The pandemic accelerated many trends, from streaming, e-commerce, and food delivery platforms to the widespread adoption of remote work. But instead of taking advantage of this opportunity to improve how we work, most organizations simply took their offices online, along with the bad habits that permeated them. A move to a better way of working remotely is desperately needed. If your digital transformation is going to be successful, you need to give your employees the right tools and systems to work in a digital, distributed, virtual environment. However, digital tools are only as effective as how effectively you use them, and alignment between managers and employees on remote work best practices will be critical to the success of any digital transformation initiative.
Digital transformation should be a means to an end, but it often gets mistaken for an end in itself. This is partly why 70% of all digital transformation efforts fail — because they’re done purely for the sake of going digital without full consideration of the bigger picture.
The pandemic accelerated many trends, from streaming, e-commerce, and food delivery platforms to the widespread adoption of remote work. But instead of taking advantage of this opportunity to improve how we work, most organizations simply took their offices online, along with the bad habits that permeated them.
During the pandemic, most organizations got no further than level two of WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg’s five levels of distributed teams framework. Instead of back-to-back meetings, people got back-to-back Zoom calls. Instead of physical interruptions, they got more interruptions via Slack or Teams.
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Despite the elimination of commute times, people ended up working longer hours and less efficiently than before, resulting in more excessive workloads and less work-life balance, two key drivers of workplace stress. Today, 83% of American workers suffer from workplace stress, with Gallup finding that a similar number of people globally — 85% — are not engaged at work.
The pandemic, of course, exacerbated all of this, as this meta-analysis published in Nature notes higher rates of anxiety and depression globally due to Covid-19. This is nothing short of tragic when we consider that most adults spend about half of their waking hours at work.
A move to a better way of working remotely is desperately needed. And it has prompted calls from a number of governments and business leaders worldwide to legislate the right to disconnect — a proposed human right with respect to disconnecting from work-related electronic communication during non-work hours, something that France introduced in 2016. But telling people to log off at 5 p.m. misses the point entirely, because it fails to address the reason for excessive workloads and rising stress — that is, how we work.
Well-meaning band-aid solutions achieve little if the toxic norms that rob knowledge workers of autonomy and control remain in place. We can help remote workers get on top of their workloads and mitigate work-life balance conflicts by moving away from hyper-responsiveness and real-time communication towards greater asynchronous communication — the type that truly gives people the freedom to decide when and where to work.
However, as James Clear, author of bestseller Atomic Habits puts it, “You do not rise to the level of your goals. Your fall to the level of your systems.”
The following tools can help leaders implement systems to influence how we work for the better.
The average person sends and receives about 121 business emails a day, spends about 23% of their time on unnecessary emails, and sends about 200 instant messages per week via platforms such as Slack. This dependency on email and instant messaging leaves people in a cycle of hyperresponsiveness, checking email once every 6 minutes as a result, and probably staying logged in to Slack all day long.
Task boards, which provide a transparent and single source of truth for the status of project tasks, give us a clear view of what our colleagues are working on when, and how much progress has been made.
Whether it’s a task board from Trello, Asana, Monday, or Basecamp, boards permit users to leave comments and ask questions in a way that promotes asynchronous responses instead of the real-time pull of email and instant messaging.
This transparency puts downward pressure on communication leads associated with reporting and status updates and helps people prioritize their work in a way that’s aligned with longer-term goals. This helps prevent them from falling victim to always heeding the arbitrarily urgent task instead of the important one.
Bartleby’s Law posits that meetings waste 80% of the time for 80% of the people in attendance. A 2017 study led by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow lends credence to this idea, with 71% of senior executives saying that meetings are unproductive and inefficient. Given this, and given that the average person spends between 35% and 50% of their time in meetings and is suffering from Zoom fatigue, ending the meeting madness offers us a clear path to liberating people’s time.
To do that, we need to end the indiscriminate booking of time in our colleague’s calendars with little regard for their priorities and commitments. Office hours is a concept that can help to do this, popularized by Cal Newport, author of Deep Work. Essentially, it refers to a period of time that people carve out for meetings on a daily or weekly basis. Ideally, time slots are ring-fenced to no more than 30 minutes, notwithstanding urgent or extraordinary circumstances, and are aligned with people’s preferred work patterns. For example, early birds are best advised to block out their mornings for deep work, whereas night owls are likely to do the same with their afternoons. Tools such as Calendly, x.ai, and others can facilitate booking time slots that don’t sacrifice other people’s priorities and can help to improve meeting efficacy.
Shared documents empower people to work on the same document asynchronously without bearing the burden of version control. Simple examples of this include Google Docs and extend to Dropbox Paper and user interface design tool, Invision, all of which support in-document annotation and team member tagging.
Visual collaboration platforms such as Miro and Mural support both real-time and asynchronous whiteboarding for brainstorming and strategy work. The use of shared documents during real-time Zoom calls also ensures that important messages aren’t lost in translation, decreasing the likelihood and cost of rework in the future.
Plugins can help to effectively slow down apps like Slack, getting us out of a cycle of viewing and sharing tons of cat gifs and pop culture memes each day, moving us toward a more asynchronous use of instant messaging platforms. We can escape information overload with the Must-Read plugin, which serves up only messages that colleagues have tagged you in. TryRoots’ AutoResponder lets other Slack users know that you’re currently away, when you’ll be back online, and offers a path for recourse if necessary. Plugins like Team Standup take the pressure off routine tasks such as daily standups and have people answer questions relating to their workload for the day by way of an automated bot, as and when it suits them.
Plugins such as BlockSite, Freedom, or Inbox Pause can block the constant influx of email for periods of the day. Gmail plugins such as Quick Compose open only the compose email window when we need to write an email, and help us avoid chasing furry rabbits down rabbit holes.
As remote becomes par for the course for organizations the world over, a new wave of tools is likely to emerge. One such tool comes from the team at Automattic. They herald P2 as a platform for teams to share, discuss, and collaborate openly, without interruption. “Conversations on P2s take place in line, update in real-time, and provide space for threaded replies,” says Mullenweg, founder of Automattic. P2 is being used to support both project collaboration and onboarding new remote hires.
Above all, however, digital tools are only as effective as how effectively you use them, and alignment between managers and employees is critical to the success of any digital transformation initiative.
Leaders must lead by example and communicate that it’s okay not to respond to things in real-time, that it’s okay to decline meeting requests, that it’s okay to turn off notifications, and that it’s okay not be online all day. Doing so will not only give people a fighting chance of addressing the chronic state of workplace stress and engagement worldwide, but will also help them win the battle for talent, something that can only be good for the bottom line.