There are two types of work we do every day. One is reactive, fast-paced, brain-dead work. The second is intentional, slow, effortful work. Most of us have responsibilities in both.
The danger is that you become so busy that you mindlessly push through all the reactive tasks. You are lost in the busyness. Remember: you are paid to think, to create, and to do the hard stuff. You are not a human router, merely passing information along.
Remote work is a bold experiment we are all taking part by necessity. But the overall picture looks grim. A recent study by the Harvard Business School analyzed people’s email patterns and online meeting invitations. They sampled three million people from 21,500 companies in 16 cities across North America, Europe, and the Middle East.
Longer and Noisier Days
Here’s what they’ve found. After COVID lockdown, people saw their average workday lengthen by 8.2 percent. That’s 48.5 minutes more each day.
People sent 5.2 percent more emails. Each email had 2.9 percent more recipients. More people were on CC.
Participants in meetings rose by two, or 14 percent. As a result, people needed to attend 13 percent more meetings.
Of course, the more meetings you have, the more coordination. Here’s an instant message conversation that’s all too common these days.
“We should talk. Let me know when works for you on Zoom.”
“Should we shoot for next week?”
“Sounds good to me. Usually, Tuesday and Friday are the best.”
“I’m sort of swamped those days. Thursday?”
“I could do 11:00, if that’s not too early?”
“I have a conference call at 10:30 and may run over. How does the following week look?”
And so on…
Is it any wonder why people are beyond burned out these days? Remote works mean to many people that their inboxes have become the agenda. The busyness pushes out the important, thoughtful stuff. They don’t get done. So our stress levels go up until the weekend arrives. Then the cycle repeats on Monday.
Slow Down the Wheel
What we need is to go beyond productivity hacks. It’s not enough to put away your smartphone before going to bed. And yes, some companies have figured this out. The answer is not to spin faster; it’s slowing down the wheel for everyone.
These are the companies that step-reduce ad hoc communications. They avoid real-time coordination. They build a system that lets employees pull in information, rather than being pushed.
1. Document more to talk less
This might sound strange at first. But the reason for more emails while working remotely is the lack of chatter around the water cooler.
The key to driving down ad hoc email then, is to document already-answered questions. Document everything in the open. Everyone contributes to a common source. Add a search engine. People can then search for what they need themselves. No one question should be asked and then answered twice, especially by email.
Can this work? The world’s largest all-remote company have already done so. Gitlab, as I previously wrote, has some 1,300 employees working across 65 countries. But it has no physical office. Gitlab scaled by “writing things down and recording things,” said Co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij.
2. Eliminate multiple versions of information
In Sid’s mind, the biggest benefit of “documentation-first” is to ensure a “single source of truth.” Gitlab has a centralized online handbook. It’s a repository on how everything is done at the company. Anybody can update it or create a new page. After changes are made, the employee then raises a “merge request” by selecting other colleagues from the “reviewers” field. The reviewers ensure the content is technically correct and the presentation follows the documentation guidelines.
Think about this. It’s crowdsourcing best practices from everyone around the clock. What it does is to codify every piece of tacit know-how inside Gitlab and turn it into something easily transmissible at scale. This is the Toyota Production System applied to knowledge work. With things written, there is no need for the inefficient job shadowing. No new recruit is supposed to learn by osmosis from observing an old master.
So how big is Gitlab’s handbook? It’s over 10,000 pages long, with more than 4 million entries, and growing. But of course, no one would ever print it. People simply google the guide every day for everything. It the institutional memory for the entire organization.
Historical Word and Page Counts Of Gitlab’s Handbook
3. Make real-time collaboration sharable instantly
Of course, there are always situations that you must collaborate with others real time. Such might be fewer at Gitlab, but they still exist. Employees are told, in their online handbook, to jump on a video call if they can’t resolve issues after going back and forth more than three times.
During those conference calls, people open a linked Google Doc. It serves as a whiteboard inside a conference room, but better. Consider:
- Everyone can write, not just the most senior person in the room.
- Font is more readable than handwriting.
- You can add screenshots to visualize thoughts and add URLs to link to external resources.
- People can clarify any documentation errors on the spot. No more reviewing meeting minutes days later.
More Human Touch with Less Chatter
Less email doesn’t mean less humane. Gitlab is a very social place. The company runs employee retreats. It brings people face-to-face to build up team spirit. Social bonding is as important as getting things done.
During these “coworking excursions,” Gitlab throws in mindfulness sessions, inspirational talks, and sporting events. Social events are choreographed, because face time is precious.
Why does this matter? Because less email, less ad hoc coordination, and fewer interruptions make us happier. Cal Newport calls it “deep work.” Our desire to be truly engrossed in doing something is primal. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls it “flow.”
What these researchers have shown us is the compelling evidence that people experience pleasure when we dissolve into what we do. When we run a race or solve a complicated logical problem, we forget that we exist. And that’s blissful.
The problem with constant email is that it fragments our attention. Our brains do not multitask, neuroscientists tell us. It only does context switching. We toggle between competing demands. The constant email stream is preventing us from experiencing “flow.” Our inbox is sucking out the joy of your working hours. You deserve better. We have to stop the craze.
What’s at stake is not merely employee productivity. It’s the way employees experience work, and by extension, the ability of a company to keep its best talents.
What’s been your experience while working remotely? What do you like about it? What do you miss? What do you dislike the most? Share with us your tips for avoiding burnout.
P.S., This Friday on March 26, I’ll host a virtual meetup at IMD at 11:00 a.m. (CET). My research team and I will unpack how organizations are becoming stronger despite the Covid crisis. Sign up here: https://www.imd.org/event/leap-thriving-after-a-crisis/
This article is co-authored with Angelo Boutalikakis, a research associate at the LEAP Readiness Project.
Thank you! Your encouragement means the world to me!
Great article as always. Wish I could have provided some earlier comments, but hopefully my thoughts aren’t already obsolete in these fast-moving times ;-).
Anyway, my own interpretation of the data presented leads me to realise that some of your conclusions might be limited to knowledge workers in the tech sector. I believe there is also a wider picture, which is much more complicated as we consider other industry verticals, and also some analysis of deeper root causes that could be worth investigating. Nevertheless I’d like to share my own thoughts for the (potential) reasons for the uptick in workday duration, email traffic, and meeting volume….. especially now that we are just over the 1yr milestone for lockdown in most countries:-
1) FILLING THE VOID – at the start of the pandemic many folks felt a deep and unfamiliar sense of emptiness, both personal and work related. How to fill this void? … there were a million ideas and suggestions (social media), but at the same time there was no real blueprint or alignment for how to cope in the work environment, therefore a huge sense of confusion and unease.
2) VULNERABILITY/FEAR – many of us (me included) looked for new/extra ways to stay informed and stay relevant. Who knew what would happen within our industries, our companies, our communities, and what consequences this would have on our working life?
3) NEED FOR CONNECTEDNESS – as such, more people probably started (over-)using tech platforms as a substitute for human contact. My own experience was to submerge myself in research, webinars, online courses, as well as accepting all of the invites to company meetings that I ‘never had time for in the past’.
4) INCLUSIVITY – even when I/we felt comfortable with the ‘temporary’ situation during pandemic, there was an increase in people reaching out to include others … all with good intentions. Human, social, and company/community obligation to bring others into our network of communication and interaction brings a massive increase in traffic – both inbound and outbound – as well as an increase in the thought spectrum (i.e. what we are exposed to and have to think about, no matter how relevant/important/essential).
5) LACK OF EXCUSES – before the pandemic, I (and many others) were able to deploy and enjoy(TM) such excuses as, (a) I’m on the road, (b) I’m at the airport, (c) I’m on a flight, (d) I’m with a client, (e) I’m in a different time zone, (f) etc. etc. etc. blah. blah. blah….. HOWEVER, no matter how true these reasons were, they also provided some credible rationale to ensure we protected our quality time alone and to engage in deep critical thinking. Many of my best ideas were generated at 35,000 ft. while watching a Marvel action movie!
As I said, I believe these are just some of the potential root causes … but the bigger discussion is certainly how to address and re-wire ourselves and our workplaces for the times ahead. At the end of the day we are ‘Human Beings’, and not ‘Human Doings’……. so the reflection could be around more meaningful interactions and alignments, rather than more transactional communication and documentation.
Happy to hear your thoughts and would be a privilege to discuss with you and your team.
Meanwhile thanks again for your thought leadership.
So true, Howard! Thanks so much for sharing a successful example of how to address the challenge we are all dealing with daily for the past year.
In my opinion, the bigger danger than email are instant messaging platforms (Signal, FB, Whatsapp, LINE, WeChat, Skype, Slack also…).
There are even disruptive. I am fighting to get my emails back. Email is for old people some say in Asia. My wife teaches at university and her students send her assignments by FB. I have to remind her reading her email. But then you cannot find anything unlike in Email.
I also agree on the point about emails of course, and what they (the constant disruptions) do to our brains, but compared to instant messenger app.
Github is worth looking into, I think there are more techniques around. Sometimes answering fast just adds to multiplication like rabbits. Take a bit of time, do what is important first.
Thanks for pointing out facility does not necessarily rhyme with functionality.
N.B. Good example of a picture that’s worth 100 words.
These points are spot-on. It’s amazing how Gitlab treats their employees, much to learn from all this!
Totally agree. Now many of us are working from home, companies should focus more on how to improve their employees productivity, and spending less time inside email is a step. Less is sometimes more.