Usually, I get in the office latest around 9:30. But I woke up earlier than usual today. Actually, I need to wake up earlier every third Friday of the month. Today is the Improvement Day at Sitewards and it kicks off exactly at 9:00.
The Improvement Day is an event we started doing once every month, more than a year ago. It is also an event that many other companies implement it or know it as the Open Friday.
Why did we start the Improvement Day?
People constantly ask for time in which they can work on their cool ideas, besides their day-to-day work. This is nothing new and it's the case through the entire IT industry. But for an agency, it's very tough to find/invest the time for implementing some fancy employee ideas that might not bring any business value.
On the other hand, Sitewards' management wanted to find a way for the employees to do that anyway, no matter the short-term financial investment required, so they introduced the idea for the Improvement Day. A day in which people can express themselves the way they want to, they can do literally whatever they decide with the hope that this will eventually lead to happier and more satisfied employees. Which means whatever they do, it will still bring business value in the long run!
How does it work?
On the first three Improvement Days, we didn't prepare much for the day. Everyone would come in the morning and after a small intro for the day, we dived into a brainstorming session. The brainstorming session was imagined like a short and sweet time slot in which we only drop our ideas on the table, but what ended up like was a much longer session than planned because we needed time to as well sort the ideas, cluster them, everyone wanted to add something or even fire up a discussion, which also removed the sweet part of equation.
We would then create teams (everyone chooses which topic he/she wants to work on) and start with the following session which was about planning the idea and what we want out of it. Well… if you end up with a discussion in the middle of a brainstorming session, what do you think will happen during a planning session? Oh boy!
This didn't really work for us. Most of the people were not quite happy with how the day was going, some were even frustrated mostly because they didn't feel like they had enough time to actually work on the idea (read fancy stuff - coding, designing, whatever that is not planning or documenting). Most of the time was spent on coming up with the idea, planning it, documenting it, presenting it and there were barely two hours left for the implementation for it.
So, we decided to change this. Everyone that comes up with an idea writes a summary of it on our company wiki before the event happens. You try to sell the idea to the rest of the people to join your team and make a plan for the day. Try not to underestimate the effort. You have one day only! Do you think that the idea is manageable in a day? Can you split it into smaller chunks? Which part of it has the highest priority? What should you deliver at the end of the day? How will you proceed to push for the idea after the Improvement Day?
Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the ax. Abraham Lincoln
Our current schedule starts at 9:00. We start with a brief introduction of the topics for the day, after which we jump into the first uninterrupted working session that lasts until lunchtime. The second working session lasts until 15:30 – 16:00 depending on the team itself and how they self-organize themselves. This is mostly because what follows is a time slot for documenting the day that ends at 16:30, so every team decides on their own how much time will they approximately need for it. After a short 15 minutes break, at around 16:45 we start presenting the work we did during the day. We wrap up the day with a feedback round where every participant in the day gets to say a couple of words/sentences about how the day went for him/her, what was good, what was bad, what can be improved next time, etc. I can surely say this works way better for us.
We do everything we want to do
Once there was a team that reorganized a couple of rooms in the office. Cleaned them up from things we don't use anymore, placed the furniture differently to freshen up the place, moved away our stock of drinks in another room, and many other things. On another improvement day, another team created a Kudos wall in our kitchen and a wall full of team events pictures in our so-called Team Room.
We created the Hypervisor – an internal tool for provisioning testing instances on AWS for our QA department. We worked on a prototype for green/blue deployments on Kubernetes. We played around with IBM Watson. We created the Sitewards Blog. We added a monitoring stack for our projects running Prometheus and Grafana. We worked on how to reduce the knowledge loss in the company, created a UX framework, a workshop on mastering Jira and Confluence, and many many more.
Probably the best commercial project that came out of the improvement days is the one built around the AI personal assistant by Amazon called Alexa. It started as an experimental project meant for one of our biggest clients. Two of our guys successfully managed to build an Alexa skill during an Improvement Day which was then presented to the client.
After announcing the results of this project through our media channels, a company from the UK (a market that Sitewards is not focused on now) found out about it and obviously, they liked it, so they wanted an Alexa skill for their business too. Boom! A project meant for a day of fun, learning and refreshing, brought a client in a completely different market than what we are currently working with.
But, the story doesn't end there. Our management decided to try and take the idea to a whole different level by launching a new brand called Dave42. They will try to penetrate the voice user interface market through this brand which has a very strong potential in Germany. Good luck people!
Should you do it?
Is it worth investing in your own Improvement Day? Absolutely it is! If it's too expensive to start with having such an event every month, then try doing it once a quarter or once every six months. Build your own schedule for the event that will fit your company needs and stick with it. Put a lot of effort into managing the expectations for the day and give your team some time to get into the flow of it. The burst of creativity, passion, and spirit coming from your team will positively shock you. You'll realize it's worth every penny.