Today’s organization is chaotic. You are collaborating with multiple teams, hopping from one meeting to another, participating in brainstorming sessions, and when you finally sit down to execute all the ideas discussed, an email notification pops up with a “URG & IMP” request. Employees are definitely working more, but most of them are getting less work done. In a recent survey, conducted by TimesJobs, 80% of the respondents said they are overworked, and 70% of the respondents acknowledged it is hampering their productivity.
The pursuit of ‘flow’
What is ‘flow’? It is a physiological state of full immersion into an activity. When people say “he is in a flow” or “she is in the zone”, they are not really using corporate jargon but rather mentioning an actual psychological phenomenon. The term “flow” was coined by Mihàly Csìkszentmihàlyi. He argued that people fully employing their core capabilities to achieve a goal created “flow”. And people who experienced it were more productive and satisfied at work. This was validated by a 10-year-long McKinsey study, which found that top executives are 500% more productive when in a state of flow. And it is this state of flow that needs to be discovered in today’s modern chaotic organization.
Making time for ‘deep work’
The work people are actually employed to do is what is classified as ‘deep work’ – it does not involve responding to emails, networking, attending meetings. Deep work involves “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit,” Cal Newport explains. A lot of time is spent in the workplace engaging in activities which do not fall in the ‘deep work’ category. If people consciously make time for deep work and do it in a physiological state of flow, then a positive impact of productivity can be expected. However, an individual's aspiration to work for four-five hours everyday in a state of flow would amount to nothing if you don’t have institutional backing. If your manager expects a response immediately to her email and doesn’t understand and agree with the concept of flow, then you have to choose between i. staying in the zone and ii. upsetting her and impacting your performance score. A cultural shift in the way the modern organisation functions is what can spark a change in the way we work.
What can organizations do? Lessons from the industry
The question then is – “Is it even possible for organizations to set up in a way which encourages deep work?” There are a few use cases in the industry which highlight that it is possible.
Basecamp, a technology company which has a project management tool, has a very clear policy on overworking – it is not allowed. The top management encourages people to have 40-hour work weeks, and finish their work within that time. And the work-week is further shortened to 32 hour weeks (or 4 days) between May and September to ensure the company’s 56 employees (most working remotely) get enough rest – both physical and mental. And working less hasn’t deterred the business’ growth and profits. The business has been profitable for every year since it started in 1999. Jason Fried, the CEO at Basecamp believes that ‘It doesn’t have to be crazy at work’ (also the name of his recently launched book), and his organisation’s policies reflect that. Here are some of the standout features:
- No mandatory meetings scheduled for team communication
- Important meetings which do occur happen only among a few people (mostly less than or equal to four)
- No commute – all employees work remotely and save travel time
- Zero expectations to respond to IMs
- Prioritizing work and being smarter in your choices and decision-making
These practices allow the basecampers to be engaged in deep work, and have shorter work-weeks.
Collective Campus, an innovation accelerator in Melbourne experimented with a six-hour workday for two weeks. The CEO and Co-founder Steve Glaveski found that the productivity of employees was better, as they were relieved of stress and could focus on their personal life after having had a short day at work. Executing a six-hour workday feels like a near-impossible task. But Collective Campus used the Pareto Principle to achieve this. The Pareto Principle or the 80/20 rule says that for many events, 80 percent of the effects come from 20 percent of the causes. In the context of a workplace, 20 percent of the work is what creates 80 percent of the value. If the business and the individual teams identify that 20 percent work for themselves, and do those in a “flow” – the six-hour workday would be sufficient for completing it.
Learning from the approach of Collective Campus, Glaveski shares what organisations can do:
Step 1: Prioritise: The first step is to identify the high value tasks, and prioritise which tasks fall under the 20 percent of the Pareto Principle.
Step 2: Cut: Remove or reduce the time you give to the low-value tasks in your day-to-day work. Start by planning meetings and being efficient; not participating in the meetings which do not impact you and where you cannot contribute; checking emails in batches; and turning off notifications.
Step 3: Automate: There are multiple tools available to automate many of your administrative redundant tasks. Explore such tools.
Step 4: Outsource: Outsource tasks which are very administrative and do not require a lot of contextual understanding of the business or specialised skillset.
Step 5: Test: Use agile approaches and experimentation to
Step 6: Start: Set up your priority list, and just start working on things one at a time. ‘Focus’ on one task, finish it, and move to the next one. Glaveski recommends picking the hardest task first.
We live in times when we look at our watches to see who is calling us, our workstations’ screens to check the time, and the phone’s notification to check our emails. It is upto us to bring some structure to our chaotic modern day work-life. Would not hurt putting this as your organisation’s New Year resolution?