On why less is often more

The challenges of working productively from home are especially acute during Covid19. What might we do to enable us to work more effectively? What is working from home doing for our own well-being and productivity? Let’s start with some of the challenges. 

It’s tough to follow my mantra of curating your workspace to suit the task, whether you need the stimulation of a buzy coffee shop or the peace of a quiet room. Collaborative tasks are super hard, too, attempting as we do to curate these down a video line and using online whiteboards or post-its. The best we can perhaps do is to think about timing instead; knowing when your natural rhythms suggest you should be online or offline, doing routine work or doing creative work. An advantage for many is that working from home means we can do this at the time of day to best suit us, and we may not be so confined to the 9-5 as we need to be. 

It’s also harder to manage transitions; the commute provided a psychological barrier, a distancing, between where you did your work and where you went to relax, to be with your family. Now we are living and working in largely the same space. I think falling to the temptation to not in some way get ready for work is a mistake; at least wearing what you would normally wear for work offers a demarcation that this is the space you are now in. Just as importantly, when you close out for the day, you can change and leave work symbolically, as well as literally, done for the day. 

These transitions are also helpful in having clean breaks between work and non-work and can be enhanced by using the time formally spent commuting by diong something different, as simple as a walk or some form of exercise will also help with processing the day’s activities. Some other rituals may help; placing your work laptop and gear in a cupboard or draw so it is symbolically moved to a place of rest too. Jotting down all the open loops in your mind before you finish so you resist the temptation to just sort a few more emails. 

Underappreciated (at the moment) is the drag of the online. Meetings formerly held face-to-face offered a respite from screen-time spent reading, writing, emailing and the like. Now meetings are simply added to the list of activitites that require us to spend eight hours a day staring at a little screen. 

We have not changed our meeting practice and on the assumption that Covid19 will ensure we work from home as much as not, we need to do better. We need to think about the necessity of every face-time online; do we really need to meet or can we just get on with things, guided by some short messaging? Perhaps a voice call (remember those?) would do instead. 

I can’t speak for how extraverts are finding this, but those of us more inclined to introversion are likely to find those online interactions more draining than ever. We need recovery time. We can’t simply run from meeting to meeting – and nor should we. Even face-to-face our brains need processing time because the costs of switching between tasks, topics and activities is high. As the day goes on they accumulate until we feel brain dead and wrung out. I’ve staarted blocking out time between meetings to avoid this and allow some recuperation time. 

Don’t forget, your calendar is not virgin territory waiting to be claimed by others wanting a stake in your day. It is your time, to be fiercely guarded and protected against anyone making a time-grab for a bit of you. Ensure they have a clear ask and a strong case so you can determine how that request for your time stacks up against the other time commitments you have. Block out working time as well as meetings and appointments, for these are commitments you are making with yourself to be able to work on your priorities, not someone else’s. Add in breaks, for these are the times that enable you to work effectively when you are on. Avoid the worst case scenario that you get to the end of the day, having attended to everyone else’s work,  only to say to yourself, ‘well, at least now I can do what I need to do.’ That way burn out lies. 

This is not the place to dig into emails, but with other online comms channels preliferating – slack, Teams chat, whatsapp etc etc two things are a must. First, turn off all notifications. You can’t work effectively with alerts pinging at you all the time. Then establish set times to engage with these comms. Add these time blocks to your calendar and your email footer. Ensure your team know how to get hold yof you if they need to during the times you are doing deep work. Disconnection enables focus and focus is the energy of deep, productive and innovtive work. 

As I learned when training for my first marathon, it is not all about doing lots of the core activity. You also have to take care of your sleep and nutrition. Both of these are foundations to the running being the best it can be. Not only that, but you have to carefully curate the amount of running you are doing. Down-time, to allow your body and mind to recover, is just as important as time pounding the roads. 

And so it is with work. We have to allow ourselves time-out during the day, to recharge a little, to switch off, to day-drea, to drink and eat. We need calories to fuel our brains and water to keep our body working well. Yet it is too easy to neglect these basic fundamentals, and we neglect them in our peril. Our mental health and well-bing suffers.

One of the potential advantages of working at home, is that you can more carefully curate your day. You can work with a rhythm that suits your natural energy flows. 

I’m a super slow starter in the mornings, but by 10 I’m flowing. I like to do my hardest and most thoughtful work late morning or in the evening, the afternoons for more routine and calls. My best days I run just before lunch or dinner, depending on how I have designed it to balance my personal and professional needs. For us to flourish working from home, often under difficult scenarios, we need the ability to do just this. It requires institutional and managerial trust. That we are all adults and can find the best way for us to each accommodate eight good hours of work into the 24 we all have available.  We don’t need a permission-slip; we just need to do what works. 

It will in all likelihood require a cultural shift. But no-one ever designed the 9-5 specifically for office work. It was designed for industry where you needed the whole production line to be working at the same time. Now for those working in the knowledge economy we don’t need those ties. I’m so hopeful that Covid19 facilitates this structural change across society. For those of use whose work is about ideas and innovations, attending to problems and thorny issues, there is no demarcation between work and non-work so long as our brains are processing. Some of our best ideas will pop into our minds when we least expecct it. If I have a break though idea when I am running, am I working?

Being productive is not the same as being busy. Nor is the same as being availabile. An availability culture is the enemy of productivity for you are always waiting to have your day disrupted by someone else’s priorities. A meeting culture is the enemy of productivity for it is based on a default assumption that everyone needs to be involved in some work, and where meetings often talk about the work, rather than collaborating on it. An always-on culture is the enemy of productivity because you are never stepping away from the noise of interruption and distraction. 

Your brain needs down-time. It needs food and it needs water. It needs time to process what you are putting into it, a requirement of which is that you stop feeding it content. You can do all of these, and working from home offers the ability to take control and build these patterns in to your day. Do so flexibly but consciously. How you do your work is just as important as what you do for work.

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