A couple of months ago, we decided that we would finally try something that I’ve wanted to do since starting Serious Fox: Hack Days!

The idea is simple: Each month, take a day off to build something fun. It doesn’t matter what it is or what the result is - the point of the day is to try something new and work as a team.

Why do we believe in hack days?

We became intrigued by the idea of hack days after seeing sidigitals halloween project, where you could send their team members electric shocks by tweeting at them. It was such a great project - a really fun idea that would be possible to complete in a short amount of time - engaging both the team and others.

Sidigital’s Halloween Project
Hack days aren’t just good fun - they give everyone an opportunity to explore new technologies, skills and disciplines. We’re lucky to have a wide range of interesting client work, but there’s never as much room for risk-taking and exploration when someone is relying on you to do good work on a deadline. While putting the best man on the job makes sense for productivity, it also means that team members who want to explore new areas don’t always get the chance to.

Hack days not only allow everyone to try out new things, it also gives everyone a chance to work with each other.

When there’s a lot of projects to do, it’s unusual for everyone to be working on the same project at the same time. Teamwork is key to our process, so it’s important to keep everyone in sync with each other as much as possible.

What’s the catch?

Hack days can be a great experience for you and your team, but you have to play your cards right. It’s hard to screw up a hack day completely, but there are always bumps along the way when you’re trying something new. Here’s a couple of minor hiccups we had, and how to avoid them:

Get out and do something different

One of the key goals of hack days are to make sure that everyone gets to try something new and that you all get together to work on something fun. This means: if you spend the majority of your workdays in front of a screen - don’t make the hack day all about sitting in front of a screen.

Ok so this isn’t us camping, but shots of us out and about in London would be grey and rainy and not convey the message at all!
Building something tangible that you and your team can interact with and discuss is usually a good way of doing that. If you want to work on a purely digital project, make sure to have off-screen activities too - and involve everyone in the design and build process.

Make sure you’ve got everything together BEFORE you get started.

Like every project, hack days need a lot of planning - even more so seeing as you’re trying to get as much done as possible within a limited amount of time. We have a special “hack day” channel in slack where we can all chime in on what we need to get ready for our project.

We keep a slack channel open to discuss things we might do on hack days
Our bartending robot Fantastic Mixer Fox required a substantial list of parts. It took us a few months to curate the parts list and we managed to miss a few items. This meant that we had to spend a few hours hunting around the local shops looking for parts. Although it was still fun, it wasn’t the best use of our time - and we could have gotten further on the project (and drank quite a few more cocktails) if we hadn’t had to run all over Shoreditch for parts.

Make sure theres enough work to go around

This is probably the most important point. The day needs to be productive for everyone, and its no fun if you’re left without much to do. When planning the day make sure the task is not only achievable in a day but also large enough for everyone.

We had this issue with one of our project. We chose to use RubyMotion to make an iOS app, which was great fun for two of us but left our designer Linnea with a very small list of tasks. Linnea decided to make us all personalised Icons with the time (which look awesome!). However, it would have been better if the project was something we could all work equally much on together.

Our ibeacon icons came about because we didn’t plan enough work for everyone - it was a happy accident but as a rule of thumb you should always try to make sure everyone has something to do.

Keep everyone focused

Hack days are meant to be fun, but its also worth keeping in mind there is a goal for the day. The best way we’ve found to keep everyone focused is to involve everyone in the planning of the project. Just chucking a team member into a project you want to do isn’t going to be fun for either them or you. You have to make sure everyone knows what they want to work on and that they get to do that.

If you have to divide and conquer the work - make sure you have regular recaps with the whole team. Figure out what else needs to be done, if anyone’s stuck or bored by their task, and pair up those who are free to help with those who need a hand.

Is it worth it?

The knee-jerk reaction to hack days is to worry about productivity. Believe me, that’s what we thought too. As a team of five, sometimes it can feel like there aren’t enough days to start with, let alone days to mess about!

The first time we had thought of it as a compromise - a non-productive day in exchange for self development and teamwork. However, we found that hack day projects are far from a waste of time, especially if you plan them right.

The sky’s the limit - which means you have the opportunity to showcase the skill of your team in a whole new way. It’s the perfect time to try something weird and wonderful that feels unique to your culture and your company. We’ve found that both our peers and clients engage with these projects, resulting in interesting leads and conversation.

So far, we’ve run three awesome hack days, and have built the following things:

Intrigued? I told you so ;) Don’t worry, I will tell you more about them in later blog posts.

So what’s the verdict?

For us, they’ve been amazing experiences that helped us bring our team together to show who we are as a company and a team. If you plan it properly, communicate well with your team, and are willing to put in a bit of elbow grease, hack days could be an amazing experience for you too. It’s really fun to see how well people respond to projects like these, and the conversations they generate. For example, tweeting about our iBeacon project led to interesting chats with the people from esitmote, whose product we were using for our project. And be sure to let us know what adventures you get up to if you try it out!