Building a work-from-home culture that works
When the opportunity for distraction is rife, startups must empower employees to focus deeply within their home environment.
Distraction: we’re all powerless to resist the poke of its multi pronged fork. In the office, it’s the smartphone scroll through your socials, the noisy sales calls, or some idle chit-chat in the kitchen that ends up sapping half an hour.
But when everyone in your business is based at home, the likelihood of being hooked off course is even greater. (Is that the washing machine bleating for my attention…?)
You can’t sanction your colleagues’ use of their kitchen appliances, but what you can control is the company’s working culture. The ideas in Cal Newport’s book Deep Work are increasingly hitting the mainstream. Heck, at FLOWN, we’ve even built a business around those ideas, giving people the tools they need to focus.
So what is Newport’s point? In Deep Work, he defines deep work as: “Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
The key there for startup leaders is that phrase “create new value”. New businesses need all their employees to be creating new value. So a culture that enables that all-important “distraction-free concentration” is essential.
Facilitating someone’s deep focus is hard to do remotely, though. So how do you fashion an environment in which you’re on top of what’s going on, while ensuring employees are getting stuck into some really deep work?
Reject the ‘always on’ attitude
It may be that the greatest distraction to your team is… you. When a project idea pings into your head or you really want to know how that creative campaign is shaping up… oh, and there’s this seriously useful article you’ve found online that you’re desperate to share… Keep it to yourself. For now, at least.
Step away from Slack and ask yourself: can this request wait until the next update meeting? Is there a centralised place for ideas/progress that gets reviewed regularly? If the answer is ‘no’ to either of these, you need to set this stuff up.
Create an expectation that when your online status is set to ‘focusing’, it’s not OK to be distracted. This behaviour needs to be modelled from the top down. If an employee sees the founder WhatsApping the team at 6.30am, they’re encouraged to do the same.
Such always-on behaviour has been shown to be bad for business. In the book Sleeping With Your Smartphone, Harvard business professor Leslie A Perlow documents an experiment at the Boston Consulting Group.
The experiment found that by creating a culture of ‘predictable time off’, productivity went up by 20%, with no impact on client satisfaction.
On an individual level, Cal Newport recommends a shutdown ritual at the end of the day, such as queueing up priorities for the next day and declaring: “Shutdown complete!” He says his ritual reduces stress, but also gives his brain time off that ultimately improves his productivity and ability to think critically.
Expecting your people to be ‘always on’ will only serve to accelerate the onset of burnout and drive good staff to leave. Employees should know their time off is predictable; to achieve this, their work-life boundaries must be respected.
Recent research has shown that frequent video meetings are exhausting, and people’s energy and focus dips. When that happens, meetings are a dead loss. So why do we keep scheduling them when they can ruin people’s momentum?
A drive to minimise meetings will take some effort. It requires clearly communicated, focused business priorities. Create a master document that captures everything that’s going on, and that everyone can access and update. Timelines also need to be realistic (and policed to ensure they carry weight).
You’ll find that scaling back on the Zoom calls will help to reduce team fatigue and, once you’re organised, meetings can be limited to need-to-know updates, blocker removal and decision-making sessions.
At FLOWN – our service built around the very concept of ‘deep work’ – the exec team has tried a number of approaches, including front-loading meetings into Monday, to free up the rest of the week to actually do the work.
We also practise ‘deep work Fridays’: meeting-free days that give everybody a stretch of time in which to focus. For those we’ve recruited from more conventional businesses, deep work Friday is bliss.
Have clear, documented ways of working
A lean approach to meetings demands structured ways of working. Making decisions via Slack is risky – discussions get messy and stakeholders get missed off. Equally, big, in-person meetings with no clear goals are a waste of time.
Start by making clear how you communicate to each other within the business. What should Slack (or whatever other messaging tool you use) be used for? And what should it not be used for?
When is it OK to use instant messaging, and when should you pick up the phone or call a meeting or send an email? Who is signing off on whose work and how do you submit work for review?
Don’t forget to play
Crucially, the principles of deep work go well beyond the time your people spend at their desks. A culture that enables people to focus on their work also recognises that they do their best thinking when they’ve benefitted from restorative breaks, play, learning and exploration.
When you play, your brain creates new neural pathways. Play has also been shown to take place in a similar brain space as problem solving. People who make time to play are better equipped to make connections and find solutions.
So, your organisation’s leaders need to be seen to encourage and partake in play, exploration and learning. Find ways to reward and promote people who show a commitment to weaving play and exploration into their working day. Any company that can solve problems more creatively than others will always win the day.
The great thing about all these steps? They create a culture that makes workers feel good. Autonomy to focus. Respect for boundaries. Meetings that matter. And a playful virtual workplace.
All these things will make good people want to work for you, and help you make deep focus your startup’s competitive advantage.