JOSH LEVINE, JAN 29, 2021: In retrospect, it was naive to expect the next big improvement in productivity to emerge from Silicon Valley, where (ding!) the goal is (bloop!) hoovering up (buzz!) attention. It turns out Zoom, Slack, and Google Docs aren’t the remote work panacea we hoped. They’re useful, but they bring their own set of problems.
We, the digital working-class spent last year attempting to build a productive, mobile work environment out of productivity tools like these. But now, instead of wielding these apps for our own purposes, they’re driving us. It’s time to take back the wheel.
Hierarchy of Remote Work Needs by Liz Fosselin
Pre-pandemic, business leaders were investing in organizational cultures that fostered greater engagement, collaboration, and retention. Even though we’re at home, we can still benefit from culture. The difference is one of scale: now each us is responsible for establishing our own work-from-anywhere culture.
So, where do we start? Turn on Do Not Disturb, and look inside — 2021 is the year to master our internal tools of control and discipline. Here are the three core skills we need to master to reach distributed work nirvana.
1. Talk to the Hand
“The future of office work won’t be found in continuing to reduce the friction involved in messaging,” Cal Newport, the author of Deep Work, recently wrote referring to Slacks evolution. “But, instead, in figuring out how to avoid the need to send so many messages in the first place.” He has a point. Whether we plan to be permanent nomads or not, we need to learn to establish borders to become effective digital workers.
Boomers, Gen X, and elder Millennials began their careers when office and home were clearly defined, a settled part of the landscape we never questioned. But when work emails started to sneak into homes on the backs of Blackberries, these physical barriers began to falter. Now that we are at work at home, the barriers are not only gone, they’ve been replaced with a neon sign buzzing “Open 24 hours”. To be successful we can no longer rely on the physical separation of work and life to draw boundaries for us.
To get there, we need to stop using speed of response or number of meetings attended as our criteria for our own effectiveness. Taking lunch means putting down the phone; heads-down work means blocking off the calendar. Be confident that saying no to meetings is possible. As I’ve written, we can learn a lot from Gen Z.
No hard and fast rule says you have to respond the moment a message is sent, so turn off push notifications. By eliminating these pervasive pings from your environment, you take control, dictating when and how you communicate.
Constant availability has become the norm, but that doesn’t mean it’s the ideal. Have confidence that your work will be good enough that you don’t have to compensate with over-availability. The fewer meetings, the better your product, the more confidence you’ll have in your work, the more you’ll be able to say no to meetings. You won’t be able to get out of all your meetings, but even one less, is a big win.
2. It’s a New World, Make Friends In It
Pre-Covid, physical offices facilitated human connection. We didn’t realize how vital coffee station greetings and accidental run-ins were. Those collisions are gone, and with it our main method for building and strengthening our relationships. If we are going to work apart from one another, we need to establish new ways of connecting. “Wear your favorite T-shirt to our next meeting,” Neil Stevenson, Co-Founder of Harmonic instructed his employees. Over Zoom had each person share why they chose that shirt. Even better, these interactions go right to the bottom line because they foster trust, a critical element we humans need to do our best work.
In-person activities don’t necessarily replicate well online. (I’mma go ahead and skip that video happy hour.) Instead, explore how remote modes of work allow for new ways of connecting. Chats that happen alongside video meetings are an interesting opportunity. So are apps that enable asynchronous connections, like Donut. Tired of screens? So is your team. For your next meeting, tell them to grab their phones for a walk n talk.
3. Schedule Thyself
While Dolly Parton is still as relevant as ever, her ’80s ode “Nine-to-Five” isn’t, which leads me to the next work-from-home opportunity: attuning to our circadian rhythms. The premise of clocking in for a solid eight has deteriorated for years and now the pandemic has shredded the last vestige of standard working hours expectations. Replacing it is a patchwork of self-determined schedules.
Schedule your creative or focus-intensive work when you feel most productive. Morning person? Get up and get busy. Night owl? Flick on the lights and go to town. Don’t fight your lulls either. Schedule time away from screens (you can make yourself not available now and then) like taking a quick nap, reading for pleasure, or a brisk walk. Research has shown physical activity boosts productivity once you are back at it.
The caveat to circadian attunement is communication with colleagues. Make sure they know when they can and can’t reach you. Not that you need to give a reason, but consider customizing your away message with a “recharging for 15”. All the better if you can keep your on/off schedule consistent.
Eventually, many workers will head back to the office, at least part-time. But even then, more of us will be working from anywhere. If we want to prepare for the post-pandemic world this year, we need to learn to keep apps and meetings from controlling the most productive days of our lives. In fact, we’ll all be more productive if we master our work rhythms and boundaries — that way when we do return, we can be our most productive with or without pants.
Read more about designing amazing company cultures in my book, Great Mondays.