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The secret to productivity is predictability: Why you should hold team office hours

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The secret to productivity is predictability: Why you should hold team office hours

I never really had any experience in the tech industry. I was an outdoor school instructor at REI when Coda announced their Beta invite program. I signed up and started digging in, partly out of curiosity but also because I needed solutions for my work that just didn’t exist and I wondered if I could build my own. In the end, I built an for instructors to manage the gear they checked out for classes — and received a job offer from Coda.
Because I was new to both Silicon Valley and startup culture, there was still quite a bit to figure out. And when I started as a Solutions Architect at Coda, I had one question: where do I fit in? It turns out that Coda felt I had good instincts for how they envisioned the product being used and what schema a doc should start with. With my previous experience as an instructor, teaching others how to use Coda became a pretty natural fit. And while finding my purpose was rewarding, I’ve struggled to balance the things I need to do with the things I love to do — like helping others build amazing docs. Enter: internal office hours.
In this doc, I’ll walk you through the steps I took to establish a sustainable process for answering questions and improve my own productivity. I hope that you can find my learnings useful for managing your work-passion balance.

Office hours v1: The long wait

The quick iteration was finding and blocking off two meeting-less hours during each week for office hours. I chose two days that worked for me and figured 10am would be a generally timezone-agnostic time for Coda’s distributed team.
At first, attendance was stable, and we answered some great questions. But things started to trail off after only a month. When looking closer at the sessions, I saw several questions from people were complex and took some time to answer, which meant that anyone else ducking in with a quick question ended up having to wait quite a while. This wasn’t a great experience, especially for employees at such a fast growing startup where both meeting time and make time are so valuable.

Office hours v2: Where is everyone?

With the observation that most Q&A interactions were about specific problems, I decided to establish a schedule of sign-ups and run each session as 1:1 meetings. Everyone has a busy schedule and much of my purpose was helping to solve complex doc questions as they came up, so this seemed like a good solution.
Nobody signed up.
I gave Codans the freedom to pick times that worked best for them, and I don’t think the questions stopped occurring. What happened?
I was a little lost on this one so I reached out to Rocky Moon, a Codan with a background in education (and a seriously cool name). Rocky shared with me that TA’s and Professors that allowed their students to schedule their own hours often experienced the same results.
When reflecting on my own day, let alone that of others, there are what seems like an innumerable amount of decisions to make and things to schedule. So what now?

Office hours v3: The power of predictability

By this point, I understood that waiting an extended period of time to ask your question isn’t a great experience and that scheduling your own session is one decision too many on top of everything else in a day’s work.
With the third run, we're trying a set, consistent schedule: Tuesday through Friday at 9am PT for an hour. We also built a sign-up in the doc and split each day’s session into two 30-minute sessions. Anyone can add questions to the queue ahead of time, and we answer each in order. While they’re essentially the same meeting, with a single Zoom link, the split creates a flow that keeps everything on track and allows attendees to better anticipate when their questions will be addressed.
Being predictable and consistent turns out to be very valuable. Without the overhead of having to schedule something, Codans can simply jump in — and attendance has more than doubled. If there are questions on the schedule already, folks jump in at the 30 minute mark. If they’re still stumped at the end of the day, they can sign up for the next morning’s session. And if they have a meeting with a customer in the afternoon, they can jump in first thing in the morning and ask any pre-meeting questions.
The chart below shows attendance where you can see that May 2021 is missing because we didn’t have anyone sign up with our v2 approach, then followed by our v3 approach that kicked off in June 2021.
Image 2021-08-26 at 9.56.21 AM.png

What’s next?

My audience, even internally, has ranged from publicly facing to enterprise questions, from time constrained to open curiosity, and from the simple and fundamental to complex and intricate. With the problems of people having to wait too long to get their questions answered to having to go out of their way to schedule time, we’ve addressed many issues. But when it comes to what’s next, it’s always tough to see what’s going on when you’re in the thick of it.
I’m not sure what the next iteration will hold, but a great idea presented to me recently was to have theme scheduled office hours. Maybe we should run account and billing office hours, formula office hours, and schema and strategy office hours. As the company grows, more people will undoubtedly have more questions, so this could be the start of a program and part of the company culture and dynamic. Then again, maybe it is just some answers to questions in an orderly fashion. That has yet to prove itself, but with iteration and feedback, we’ll likely soon find out.

Unanticipated wins

Time was the main concern with this initial endeavor, but additional data showed its face once this was underway. The more popular office hours had become, the more I realized that the most common customer questions that were the most difficult to solve were coming my way. This is invaluable data that we can now gather and use as a direction for what to improve in the product next. If multiple customers are approaching us with the same issue, that sets up our target area very well for what and where to focus our engineering resources. Much of our next iteration is centered around how to focus this indirect feedback into a focused beam of product changing light.
Below, you can see that our customer facing roles have the highest attendance rate, but people from nearly every role in the company are coming in with questions. The broad range of roles with attendees has also made office hours a great team building activity with people crossing paths that otherwise might not in a typical workday.
Image 2021-08-19 at 3.49.13 PM.png

What does this mean for my productivity?

Most of the positive feedback I’ve received as an employee at Coda revolves around the help I’ve offered at key moments and helping to develop solutions for customers. My biggest concern is whether office hours will have a negative affect on this feedback, especially if my participation dwindles on Slack throughout the day.
I happened to have picked up the book “” by Cal Newport and was working on how to better focus my time on project work. A big concern of mine was whether or not I would be seen as being available or not available for questions. After all, this is what I’ve seen as being my purpose. This book, and many of Cal’s podcast episodes, mentioned that office hours makes you appear more available than if you just try to be available at all times. So far, in this iterative experiment, this has shown to be true...but, seriously?
With a schedule of Tuesday through Friday at the same time each of these days, I’ve seen fellow Codan’s mention that office hours is available pretty much everyday of the week. Trying to be on call all the time is exhausting and spotty at best for stumbling upon the questions that needed followup. Focusing this to a predictable and regularly publicized time actually helped me catch more questions that needed answers, boosted my reputation as a Coda resource, and grew attendance and awareness by more than double!


Office hours has proven to not only help me get a handle on my time, but also to provide a valuable resource to the company. What was causing me to fail, time being spread too thin, and what has proven to be a valuable asset to the company were both solved by the same solution.
Consolidating time dedicated to assisting coworkers while opening up time for project work somehow increased the perception of my availability by my colleagues while opening up my time for project work. In both cases, this has been a big win.
We’ll see where this goes in the future, but for now, if you’re someone who feels like you are always putting out fires or answering questions, office hours might be for you. Give it a try, observe and iterate, and you might end up with a feeling of relief when you get your time back for the project work you initially set out to do.

Check out the template we use on the next page

And to start your own office hours ...

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