As the owner or leader of a managed service provider (MSP) business, do you sit at a desk amongst your employees?
The general wisdom around this question is that you should sit amongst your employees and make yourself available to them.
My view on this question is different. Recently, a number of conversations I’ve had with MSP owners have convinced me that sitting away from your team might be the best strategy for all concerned.
The downside of sitting with your team
As Michael Gerber tells us in what I call the MSP bible—The E-Myth Revisited—business owners need to remove themselves from the day to day of doing within the business and focus on building the business. You want to work on the business rather than in the business.
I was recently chatting to the owner of an MSP. This client of mine founded the business himself and had grown it to five members of staff. The business was humming nicely, but he was struggling to extract himself from the day-to-day minutiae. He knew that to take the business to the next level, he needed to work on his business.
He told me that every day he got to the office with the best of intentions of working on his business rather than in it.
This business owner wanted to focus on creating processes for his staff to follow. He wanted to create marketing strategies. He wanted to build training programs for his staff.
But every day, within minutes of the business day starting, he was being distracted from his own tasks and drawn into the daily operations of the business.
He went on to tell me that when staff hit a problem, they would immediately interrupt him and ask him what they should do next.
Since he was a former engineer with a great technical background (like so many MSP owners), these interruptions included his service desk staff asking him for advice on how to fix client support tickets.
“Surely you must have some quiet time?” I asked the owner.
He went on to tell me that even when he wasn’t being interrupted by staff, he was still distracted. Sitting amongst the team meant he could hear what everyone was working on, and often got up from his desk to go across and proactively offer advice.
“I knew I should leave them to get on with it, but I felt as though I could help,” he told me.
This business owner asked me for advice on how he could extract himself from the day to day and work on his business, rather than in it.
My advice was simple: Work away from the team.
The benefits of working away from your team
I asked this MSP owner whether he would consider working out of the office for half a day each week.
He agreed to try this, and the following week he let the team know that he wouldn’t be in to the office until the afternoon. He worked from home, focusing on one of the numerous business development tasks he kept getting distracted from.
The results were very encouraging. “I got more work done in one morning than I’ve done in weeks!” he told me.
Interestingly, when he returned to the office later that afternoon, he observed that his staff bothered him less too.
I strongly suspect this was because they’d had the safety net—or dare I say it, the easy option—of asking the boss how to do things taken away. They’d been forced to create solutions for themselves.
These were very capable staff, but they’d become so used to asking the owner for help when they hit a problem (or the boss himself had leapt in to save them without them asking) that they were losing their independence.
In this particular instance, the MSP owner decided to expand the experiment to working out of the office for two mornings a week. At the time of writing, he told me that if he could, he’d work out of the office the majority of the time as he got so much more work done.
However, he was conscious that he still needed to be in the office to maintain a relationship with his staff and keep his finger on the pulse.
I suggested some other ideas to him on how to do this.
Using a Do Not Disturb signal
The need to be in the office and maintain a presence as “the boss” is important. But can you be in the office and accessible to staff while still getting on with your own important work?
In our MSP owner example, I suggested he implement a new policy. When he was sitting at his desk amongst the team, but wanted to do some uninterrupted work, he should put his headphones on.
“But if I’m there, won’t they just disturb me anyway?”
I suggested he use the Pomodoro Technique. The Pomodoro technique is a productivity strategy where you work for 25 minutes at a stretch, then take a five-minute break.
His team would know that if his headphones were on, they weren’t to disturb him but he’d be available to them in 25 minutes or less when he finished his Pomodoro session.
This type of Do Not Disturb signal proved effective and has now been adopted by other members of the MSP owner’s team. It gives them the ability to do uninterrupted work for short sprints each day, while still being present and available to their colleagues.
Just say no to interruption and distraction
Despite the trend towards open-plan offices where everyone sits together, the latest research shows that open-plan offices simply don’t work.
The idea behind open-plan offices was simple. They would encourage interaction and collaboration between staff.
The reality is, they promote a culture of interruption and distraction.
Many MSPs I know have realized this and have implemented the Do Not Disturb method of using headphones, or have started building areas of the office where staff can go for meetings or quiet space to work uninterrupted.
If you’re an owner or leader, I encourage you to find a way to separate from your team for at least some portions of the week.
Doing so will remove distractions and allow you to work on your business rather than in it.