Making Room for Watercooler Shenanigans

Mitch Herrema
December 23, 2021

The answer to creating a stronger work culture may be in your time tracking.

The Premise

A while back we were getting some feedback from an employee related to time tracking. See at Bulb, we are a little bit unique in our field that employees get paid hourly. Their paychecks are directly related to what time they log every week. I’m not sure it will always be this way, but it’s worked for us so far.

Anyway, the employee mentioned something about the buckets we have to put our time into. We had buckets for each of our projects as well as an internal non-bill bucket - something to cover Stand-Ups, holidays, and other internal meetings. He suggested that we have another bucket to put time, something that covers the “watercooler” talk. You all know what this is. The time where you catch up with the team, talk about the new movie that just came out, eat a birthday breakfast together, or maybe some time to play some darts. Oh, and we can't forget about Among Us.

He was absolutely right. We believe in building a strong team culture, and that means some time spent doesn’t get directly related to billable or internal non-bill time. Our team members should be paid for that, and not feel like there’s pressure every minute to tie their time to a bucket that ties to some metric we’re measuring. The Watercooler Shenanigans bucket was created. We thought the name of this bucket was nice and obvious as to what it covers.

Innovation vs. Systemization

These two things are constantly at odds with each other. Where an organization is systemized (think McDonald’s), it leaves little room for innovation outside of some “special projects” team. Where an organization focused on innovation, there is little systemization. Things are a bit free-form to provoke creativity and avoid operating on an assumption of “this is the way we do things here”.

Some organizations lean far to one side, some to the other side. But many organizations try to ride somewhere in the middle. And that’s what leads to this type of employee feedback. We leaned too far towards systemization and didn’t leave any room for innovation.

Our company is relatively new (just over 6 years at the time of writing), and relatively small (see our current team members here). We started off VERY free-form. We had a couple of projects on our plate and sat in a small office together, tackling the problem of the day as a team. We’d take random extended outings to lunch, trips to Menards if someone needed something (completely unrelated to work), and one time we even drove across town to pick up beehives for someone’s home. Totally random, but fun.

As we grew in both the number of clients and team members, a need for “systems” became more obvious. Time to grow up and get a proper time tracking system, time to create a standardized delivery practice, time to start marketing ourselves, and also productizing some of our services (after we figured out what we really wanted to be as an organization). We leaned pretty heavy into all these things because many of us are software developers at heart, who focus on optimizations all day long. It’s only natural to try the same in the organization. But we leaned a little too far.

It’s time to lean back and leave some more room for fun. But how do we keep some of the benefits we’ve seen with the systems, but create that room? Let’s try a Watercooler Shenanigans bucket for our time.

So How Does This Work?

What systems do we put in place for this bucket? Can’t someone take advantage of this bucket? What do you do if someone does? Shouldn’t you only pay people for their “work work”?

The answers are: Very little or none. Yes. Talk to them like an adult you care about. Nope.

We don’t put any systems in place for this bucket specifically. But we also don’t plan FOR it. We forecast our team members’ time, giving our best guesses as to what projects need what amount of time for them to be successful. This allows us to see when we have “resource constraints”, but we do our best to not over-allocate and leave some flexibility. That way they don’t feel like they’re full of work they need to do up to their eyes and are entitled to go throw some darts and not think twice about it.

Someone can definitely take advantage of this. But we do our best to learn the heart of all our team members and trust them not to. They recognize it’s a privilege, and the organization will benefit from the improved relationships within the team.

What happens if someone DOES take advantage? Well, every week is a little different. Some weeks have more shenanigans, some have less. We care about trends more than anything. If someone is doing it more than expected, we (this is a novel concept) talk to them like an adult we care about. Is everything ok? We feel like you spend a bit of time on this, is there something going on that we can help with? You get the picture.

We value our team members. We value their time. We value their willingness to jump in our organization’s boat and row with us, and the least we can do is support them in what they need, even if it’s taking a break.

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