Plus, the processes that these product teams follow could differ as well—from traditional, waterfall development; to Scaled Agile Framework (SAFe) methods; to the Lean or agile development methodologies that small, collocated teams favor; and everything in between.
No two projects are alike, and context switching is difficult when you’re dealing with different product-team calendars, meeting invitations, Slack channels, and email-distribution groups. The challenges of juggling multiple product teams can lead to burnout and set you up for failure—unless you take measures to compensate for them before they become a serious problem.
In this column, I’ll share some tips I’ve learned over several years of balancing the demands of multiple product teams, spanning multiple locations and time zones, as follows:
- manufacturing time for yourself
- establishing boundaries
- exposing your workload to everyone
- choosing your battles
- getting involved in projects early
- keeping your manager well informed
Manufacturing Time for Yourself
You cannot contribute to multiple product teams effectively—or a single team for that matter—unless you remove any barriers that would hinder your ability to be productive. As UX designers, digging into our creative reserves to cultivate the best solutions requires dwelling in a problem space. That requires time. However, the distractions of living in interrupt mode—reacting to every notification, alert badge, or @mention—disrupts our ability to engage deeply in our work and get into flow.
Given the speed at which new productivity technology and software solutions are emerging in the marketplace—solutions whose intent is to save us time—this problem can seem paradoxical. However, many enterprise UX designers feel unproductive because they believe they do not have enough time to engage in deep work, which is a big part of their job. With entire worlds now available in the palms of our hands—blurring the line that separates our personal and professional lives—we now face a new set of self-regulation challenges that we’d never before anticipated.
The solution: You must focus your own scattered attention by manufacturing time for yourself. If you don’t reserve time for deep work, someone else could gladly swoop in and take that time from you. Your cognitive capacity is valuable currency and yours to spend. Do not squander it. Schedule time to focus on deep work and nothing else—even if you must do so weeks in advance. You must apply your attention to the right things, and scheduling appointments with yourself helps to hold you accountable for how you spend your time. Do not let yourself down. Do not do email during this time. No instant messages or chats. And especially, no social media. Focus on a single problem during a time block you’ve reserved for yourself, then once that time block ends, move on to your next problem or task.
Keep your calendar up to date by scheduling personal appointments with yourself. The small effort it takes to ensure that you have allocated sufficient time for deep work better enables you to handle simultaneous product-team requests when they crop up—as they will. If, with these personal appointments, your calendar becomes full, honor those scheduled times as much as if you’d filled them with appointments with valued customers. Your own attention is just as valuable.
Always being available on demand can backfire—especially if you’re working within a culture that expects employees to work long hours or be available during weekends or when on vacation. If you demonstrate that you are constantly available or are willing to work during times that should belong to you, the members of your various product teams might assume that they have your implicit permission to reach out to you during those times and expect that you’ll respond. There is no quicker way of burning yourself out.
While some projects might occasionally necessitate your putting in long hours to make a challenging release date or help solve a serious customer problem, this should not be the norm. Unfortunately, some employees believe that working longer hours means they’ll be more productive. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, research has shown that employee output falls sharply after a 50-hour work week.
What should you do? Establish boundaries, setting expectations about your availability. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to sit down with each of your product teams and explain your expected boundaries. While you could certainly communicate them to your teams, you should always be sure your actions reflect your intentions. For example, do not answer email or chat messages during times of the day or week that you consider to be off-hours.
Whenever you are engaged in deep work during your workday, set your availability status to “Do not Disturb” or “Busy.” All modern communication tools should have this capability. If you work in an open-office environment, as many of us now do, wear noise-canceling headphones even if you’re not listening to music or a podcast. Doing so gives others a visual cue that you’re not available and are engaged in deep work. Or, if all else fails, leave your office or work area and seek a quieter environment that better fosters your productivity.
Casual requests of your time might seem trivial, but they add up. As do useless meetings. Do not be afraid to question the purpose of a meeting, especially if the organizer hasn’t clearly stated its goal or desired outcome. Meetings are some of the biggest time-wasters in enterprise environments. Could a quick conversation sort out the issue? What about a private conversation on Slack, Microsoft Teams, Skype, or some other communication tool? You cannot recover the wasted time you spend in unnecessary meetings. Plus, whenever you get pulled away from deep work, it takes several minutes to resume the work you were doing before the interruption occurred because you need to figure out where you left off and get back into flow.