If you’ve ever noticed that it takes an entire day to get through 60 tickets but it also takes an entire day to get through 30 tickets, you’ve felt the effects of Parkinson’s Law, that pesky old adage about work, no matter how trivial, taking up all the time allotted for it. Staring at a queue of emails from customers, your work expands to fill your work day.

The inverse of this law is nicely phrased as, “If you wait until the last minute, it only takes a minute to do.” But there is, of course, an upper bound to how much work you can expect someone to absorb.

It’s a fine line to walk: under-provisioning a support agent can lead to wasted potential, as their light workload overtakes their entire week. But piling on too much work leads to burnout and empathy fatigue. You still want your reps to love their jobs by Friday afternoon, not deeply consider quitting on the train ride home.

Introducing slack (the concept, not the chat client).

When accounting for support capacity, good managers know not to expect agents to be in the queue 100% of the time. You’re going to burn out pretty fast if you’re responding to emails from the moment you clock in to the moment you clock out, five days per week.

Knowing that, you might plan for around 80% of time in the queue and 20% of time for recovery or “other projects.” If you want to dive deep into this topic, check out this talk from Rich Armstrong (a former boss of mine) at UserConf NYC in 2014:

Create focused time outside the queue.

The main takeaway from Rich’s video is that if you dedicate purposeful time away from the queue, rather than just squeezing in a task or two at the end of the day, you can generate a lot more output (and very likely have better job satisfaction).

The first step to making slack (again, not the chat client) work is defining what you want to achieve. At FullStory, for goal-setting and measurement, we use OKRs to great effect. It keeps us accountable to the rest of the team and there’s a very clear start and end date to each OKR cycle.

If you don’t want to jump all over OKRs, just do this: set goals with a due date.

Need ideas? How about some of these:

  • Watch FullStory sessions of customers reading help documentation so you can improve your docs (extra points if the customer contacted support even after reading the doc!)
  • Clean up old macros / snippets / saved replies and remove anything stale
  • Re-evaluate your metrics to make sure what you’re measuring aligns with your company’s goals
  • Identify customer feedback trends and put them on the product team’s radar

Once you know what you want to achieve, figure out how you’re going to strategically pull people out of the queue. Take into account anything that will affect the team’s ability to handle the queue, such as planned vacations, upcoming product launches, or every Monday ever. Start handing out the available days and add them to the calendar.

(Also worthy to note: dedicated time outside of the queue spent on meaningful work is incredibly refreshing. It goes a lot further than $25 gift cards to Olive Garden. But don’t pull the gift cards entirely, ’cause I mean, who doesn’t love bottomless soup, salad and breadsticks?)

Measuring output FTW.

I strongly recommend having a forum for your team to share with one another what they’ve accomplished and what may have prevented them from achieving their goal. This type of accountability applies positive pressure, so that when your slack day rolls around, you know what you need to work on and that you’re going to be accountable to your team for that work.

When you gather to evaluate results and celebrate wins, you‘ll begin to get a sense of your output that is not responding to emails. Beholding the effect of this extra-queue-rricular work on your team’s performance, and the effect on improving your customer’s overall experience, is highly empowering.

Doing this in a repeatable way creates a history of value associated with spending time outside of the queue. If you keep it up long enough, you’ll find yourself planning capacity around this new value the team is creating, rather than treating it as something you squeeze in when you need a break from answering emails.

Use Parkinson’s (Inverse) Law to your advantage.

You and your team don’t have to succumb to the effects of Parkinson’s Law. If you dedicate time outside of the queue to focus on clear, measurable goals, you may be pleasantly surprised to find that the support queue continues to stay under control while your output (and overall job satisfaction) increases.

Such is the power of slack. Sometimes, less really is more.