The move to better ways of work is desperately needed. Gallup reported 85 per cent of people globally are disengaged or not engaged at work. Miserable workplace stress statistics echo these numbers. In Australia, 46 per cent of people find their workplace mentally unhealthy. These figures are nothing short of tragic when we consider people spend about half their waking hours at work for almost their entire adult lives. Workplace stress and a lack of engagement are chiefly attributable to an excessive workload, people issues, work-life balance conflicts and a lack of autonomy. This is ample evidence that telling people to work wherever they like isn’t going to address the systemic factors causing stress. Fortunately, these driving factors can be positively influenced by actively changing how work gets done.
1. Move away from hyper-responsiveness
Much of how we communicate at work today is real time. We send and receive 121 business emails a day. We send and receive hundreds of instant messages via Slack or Microsoft Teams a week. We attend back-to-back hour-long Zoom calls, often merely to communicate information or to be a fly on the wall. This keeps us in a cycle of hyper-responsiveness, reminiscent of Pavlov’s dog, and robs us of our ability to think and apply our best cognition to solving problems and creating value. A move away from real-time communication to asynchronous communication, supported by task boards (such as those offered by Trello and Asana), can help people get rid of jam-packed calendars and the need to be glued to their inbox or instant messaging platforms. But people need to know it’s OK, and even encouraged, not to respond to inbound communications immediately. The average person switches screens once every 20 seconds, and it takes us about 23 minutes to get back in the zone after switching. Notifications contribute to this switching culture that leaves us exhausted and unfulfilled. The move to asynchronous communication should be applied to internal and client communication. The reason clients ask questions is because they have little visibility of work getting done – work that they’ve paid to get done. Shared task boards give them visibility without the communication overheads affecting their and your employee days.
2. Move away from an over-reliance on email
The modern knowledge worker checks email once every six minutes on average, clocking up three hours a day in their inbox, prioritising and confusing “inbox zero” with delivering real outcomes. When IBM turned on email in the early 1980s, communication soared by a factor of six in one week. We paid an immediate price for the convenience of email. The constant screen and context switching robs knowledge workers of their ability to get into the flow state and do their best, deep work. This leaves them busy all day but often with little to show for it other than exhaustion and a mounting workload. Why are we hiring great minds and paying them six figures if we keep them in a state of hyper-responsiveness and shallow-level thinking? Moving away from email and towards task boards when it comes to internal and client communications can put significant downwards pressure on communication and give consultants more time to think, get great work done and get on top of workloads.
3. Move away from hyper-availability and a ‘yes’ culture
The average knowledge worker spends 23 hours a week in meetings – more than half their contracted hours. Worse, 71 per cent of senior executives say meetings are unproductive and inefficient. In most organisations we can simply block time in our colleagues’ calendars without giving a second thought to their priorities. Often we book one hour by default and invite a handful of people, most of whom don’t need to be there. Moving towards a culture where meetings are used as a last resort for communication, are shorter by default and feature only key people is a start. Actively discouraging the theft of our colleagues’ time can help get us out of this “let’s call a meeting” culture, which is typically based on a desire to outsource accountability.
4. Optimise for conviction over group consensus
As organisations grow, we embed policies and systems to help them deliver on a repeatable and scalable business model and safeguard the business against harm. But often this comes at the expense of employee autonomy and adaptability. We should strive for an optimal level of processes and systems that empower employees without compromising the business. This is possible when you hire great people who are aligned with the organisation’s values and mission, removing the need to ask telling questions like: “How do you build trust with remote employees?” As Jeff Bezos wrote in his 1997 Amazon shareholder letter, we need to delineate between Type 1 decisions (big, hairy, audacious, expensive, irreversible) and Type 2 (inexpensive, reversible, learning utility), and empower our people to make and act on Type 2 decisions. Most decisions are Type 2 decisions but we treat most decisions as if they’re Type 1 and resign ourselves to countless meetings and emails, depriving our organisations of speed and our people of autonomy and fulfilment. Delineate between the two, and empower your people to make and act on Type 2 decisions in word, example and policy.
5. Ramp up automation and outsourcing
I have friends at Big Four firms who routinely tell me they spent several hours on a Saturday completing expense reports. And these friends are senior managers on several hundred thousand dollars a year. What? We can further allay work-life balance conflicts and excessive workloads by liberating people from step-by-step procedural work that increasingly can be automated or outsourced for a tiny fraction of what we’re paying consultants to do themselves. This frees them up for higher-value work.
Steve Glaveski is chief executive of Collective Campus and author of Time Rich: Do Your Best Work, Live Your Best Life (Wiley, 2020).