The Endless Break

The Endless Break

Oct 18, 10 • In Practices

Everyone needs to take a break from time to time, especially if you’ve been collaborating closely for an hour or more. But when working together remotely, breaks have a way of stretching out longer than intended. Here’s one simple rule for avoiding the Endless Break.

It’s a common enough scenario: you work together with a coworker for an hour or so, and then you hit a stopping point and decide to take a 5-minute breather. Both of you go for a walk, maybe grab some water, and then head back to the desk and sit down again to get some more work done.

When collaborating remotely, it doesn’t always work out like that. You get back to your desk, and check your teammate’s IM status. It doesn’t say “away”, but she hasn’t posted anything on your presence app, and you don’t want to nag her, so you decide to check your email. A few minutes go by and she IMs you, but you’re busy writing an email reply and don’t see it immediately. When you finally reply to her, she’s busied herself with something else, and asks you to wait for a couple of minutes. Before long 20 minutes have gone by, and you’ve lost any momentum you had for the task at hand.

Sound familiar? I know I’ve had this happen to me quite a few times, and I know from my interviews with other remote workers that I’m not alone in this. So what to do? How do you keep your breaks short without nagging each other?

The key is simple: keep the video feed on. You are using video chat for your collaboration sessions, right? Maybe you’ve taken my advice and set up dedicated “Skype appliances” for your audio and video communications. Well, instead of shutting down your Skype session when you get up for a break, leave it on, and pointed at your empty seat. If you get back first, you’ll be able to see exactly when your coworker returns and pick up the conversation where you left off. And with the call still live and that camera pointed at your chair, you’ll be less tempted to dawdle on your break or to check Facebook before getting back to work.

After all, it’s not like you’re paying for every minute that the call is maintained. Use that bandwidth you’re paying for, and keep the call open during your breaks. You’ll never again have to worry about whether it’s too soon to give your coworker a virtual “poke”.

Title image by Carey Ciuro

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6 Responses to The Endless Break

  1. Tina says:

    Love the tip! I’ve never thought of doing something like that, thanks for sharing.

  2. This is a great tip!

    I have run into this so many times, and it really does kill your momentum, and gives you a sad disappointed feeling, especially when compared to your peak productivity.

    I’ve tried a few things in the past to combat this:

    1. set a mini-checkpoint with your pair “we should have this part done and checked in before lunch, right?” or “we should shoot for each of us driving the keyboard for equal amounts of time today”, that can help motivate you to get back into the thick of things.

    2. try to keep a regular schedule for lunch and other breaks (I find that having a set schedule with 1 small break in the morning, and 2 in the afternoon, allows both pairs to focus intently on pairing, because they know they’ll have a block time to check email, get coffee, make a phone call, etc)

    3. set a specific time and responsibility “ok we’ll start back up at 1:30pm and I’ll be driving, to finish up those css changes…”

    4. speed up those tests!!! One of the ‘silent’ productivity killers in our field is the cost of slow running tests. How long do yours take? What do you do while they are running? (re-checking the requirements? testing the UI?…reading twitter) You can gain back a lot of productivity by keeping the cost of running the tests low. In Ruby there are tools like Hydra, specjour, and parallel-spec that will run your tests in parallel, or even distribute them to multiple machines (have an old machine sitting in your house somewhere?)

    5. Have your docs at hand! How often do you split up to do a research task, or do some googling? I’ve found that a lot of time is wasted on looking up documentation inefficiently, reading out dated blog posts, and eventually getting distracted. Have your the correct versions of your docs installed locally, and easily accessible. You shouldn’t have to google for API stuff.

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