The way we work is changing, in ways and at a rate we could not have expected just 18 months ago.
Employees are looking to take back control of their working and personal lives, and achieve a work-life balance that for many has long since disappeared. Or should that be a life-work balance…?
Employees and employers are trying to figure out what new norms might look like, as we navigate these great upheavals. Some term what’s happening as the “Great Resignation”, whilst others believe its merely the “Great Reshuffle”.
Many knowledge workers realise significant fulfilment from their careers, but genuinely dislike the wasted time and effort on “work about work”, robbing them of both greater job fulfilment and personal time with family and friends to re-energise themselves.
For others, work is primarily a means to financial ends, but overwork from the past 18 months is now trending towards burnout for some individuals.
So, how can we make work better? Well, we have to re-think how we come together to get work done, and in particular, eliminate this “work about work”!
At NolijWork, to address this challenge, we break work down into 4 simple quadrants.
1. Solo, Deep Work
Solo work, is what we do on our own. For knowledge workers, such work can often be done away from the office, asynchronously, usually at a time of our choosing, as we’ve already discovered over the past 18 months.
The term “Deep Work”, by Cal Newport, relates to a state of mind, to really focus productively on getting through such individual assignments.
Constant interruptions, of whatever kind, such as emails, chat messages, calls, meetings are the biggest threat to productive solo work. Salami-sliced time and attention just will not cut it in these circumstances.
In the absence of such undisturbed time, employees fall back on evening or week-end working, in order to garner the necessary time and headspace to focus on delivering their work outcomes.
Unlike the climbing example portrayed, knowledge work is seldom “life or death”, but it is clear that a constant interrupt cycle is highly undesirable in either of these situations.
So, to make work better, employees need to maximize the time available for such solo work, whilst also eliminating the plethora of distractions and interruptions faced by today’s knowledge workers. Facilitating this outcome should be a key objective for employers, through their plans for a more humane future of work.
Collaboration has unfortunately become a catch-all phrase, often applied to situations where we are working with other people, irrespective of whether it is synchronous or not.
Moreover, many workplace technologies fall into the category of “collaboration tech”, which can be anything from file sync and share, to online meeting and screen-sharing through to co-editing of documents.
Unfortunately, this lack of clarity (or definition) on collaboration itself, makes it difficult to identify which activities equate to productive collaboration versus ineffective collaboration.
We would suggest that collaboration should really be considered as a form of synchronous work with others, e.g. as in the case of document co-editing.
Meetings are one particular form of collaboration, which both anecdotally and from well-documented research perspectives, are widely cited by employees and managers alike as representing a significant and growing time-sink from their working week. But perhaps the real question is “what is missing” that requires us to avail of so many meetings?
Surely the goal should be to facilitate efficient synchronous collaboration, but only to the minimum extent necessary, in order to allow individual workers to then revert back to solo & asynchronous work. Otherwise, organizations run the risk of tying employees to a lowest common denominator performance, when constantly locked into extensive collaboration cycles.
Finally, we would suggest that it’s also quite likely that certain work preciously referred to as “collaboration” may actually fit more naturally within other quadrants, e.g. Communication or Coordination.
Like meetings, technologies such as email and IM/chat systems represent another significant draw on individuals’ time. Supervisors and managers in particular report losing considerable time to such interactions.
Statistically, the average business person is purported to handle nearly 130 emails per day. Admittedly some of this may be substituted into other IM/chat channels, but statistically 130 emails per day represents approximately 15 per hour across an 8-hour day, or one every 4 minutes! Have our workplace communication habits mutated work into an interruption factory?
Such statistics beg the question, how has work evolved to this point where such interruption is the norm, not the exception? And again, what is “missing” from how we work, that such a reality exists?
Systems of Work are needed which eliminate the need for constant communication, which serves to drive even more interruptions into the brains of overburdened knowledge workers.
Perhaps this is both the answer to the 2 questions posed earlier, i.e. as to what is really missing from our work, and also wherein a solution may be found to improving knowledge work.
American football is an excellent analogy to understand the challenges of work.
- A standard match time is 60 minutes in theory, but with various stoppages usually lasts in excess of 3 hours elapsed.
[“Work about work” anyone?]
- Football is a team sport, with a team on the field consisting of 11 players, but many more players can participate over the course of the game, being substituted depending on what is happening at particular stages, e.g. offence / defence.
[In business, work is delivered by different teams and functions within the organization. We will often refer to front office versus back office, and the many specialist roles encountered within organizations]
- American football rules are complex, particularly for the un-initiated.
[Business too is often complex, requiring specialist staff in such scenarios to navigate the various explicit and implicit rules and norms].
- American football teams employ a play-book approach, setting out the different “moves” they may utilise depending on context. These “plays” are known and rehearsed by the team members in advance.
[Organizations “should” have processes which represent the equivalent of “plays” within the business. Unfortunately, with knowledge work, it is often the case that processes are limited or absent, or they are too rigid for how people really work.]
- Football games consist of adversarial teams, and the actions of opposing players are largely unpredictable. Consequently the play book is a flexible response to emerging situations.
[So too is it for business, when dealing with external stakeholders. Overly rigid processes, which focus entirely on internal actions are likely to come up short in everyday circumstances.]
Effective coordination eliminates “work about work”. Resources are marshalled at the right time, in the right order to deliver the appropriate outcomes, retaining flexibility and agility for an aligned team.
Unfortunately in business, traditional business process approaches and underpinning technology have proven to be too rigid, too time-consuming and expensive to adopt and have relied on external resources to establish and maintain. Clearly what is called for is a more “play book” oriented approach, which a business can adopt and own, and deploy quickly, particularly in the ever-accelerating cycle of business change.
This is how NolijWork see the future of business transformation, which drives our modelling approach and underpinning technology.
So what does this 4-quadrant approach tell us about improving how we work?
To improve knowledge work, we must seek to optimise both solo (deep work), together with optimising the coordination of work.
Failures in work coordination will “spill” into increased loads within the other areas of Collaboration (e.g. meetings) or Communication (e.g. emails). Those excessive Collaboration and Communication loads in turn undermine the time and “headspace” available for individuals to undertake their Solo (i.e. individual) work.
Critically, organizations need a robust methodology to define their “playbooks” of how knowledge workers come together to get work done.
This “playbook” approach to knowledge work is exactly what NolijWork creates, whilst seeking to eliminate the interruptions and distractions which undermine individual productivity. This methodological approach is then supported by our run-time technology, which puts all of these benefits into action.
A Final Thought
We can undoubtedly marvel at the prowess exhibited by American football teams, with all of the planning, preparation, playbooks and training that comes ahead of a 1-hour game.
But in business, teams are not just dealing with one game, they are dealing with many parallel activities (games), which are happening all week long, whether that’s 5,6, or 7 days, not just for a single hour in the week.
In light of that, isn’t it time for organizations to get their teams’ playbook in order?
If you’d like to know more about our methodology and technology to improve knowledge work, get in touch, we’d love to understand how we can help your organization…
Images courtesy of Creative Commons
Licensed with CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. see https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/
- “Figure Skating – Ice Dance – Short Dance” by iocyoungreporters
- 50: Bristol Ariel Rowing Club A & 53: Cardiff University Boat Club A” by Steve Selwood.