“Quiet Time” and “No Email Day” pilot data is in!

Since the previous post in October there has been much interest in our two pilots aiming to reduce information overload; and I've responded to all of them with the quintessential engineering attitude of "we'll have to wait until the data is in". Well, the data is finally in, and now I can reward your patience and share the main points.

You will recall we were running two pilots:

1. "Quiet Time" on Tuesday morning.

In this experiment 300 engineers and managers, located in two US sites (Austin, TX and Chandler, AZ), agreed to minimize interruptions and distractions every Tuesday morning. During these periods they had all set their email and IM clients to "offline", forwarded their phones to voice mail, avoided setting up meetings, and isolated themselves from "visitors" by putting up a "Do not disturb" sign at their doorway. The purpose was to see the effect of 4 hours of contiguous "thinking time".

On the whole, the 7-month pilot returned markedly positive results. It has been successful in improving employee effectiveness, efficiency and quality of life for numerous employees in diverse job roles. 45% of post-pilot survey respondents had found it effective as is, and 71% recommended we consider extending it to other groups, possibly after applying some modifications.

As expected, this is not a matter where "one size fits all": not all people found this a desirable practice, depending also on their specific job roles. But an interesting finding is that Quiet Time is useful to different people for different reasons. Some people need it to concentrate on creative tasks, as we had predicted, but even people whose work involves ongoing interaction with others found the periodic "breathing space" beneficial in restoring balance and getting back in control of an otherwise hectic work routine. One should, we learned, let each person decide how to use the quiet hours to best effect. A key success factor, however, is that people must realize that the "quiet" requirement is not absolute; when an urgent situations requires it, interruptions are permitted. Communicating this clearly was necessary halfway through the pilot.

2. "No Email Day" on the Friday.

It has been noted (and often ignored) that "No Email Day", or "Zero Email Friday", is a misnomer; but it has caught widely before we got to it and we kept the name. In reality, email is not forbidden on the Friday; the idea is to solve the problem where people send email to a coworker in the next cubicle rather than walk across the aisle and talk, by encouraging the use of face to face and telephone conversation in preference to email within an organic group, which in our case comprised 150 engineers and managers.

This pilot has achieved lower success than "Quiet Time", though 29% of respondents did find it effective, and 60% recommended we consider extending it to other groups. The issue, we found, is that there was a clear incompatibility of NED with the nature of work in the chosen pilot group, where many people are routinely away from their desks or in meetings much of the time. This renders asynchronous email the method of choice for connecting to people in the group. It is easy to conjecture that for NED to work better, it should be applied in teams that are not only collocated, but also tend to sit in their offices most of the day, so your coworker is predictably available to be spoken to synchronously when the need arises.

Our next steps will be to present these data to management and consider proliferation to other groups at Intel who might find either or both practices useful in the context of their work style.