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What Everyone Actually Wants From Work

What if the most important thing isn't at all about where you're working?

This week, I ran across a new report from Economic Impact commissioned by Dropbox that was examining “productivity in a post-pandemic world.”

The report’s findings were really interesting, and followed a sneaking suspicion I’ve had from talking to hundreds of knowledge workers over the last couple of years about their greatest challenges at work.

While the media has fixated on “return to office,” and the supposed battle between management and employees about where work is done,  it’s clear that regardless of location, the way people work is broken. From the report:

“In today’s hyper-connected world that is brimming with competing priorities, focus often feels like a rare, precious commodity. Yet at the same time, as the knowledge-driven economy continues to grow, the importance of deep, focused work has never been greater.”

The high cost of lost focus

Most people don’t realize just how much they need that precious focus time. They’re at the mercy of their calendars and notifications, feeling powerless to make changes. It’s a super expensive and pervasive issue. From the report:

“American companies collectively leave nearly half a trillion dollars (US$468bn) on the table by failing to leverage the productivity of their employees, who are regularly beset by time-sucking distractions from deep, focused work.”

Those distractions are things that make us feel productive and useful- answering DMs, contributing to meetings, keeping our email open all day. Managers are also suffering the most from distraction based work. Again the report:

“Distractions afflict managers more often than those lower down the corporate ladder, with frequent unproductive meetings a significant contributor. Fully addressing these distractions could result in potential business savings of US$37,000 per manager, compared with US$21,000 for general staff per year.”

It’s hard to believe that those innocuous notifications are really doing us in, one little ping at a time. The way to minimize distractions and maximize focus feels somewhat obvious but is counter to what many people believe (although most of us agree that this is the case for ourselves personally): letting people control the circumstances of where and when they work helps them be more productive.

The office: an outmoded concept?

We’ve all read about the big companies mandating employees back to the office. We’ve also failed to see the data that shows the benefits of returning to an outdated way of working that is both costly from an operational standpoint, and also nonsensical for work that can be done from anywhere.

Expensify recently ran an experiment trying to draw people back to in person work by creating a swanky lounge where people could work, chat, and sip cocktails for free.

It looks really nice! Every evening, they had sabered champagne sunset toasts. The company invested a lot of money in making it look and feel nice- somewhere between a coworking space and a swanky airport lounge.

After six months, they’re shutting it down.

Nobody showed up. And if they did, they stayed for a drink, and then found a different spot to do actual work. From the CEO:

“The office is dead. But that doesn't mean collaboration is dead, or that community is dead.  It just means it's broken free from its stuffy, sterile confines, and is becoming something so much bigger, more dynamic, and more exciting.  Cafes and beaches and airplanes and kitchen tables around the world are the new office, and as someone who works from one of those every day, I couldn't personally be happier.”
Even a fancy office lounge couldn't draw workers back (Source: Expensify)

It comes back to focus

Most people want to be successful at their jobs. That means getting work done on time. And that means the ability to focus. Watercooler chats are nice and all but they haven’t been shown to increase innovation or productivity.

In fact, research before the pandemic showed that people generally interacted with the same people every day in an office, which makes the whole “serendipitous run-ins” more myth than reality.

So what can people do to increase their focus time?

  • Get clarity on the purpose and quantity of meetings-  Do a meeting audit and see which meetings could’ve been discussions in tools like Hoop. The first step is making sure how time is spent in ways that move the business forward. Meetings aren’t inherently bad, but they are overused as a tool to move work forward.
  • Block calendars from meetings, normalize closing chat - Encourage individuals, especially makers, to take control of their calendars. Consider having meeting free days so there’s no FOMO for makers who need to focus.
  • Change processes in favor of focus - If people are DM’ing each other questions all day, see if a team can move to a documentation system where information becomes self serve. Instead of asking my teammates about the latest logo, can I find it myself in the latest Drive folder? If not, invest the time to make that workflow possible.
  • Adopt tools for asynchronous work- Replace broadcast style meetings with prerecorded collaborative Loom videos. Then use the time together for questions and discussions instead of wasting it over a presentation. Hoop is a great option for discussions and decisions done asynchronously. Rather than sending an open-ended question that will get lost in a public channel, create a Hoop so that the right people can respond within a realistic timeframe.

Time is the scarcest commodity we have, and study after study shows the way we’re working isn’t serving individuals nor businesses. It’s time to prioritize ways of working that make people happy as well as produce business outcomes.

That means prioritizing focus time, and being intentional about curtailing the current distraction, notification, and meeting default.

Let's fix the way we work.

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