Posted by Alex Bunardzic on Tue 25 January 2022

Avoid the overhead of work-about-work and adopt real time collaboration


When running a business, we must rely on some resources. Those resources are not free. We keep paying for the office space, the hydro and other utility bills, internet connectivity, office supplies, plus the payroll and other expenses. It is easy to calculate precisely how much is one hour of operations costing us. The money keeps flowing out the door as we’re staying in business. It is not enough to rake in hefty revenue – we need to stay on top of our expenses too. Only that way can we not only break even, but also turn a little bit of profit on top.

Since we are paying all those bills anyway, there is a tendency to maximize the utilization of resources that are at our disposal. But that could be a slippery slope. In this article I’ll try to explain some of the potential pitfalls that may await when we strive to maximize the utilization of our resources.

Divvy up the workload

Whenever there is task to be done, the first thing that comes to mind tends to be: is there a way to divvy up the workload and spread it around? We are hoping to fully utilize the workforce we are paying for. Instead of giving the task to one staff member to work on, the thinking is that giving parts of the task to multiple members will enable them to work in parallel. That in turn will result in the task getting done much sooner. If it takes one person five days to complete the task, divvying it up to five people will take one day to complete the task.

The above way of thinking is what we sometimes call false math. Why? We call it false math because it willfully ignores newly emerged tasks that get created by divvying up the original task. If we have given the task to a single staff member, they would focus on finishing it on time. No other activities around that task would be necessary. However, the moment we start gunning for the work-in-parallel, we are creating brand new activities on top of the original task. Which activities? Activities we call work-about-work.

What is work-about-work?

When a single staff member starts working on a task, the situation is very clear. The worker is now focused on the task at hand, and there isn’t anything else vying for their attention. But when multiple people start working on parts of the task, they cannot afford to only focus on their chunk of work. They need to every now and then sync up with other workers to make sure their work fits properly into the overall goal. Furthermore, the team working on different parts in parallel suddenly demand an oversight. A considerable and significant effort toward coordination, synchronization, and potential corrective actions must be put in place. That means hiring additional staff who will act as supervisors, managers, foremen on the site.

The false math kicks in, and we quickly learn that maximizing resource utilization turns into fool’s gold. Instead of completing the task in one fifth of the time, we end up spending twice as much time as we would’ve spent if we were to leave a single worker with their task.

So, we see that work-about-work can be exorbitantly costly.

On the other hand, the conundrum remains: how do we keep all our staff occupied, if not by divvying up the workload? We cannot agree to ask them to work sequentially. We do not want to have some team members idling for days on end while they wait on some other busy members to finish their tasks.

Collaboration over communication

When we examine work-about-work, we find that it’s all about communication. Communicating where are we at in the project trajectory, communicating where are other members at, then communicating on what kind of additional work is needed to synchronize various pieces of the task, and so on. Communication is the most expensive way to work. It eats up a lot of cycles while at the same time never produces anything deliverable to the customer. As such, it should be viewed as waste.

Collaboration, on the other hand, is much superior when compared to communication. While communication is asynchronous (usually via emails, memos, wikis, reports, chats, pull requests, code reviews, change management reviews, etc.), collaboration is synchronous. Collaboration can only happen in real time, face to face.

When working in real time, face to face, there is no need for spending time on doing extra communication chores. Everything that needs to be explained or clarified is right there, in front of the team doing the work. Once the team finishes the work, there is no need to spend time reviewing the work. The team knows what shape the work is in, and no one other than the team itself is more qualified to make that judgment call.

It is for that reason that we should strive to minimize work-about-work, minimize time spent on asynchronous communication, and maximize collaboration.