Six Minute Blocks

I often feel that working in tech can create a bit of an echo chamber. That a lack of wider world input limits our diversity of thought, perspective and problem solving. Which is why I always appreciate hearing insight from other industries; in particular hearing their challenges and how they overcame them. I had one of those insightful conversations with a medical negligence lawyer, a friend of mine, just a few weeks ago.

One major difference between our jobs is how time is allotted and tracked. Unlike web development, where you may be scheduled on a task for multiple hours, all day, or even ‘block scheduled’ the entire week for larger projects, it’s pretty common in law firms for staff to have zero scheduled time and instead be proactive and self-managing. This is mainly due to the nature of their role, where much of a solicitor’s workload is a plate-spinning exercise of thirty (or more) active cases. It’s on them to continually nudge each case a bit further along the legal process, usually in the form of email correspondence, phone calls and letters.

All of these miniscule tasks are billable time, and so comes their ingenious way to accurately track their time.

The Block

1 block = 6 minutes

Six minutes is a particularly great number because it’s granular enough to encompass miniscule tasks like email correspondence and phone calls, but easily scales to include longer duties like meetings.

An interesting, and by no means overlooked side effect to using six as the block value, is that it turns the somewhat awkward measurement of time into a ‘power of ten’ system.

In Practice

In the law firm he worked, each active case will have an agreed invoiced amount for that month, or at least a limit or cap. Based on the company’s hourly rate, this can be converted down into a block amount. It’s then the solicitor’s job to use that time how they see fit to move the case along the legal process. As a crude example, if a case is fronted £4000, and the hourly rate for their solicitor is £270 an hour, that works out at 148 blocks for the month.

The solicitor chips away at that block count, often peppered throughout those 20 working days. Sometimes at just one or two blocks at a time, sometimes a chunk of ten-or-so blocks. The small blocks are mainly reactionary and unpredictable; continually clearing out their inbox as case information drops into it.

Translating to Web

One aspect of the web/marketing world that could benefit from the ‘6 minute block’ system is accurate billing of maintenance and retainer contracts.

It’s an inevitability of every agency that existing clients need support. Typically it’s some agreed monthly package separate to web builds and hosting that is scaled on the size of the website/client. Some could sit at just a few hours, others might be as high as twenty hours.

I’ve worked in an agency environment for over a decade, and one thing that continues to cause headaches is accurately logging client support usage. Like law, the maintenance support aspect of our job has a similar fragmented nature. Much of it revolves around chipping away at ticketing systems like Zoho Desk, Help Scout and Zendesk, where clients send in their questions, requests and ideas.

I’ve seen vastly different approaches to this, ranging from a similar system of ‘nearest 15 minutes’, right up to not logging support time at all unless it’s actual coding work of at least an hour.

The ‘nearest 15 minutes’ system wasn’t too bad, but it meant that a handful of impulsive, off-the-cuff questions from the client unfairly burnt through a significant chunk of their time. There’d often be complaints later in the month, both from client and project manager, when there wasn’t enough time to do any actual work.

By far the worst was the ‘no logging small interactions’ approach, as it completely failed to measure which clients were eating up developer time. It was fairly common for the developer ‘on support’ to lose a whole Monday morning chipping through the helpdesk inbox without tangibly assigning that time to any clients. It even went as far as one client realising the flaw and purposely gauging the system, chopping up their questions and requests so they’d slip under the maintenance radar. It was, quite frankly, a complete mess.

This is why I think ‘6 minute blocks’ could strike a balance between being rightfully paid everything you’re due whilst also keeping honest and true to the nature of support work. It’s a way to be mutually respectful to both agency and client.