By Alicia Navarro, Founder and CEO of FLOWN
The ‘new normal’ of remote working comes with benefits to both staff and businesses – the promise of a better work/life balance for employees, and savings on office costs for their employers.
But it also brings a host of challenges.
Employees working alone at home can become lonely and demotivated, and exhausted from constant online meetings. Managers can struggle to keep staff accountable when they don’t meet in person. But with a majority of workers keen to continue working at least partly from home, remote and hybrid working appears here to stay.
The challenge for businesses as we emerge into a post-pandemic working world will be to stay productive while providing support to employees when they choose to work from home, away from the camaraderie and accountability the office provides.
Some forward-looking companies are already recruiting ‘head of remote’ specialists to manage this cultural shift. I think it’s pertinent that this role acts in both the operations and HR spaces: it’s not just about running a smooth Zoom operation, but about making sure remote staff remain happy and productive.
I founded FLOWN in the middle of the pandemic as an entirely remote working company. We’ve managed to develop, deliver and grow our service from home offices scattered across the UK and Europe. So I know only too well the challenges of keeping a remote workforce happy, accountable and motivated.
How do we do it? We use the concept that underpins our entire business – the magic of ‘deep work’.
What is deep work?
‘Deep work’ is a concept coined by Cal Newport, productivity writer and professor at Georgetown University. Deep work is work done on a complex task with complete focus. Deep work is difficult, takes all your concentration, and produces great things, like symphonies, novels – and solutions to complex business problems.
Deep work contrasts with ‘shallow’ work – mentally undemanding but time-consuming tasks like data entry or sorting through emails. Shallow work is inescapable but unsatisfying; deep work is harder to achieve but uses a worker’s full capacity, giving them a real sense of achievement and making them highly productive.
As shallow work is increasingly outsourced and automated, the ability to tap into deep work will be key to success for knowledge workers, and the companies that rely on them.
As Newport says: “The ability to perform deep work is becoming increasingly rare at exactly the same time it is becoming increasingly valuable in our economy … the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”
That’s why Newport calls it “the superpower of the 21st century”.
Newport is talking about the potential for individual success – but imagine extrapolating that superpower for every member of staff at a business? Your ability to go faster, and produce better work, goes into overdrive.
How you can use deep work to boost productivity and wellbeing
Bringing deep work into your workplace can work wonders for your demotivated, isolated remote workforce. Not only does a deep work practice allow staff to produce great work, the sense of achievement it gives is intrinsically motivating. Deep work needs dedicated blocks of time, helping to prevent work from bleeding into personal or family hours.
But the real beauty of deep work is that its productivity and wellbeing benefits go beyond the actual focused work time. As Newport views it – and as we live it at FLOWN – deep work is at the centre of a holistic approach to working life, one that balances periods of focus with periods of collaborative work and shallow work, and, just as importantly, periods of no work at all.
Thus, scheduled deep work time combats meeting fatigue, freeing up calendar space (and mental space) for effective collaboration. Quality breaks, preferably taken away from screens, improve wellbeing and refresh the brain, allowing new connections to be made and creative solutions to unfold. Scaffolding deep work with rituals like stated intentions and group check-ins keep workers accountable to themselves and to the business.
And the best news is that a deep working culture seems almost tailor-made to accommodate a hybrid working environment. The geographical distance between work and home can give employees room to switch between deep, shallow and collaborative work when they need to.
As a leader, you can facilitate this in some easy ways.
Deep work tips to implement into your hybrid working set up
Diarise, prioritise, ritualise
As with any cultural shift, establishing a deep working practice succeeds best if encouraged across all levels and championed from the top. My role as a CEO involves a great deal of collaborative work, and I spend most of my day multitasking. But scheduling deep work lets me put busywork to the side and prioritise the big picture. Deep work benefits my own role – and I want my staff to benefit, too.
Encourage your employees to block out deep work time, and help them make the most of it by respecting that time. Since it takes on average 23 minutes to regain focus after being distracted, deep work won’t work if managers see it as an excuse to drop in a meeting, or expect replies to Slack messages. Allow your staff the time they need to focus without distractions.
At FLOWN, staff use our own flagship product – facilitated online deep work sessions – to do their own focused work. Having common deep work times across the business helps colleagues respect each other’s blocked time, and deep working (silently) alongside others provides the accountability and sense of belonging often missing with remote work.
We also instil this feeling of being part of a team by ritualising morning stand-ups. Ritual is an important aspect of deep work: diarising, intention setting, and organising your physical and mental space are all key to achieving a productive deep work time.
It’s made more powerful when done with others. Stating intentions to a community is known to increase the likelihood of work getting done, so at FLOWN, we bookend all our facilitated online sessions with ritual intention setting and post-work reflection.
Take a break
Another important part of a deep work practice is rest and play. Deep work is tiring, and regular, quality breaks actually improve productivity: they refresh the brain, promote creativity, and result in better quality work when staff get back to the desk. The best-quality breaks involve some sort of exposure to nature, as natural spaces act to restore the attentive mind when it tires after focus.
Hybrid working can be a real advantage here. It can be easier for workers to take breaks at home: green spaces may be closer, and workers may feel more relaxed about leaving their desks. Design healthy break activities and incentivise your employees to engage with them.
We call ours ‘Quests’: available to both our members and staff, they’re a range of short outdoor and indoor activities to help workers switch from cerebral thinking to a sensory experience. This shift helps people to refresh and recharge.
Hack your spaces
One key way deep work synergises with hybrid working is in enabling different spaces to be used for different types of work. Cal Newport is a fan of architect David Dewane’s ‘Eudaimonia Machine’, a blueprint for an optimal office layout.
It specifies a series of spaces that lead gradually deeper into the focused centre, from display spaces and a collaborative salon, through a research hub and shallow work office, to finally reach the deep work chamber.
Given most open-plan offices are light on deep work chambers, hybrid working can adapt this concept much more cheaply than a refurb! The quiet of home is often well suited to deep work. Conversely, the office can provide the noisier outer layers of the Machine. ‘Office days’ might be good for meetings, shallow tasks, and collaborative thinking.
A well-organised and supportive approach to deep working can help your hybrid workforce optimise their times and spaces, combating isolation and helping them to get their best work done.
About the author:
Alicia Navarro is the founder and CEO of FLOWN, a virtual coworking platform that provides an online deep work toolkit. Frustrated by how hard it was to find the physical and mental spaces conducive to productive and creative thinking, Alicia began FLOWN to offer a set of online tools and resources to enable accountability, focus and creativity.