Friday, February 11, 2011

What's the Best Work Environment in NWS Offices?

What constitutes a productive environment at the office? Of course, everyone's different: some people work better while collaborating with others, while others work better alone. But also, work environments are different. In many "traditional" offices with mazes of cubicles, too many distractions and too many meetings can make it hard to get anything substantial accomplished. People cannot get into "deep concentration", when most work gets done. However, certain team environments, such as National Weather Service Forecast Offices, require distractions.

Making a weather forecast is not an individual effort, not even close. The best weather forecasts are created through true teamwork. I would even argue that the louder the forecast operations area, the better the forecast will be. This is particularly true especially when the weather's more active for a few reasons:

  1. A forecast is made with tons of tiny bits of information.
  2. A forecaster does not stay on one task for long, as generally there are many "forecast problems". For example, the forecaster spends five minutes contemplating freezing spray in Cook Inlet, 10 minutes on wind in Valdez, five minutes on temperatures in the Copper River Basin. Therefore, a forecaster is rarely in true "deep concentration" on one particular task. In fact, the interruption by another forecaster may even focus his efforts on something more important. For example, Zola says "Wow, Whittier just got a 65 mph wind gust." Todd, trying to decide if the high tomorrow in Sleetmute will be 25°F or 30°F, replies "Oh, I didn't realize that. I better make sure we have that covered and decide if it will continue!" The "distraction" actually helped Todd focus his effort on what was more important! This "helpful distractions" can also come from social media, such as a tweet of a tornado touching down in Wasilla.
  3. Forecasts products and services must be collaborated, both internally and externally. How can you have things internally collaborated if you're not talking? For example, Todd is working on the TAF (aviation forecast) for Anchorage and is contemplating whether the Turnagain Arm wind will hit the Anchorage airport tomorrow and when. Todd asks Zola, who is working on the "grids", "Zola, what are you thinking tomorrow for the winds for Anchorage?" It would look awfully silly if Todd forecast calm winds tomorrow in the TAF, while Zola forecast 30 knot winds in the grids! 

If I were a manager of an office with a team environment like at a forecast office, what would I do?

  1. I wouldn't allow listening to music with headphones. This makes it extremely difficult to collaborate with other team members. Ambient music, however, is okay, as it can even be a social lubricant.
  2. I would place everyone within easy earshot of each other, and facing each other, to encourage collaboration.
  3. Encourage use of social media, especially as it pertains to weather. So many offices (not NWS offices) totally ban facebook and twitter. What a loss of an opportunity for interaction with customers!
  4. Donuts for everyone at the beginning of each shift! Seriously, though, there's nothing like food to make the work environment happier.
Any other thoughts out there? I'm sure there are some of you who disagree with this post, at least some of the points. After all, most NWS employees are introverts (heck, I am), and team interaction may even scare us. However, it's something our job requires, so we better learn how to work as a team!