce the cost.  Or alternatively, increasing output for the same amount of fixed cost.

I'm not sure this is the best strategy when it comes to video games. The market moves so fast, I think it makes more sense to push for more effectiveness - maximizing the output per unit of calender time, while staying within our cost constraints.

Diurnal Cycles

I find that at different times of the day, I'm better at certain types of tasks. Sometimes more analytical, other times more integrative. Sometimes more strategic. Some times of the day are better suited to striking new ground, and others are better for polishing and evaluating existing work.

With this in mind, I keep a number of different lists, each based around a type of work. For example, when I have all the microphones and speakers setup to do audio work, I want to get as much done as possible (efficiency), but I also want to make progress on my current goals (effectiveness).

Keeping these in balance is essential, and I allocate up to 20% of my time just in planning and co-ordination to ensure that I'm working on the right things at the right time.


But the problem I'm facing right now is a shortage of time. I'm currently in the process of moving home from one continent to another, so I'm averaging maybe 10-30 minutes per day for productive work. Compounding this, most of my equipment is in transit and won't be available until late August.

Sharpening the Tools

So what do you work on, when you can't make progress on your goal?

You sharpen your tools – get the latest versions of your software, defrag the hard drive, verify your backup procedures are working. All the things you won't have time to do later.

I know a lot of my friends out there in corporate land are currently caught between changing requirements, and now is your opportunity to do the same thing too. Sure you could sit around and play video games all day, but maybe now is the time to finally learn python? Or figure out rigging? Or fix the ergonomics on your monitor, keyboard and chair?

How do you remain effective, even when you can't be efficient?