By Robert L. Brady, BLR president
SCOTTSDALE, AZ--Computer programmers have the reputation of being loners who sit in their cubicles, hunched over their keyboards, headphones on their ears, silent and oblivious to the rest of the world, for hours on end. They specialize in small, narrow aspects of business systems and work for months on narrow, focused programs. They are expected to work long hours, with overtime the norm.
That is not the way things are at Menlo Innovations in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Instead, teams consisting of two programmers sit together, sharing a single computer with a single keyboard. There are no cubicles. There are no iPods. There is a high noise environment as many teams working in a single, large room discuss and debate what they are doing. At the end of each week, teams are reassigned. Different groups of two work on different jobs the following week. Overtime is almost unheard of.
The teams work by talking through issues. Then, typically, they rotate the work, with one member typing at the keyboard, while the other reviews, comments, and instructs. "If there is not a lot of interaction and talking," they are not doing their jobs, according to Richard Sheridan, the company founder and president.
Speaking at the Work-Life 2007 Conference & Exhibition in Scottsdale, Arizona, Feb. 21 to 23, Sheridan said that his company's unusual work practices have allowed it to grow and prosper. He said that most IT projects take twice as long as scheduled and cost twice as much as budgeted, largely because of the time needed to fix mistakes, such as when elements of a large program do not fit together. He said that Menlo's team practices improve quality dramatically. Rotation of duties and staff ensures that everyone working on the project knows how the pieces fit together. "Team coding" (he calls it "extreme programming") minimizes errors by making quality control a truly continuous process.
Sheridan said that the practice is very popular with his staff for a variety of reasons. In traditional shops, programmers become "towers of knowledge" because of specialization, but as time goes on, they become "prisoners" to their specialties. Under his system, their knowledge is wider and their skills more versatile.
Someone in the audience asked if this wasn't counter to the "introverted" nature of programmers. Not a problem, according to Sheridan. "Introverts prefer fewer, deeper relationships," he said, adding, "Not like extroverts like me, who prefer lots of shallow ones." They like being assigned to the teams.
Sheridan ended by saying that the company is beginning to expand the "extreme programming" model to other jobs, as well. For example, he doesn't share a computer with anyone, but he does share a single table/desk.
Flexibility as a strategy
Sharing the podium with Sheridan was Steven C. Neighbors, CEO of TERRA Services Inc., a staffing agency which has, as a core value, flexibility. "Flexibility is a strategy," he said. "We don't have flex options. We have a culture which embraces flexibility, for both employees and customers." It is, in fact, one of the "products" that it sells to its customers. Being able to respond quickly to customer demands requires it.
Neighbors offered these guidelines for getting flexibility to work:
- Hiring and culture are very important. It won't work in an entitlement culture; it won't work with people who have an entitlement mentality.
- Don't try to push the burden of accommodating onto your clients' shoulders. Everyone must have the mindset of being available for our clients. For example, in a job share, the challenge is in the "hand off." You can't put the client "on hold," either actually or virtually, because one teammate holds the knowledge needed.
- The goal is to make the company a good place to work. Flexibility is just a strategy to serve that goal.
- Accountability is very important. It has to be focused on getting tight control of "output" measures.
- Managers need to have a lot of discretion, and that requires that they have good judgment. They hold the keys to success. They have to trained, committed, and capable.
The third panelist was Chantel Sheaks, an attorney who specializes in employee benefits. She spoke at length about the need for informing employees about the impact of flexible work arrangements on their benefits. At most companies, part-timers lose their healthcare benefits. COBRA coverage is not only expensive, it is not tax deductible. They may also lose disability coverage, pension and 401(k) eligibility, etc.
Sheaks said she fears that courts may one day hold employers liable for failure to notify employees that changing their status will also change their benefits. She advised employers not only to give such employees a written checklist advising them of specific benefit changes, but also to give them a second copy of the summary plan description detailing their benefit rules. "These documents are supposed to be easy to read, but nobody knows what's in them when they are first handed out," she said.
Despite her legal-liability orientation, when asked to list the single most important point for the audience, Sheaks put the issue in another context. Urging employers to forget about the liability issues for a minute, she said that "it may cost less to offer benefits to part timers than to hire a replacement." Her colleagues on the panel and members of the audience nodded in agreement (provided that the plan allows it or can be changed).
The final member of the panel, Karen Kerrigan, President and CEO of the Small Business & Entrepreneurship Council, had a comprehensive handout, detailing flexible scheduling options and considerations.
It contains several very helpful checklists, sample policies (covering vacation time, eligibility, holidays-all the nitty gritty that needs to get addressed.) The materials say that the handout is available on her website, www.we-inc.org , although our editors could not find it there. Anyone interested in obtaining a copy, please e-mail the editor, Rbrady@blr.com , and we will get you a copy.