The biggest mistake organisations can make during Covid-19 is to try and replicate the office online, while for individuals the relentless pursuit of inbox zero is not a sign of proficiency but rather one that you are putting other people’s goals ahead of your own.
So says Australian entrepreneur and author Steve Glaveski, whose popular Harvard Business Review article "The Case for a 6-hour working day" aimed to debunk the notion that extra hours at work equals greater productivity. The strong reaction to the piece has inspired Glaveski to delve deeper for a book to be published in the autumn.
Glaveski says that the forced experiment of Covid-19 has the potential to free organisations from bureaucratic practices, and to reset their ways of working with huge potential productivity benefits.
He believes asynchronous communication, or in other words communication that does not demand immediate responses to emails or calls so that employees can focus their attention on high-value tasks – ideally at times of the day that suits them – is the key to a happier and more efficient workforce.
“Companies that practice asynchronous communication are the ones that have stepped out of the era of the Industrial Revolution and no longer conflate presence with productivity or hours with output as they would have on the factory floor.
“By cultivating a structure where people can design their own days, based on what works best for them, we can help our people do more in less time which benefits the organisation,” he tells The Irish Times.
The nature of work has evolved over time from algorithmic tasks to heuristic tasks that increasingly require skills in critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity. Productivity in a coalmine or factory assembly line can be linked to hours worked and eight-hour shifts make sense in this context, but knowledge work optimises around four hours a day, he says.
Add to that mix the fact that 40 per cent of workers identify as “night owls” who peak much later in the day than standard corporate start-time and you can see the benefits. A “night owl” commuting for a 9am start, he says, might have to rise at 7am. Many of these are likely carrying the ill-effects of their sleep deprivation into the office in a form of jet-lag.
It is clearly not possible for every employee to work with this degree of latitude for the organisation to function, he concedes, but for many knowledge-focussed workers there are no impediments.
In Glaveski’s book the high number of meetings are a key productivity and motivation killer.
“Meetings are used as way of outsourcing accountability. It’s all about consensus-seeking rather than conviction. If you have good people on the bus who are empowered to make decisions and to make mistakes – ones that they can learn from – in a fast-moving environment like today’s that’s a much better approach than slowing down decision-making by involving too many people.
“Employee morale falls off a cliff when you have these really long feedback loops. It’s one of the differences between the Amazons and Netfliks and the conglomerates, that pace of decision-making.”
He is especially critical of long meetings with multiple participants.
“An hour-long meeting with eight people in attendance is a full day of work from a corporate perspective. Then you need to consider the opportunity costs of what might have been done with all that wasted time.”
Glaveski practises what he preaches. Book a call with the author you’ll be directed to the online tool Calendly, where a default 30-minute slot can be scheduled. In most cases, he says, any more is a waste of everyone’s time.
Zoom and other similar apps, while exhausting when over-used, do the job well enough when a meeting is necessary and allow for a certain level of non-verbal communication to take place, he says, but again he advises short meetings with a small number of participants.
In his research for the upcoming book Glaveski studied Automattic, the firm behind the WordPress engine that powers 35 per cent of the world's websites. Automattic employs 1,170 people in 75 countries but has no office. Inverting usual practices, employees spend 11 months of the year working remotely and come together for four weeks of the year for team-building and bonding events.
The firm also makes use of a custom-built app which keeps tabs on who has met whom. It uses this to ensure people sit beside those that they have not met before, promoting wider networking and avoiding cliques.
Organisations like Automattic can thrive in the current environment, he believes, because they have figured out how to leverage technology tools for value-added collaboration rather than enslaving their workers through an “always on” culture that demands instant responses to email and Slack.
Glaveski says trust and control are issues for some managers.
“I gave a talk online recently and a manager asked me how do you go about building trust with your employees if everyone is working remotely? That question said a lot more about the company than about the people there. If you have people on-board who are aligned with the mission of the organisation – motivated people who have the resources that they need to succeed – more often than not they are going to get things done.”
As more offices start to reopen there is a lot of concern that the blended organisation – with some employees in the office and some continuing to work remotely –- may lead to problems. Home-based workers often feel at a disadvantage when it comes to promotional opportunities, for example, because of their lack of visibility.
Glaveski accepts that the lack of water-cooler moments might be an issue for some, but that organisations should be alert to that and have more robust procedures to mitigate against that.
“If promotion is based on a face-to-face relationship that would suggest to me that conditions that precede someone getting promotion are arbitrary. They should be more measurable and qualified,” he says .
Time Rich, Do your Best Work, Live your Best Life by Steve Glaveski will be published by Wiley this autumn.
GLAVESKI’S TIPS ON VALUING YOUR TIME
Use the Pomodoro technique: Work in short bursts of around half an hour, focussing on a measurable output, and then take a short break. Get up from the desk, take some exercise or get a refreshing drink.
Question the need for meetings: If you are scheduling meetings to communicate information, think again. Do it by email or intranet instead so people can receive the message at a time that suits them. Reserve meetings for exchanges of ideas or information.
Better meetings: When you do have a meeting, cap attendance at three people, have an agenda and an action summary at the end, and keep the allocated time short to focus attention and reduce small-talk and waffle.
Outsource: Consider the low-value tasks that you perform. Calculate the monetary rate of this work. Glaveski calls this $10-an-hour work or insecurity tasks. Could this work be outsourced to a freelancer, freeing you up for more higher-value work?
Manage your remote work: Switch notifications off while you are focussing on a task, and set boundaries around friends and family through closed doors and noise-cancelling headphones.