Coming Up for Air: How Your Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work27 May 2021
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Historians will be studying the COVID-19 era for decades to assess the long-term impact the pandemic had on nearly every aspect of our society, including how we organize the workforce. Our most recent Pulse of the Profession research found that 57 percent of the organizations we surveyed experienced some form of significant change in terms of operational efficiency. But while many of us have found benefits like flexibility from more time spent working at home, there is also a palpable sense of burnout among many. “Zoom fatigue” is real, and I know that I’m not alone among my colleagues in struggling at times with the increasingly blurred line between home and the office.
I was glad to recently discuss some ways that organizations can reclaim their time and energy in a virtual session with PMI’s Global Executive Council, a coalition of leading organizations from around the globe that play a key role in helping PMI to “sense and respond” to major trends affecting the world of work. Our latest virtual session was appropriately titled, “Coming Up for Air: How Your Teams Can Leverage Systems and Tools to Stop Drowning in Work.”
We were fortunate to hear from a true expert in helping organizations to optimize smarter ways of working—Nick Sonnenberg, a serial entrepreneur and co-author of “Idea to Execution.” Nick has described his personal mission as helping busy entrepreneurs and executives optimize their lives in meaningful ways and helping them go from ideas to execution in as few steps as possible.
Nick had a lot to say in particular about how the miracle of our modern instantaneous communications have, unintentionally or not, left a detrimental impact on the ability of professionals to focus without interruption.
“You don’t do your laundry every time a pair of socks get dirty,” Nick said at one point. “You batch all of your laundry at once. And yet we have built workplace cultures in which virtually every question or distraction seems to demand an immediate response.”
We talked about everything from the principles of “inbox zero” to why some emails, perhaps counterintuitively, may be better off as short, standing meetings. Our conversation touched on how organizations can maximize efficiency and identify new ways of working smarter.
A few take-aways from our conversation:
- Nick shares insights from his “CPR” method—communicate, plan, and resource. Nick has advised organizations on how to use these principles to reduce the “scavenger hunt” that many knowledge workers find themselves stuck in. Countless organizations fall into the trap of going out to recruit top talent—say, coders or marketing experts. But rather than spending the majority of their time focused on their core talents—what they do best—they instead fall into the trap of spending countless hours “scavenging” around their organizations looking for information they need.
- Taking a more strategic view of communication tools and putting clear processes in place can help you to optimize speedy retrieval of information rather than speedily transferring information. In short, managers should strive to build cultures in which talent can easily find the information they need in a logical location rather than relying on continual ad hoc requests to colleagues. These myriad requests are ultimately a drag on what author Cal Newport calls “deep work,” or time set aside for concentration and creativity. Taking someone out of a flow state can result in them needing as much as 15 minutes to fully regain their concentration—a continual challenge in cultures that set expectations around instantaneous responses to communications.
- Think carefully about your communication tools and the most appropriate use of email versus other tools like texting, instant messaging platforms, etc. Some tools are more inherently suited for internal communications versus external communications or collaborative efforts. We often fall into the habit of using these tools based on our personal preferences, as opposed to what they are designed to achieve. As Nick put it, “you don’t want to have one tool and use it as a Swiss army knife to try and solve a whole bunch of other problems.” By continually switching between IM, email and other communications, information becomes increasingly fragmented and difficult to track, as anyone knows who has found themselves mired in a lengthy email chain. Nick shared his experience often seeing WhatsApp messages or emails exchanged for communications that should most effectively be transmitted within a project management tool so that each message is more closely associated with the task at hand.
- Nick advocates for using asynchronous communication tools like Loom to help teams collaborate across time zones. This is likely an area of possibility that leaders should continue to explore; 60 percent of our audience members reported not actively using asynchronous options for communicating. As Nick described it, the 9:00am slot on a Monday morning may be “far more valuable time” and in demand than, say, a Friday evening sitting in an Uber in which someone may prefer to take in the discussion from a meeting. You may be able to consume a video of a meeting in some of these “dead spots” on your schedule and free up more time on your calendar.
- Other tactics Nick advises for saving precious seconds (that can ultimately add up to minutes and hours) include removing notifications to reduce constant “pings and dings” from colleagues that can cut into the “flow state” necessary for deep work. Shaving off a matter of seconds may not seem like a game-changer, but the long-term additional hours can make a significant impact when invested carefully in high-value activities.
- As meetings grow in frequency with a downtick in the kinds of ad hoc conversations that happen in physical office spaces, more professionals have found themselves jumping from back-to-back meetings and losing precious time to focus on their core talents. To help mitigate meeting fatigue, Nick recommends instituting a hard “no agenda, no meeting” rule to keep discussions focused. He also suggests that organizations consider wiping the slate clean of re-occurring meetings on a regular basis to ensure that they haven’t outlived their usefulness over time.
Nick gave us a lot to think about—and truly moving the needle on maximizing our modern workplace may depend on carving out more time for thinking itself. Nick recommended Keith Cunningham’s book “The Road Less Stupid”, which stresses the need for leaders to carve out time for stepping back and thinking carefully about where they want to go. That’s difficult to achieve in a world constantly asking us to react, but it’s a goal well worth pursuing.