The new way of working is broken

The “new way of working” where we are all interconnected and all available all of the time doesn’t work.

Companies are adding tools to their ecosystem every year to solve specific problems, and each tool seems to have its own notification and chat system.  Most of these tools are driving towards “real time communication” and this idea has been sold as a great feature, driving faster innovation and greater collaboration.

We already know that multitasking doesn’t work, it may even cause permanent brain damage. But we don’t need to neuroscientists to know that it’s hard to concentrate and deliver quality work when we are interrupted, and most of the tools supposedly delivering the “new way of working” are highly interruptive.

The default setting for our email system includes an icon notification, a pop up and a sound as the default notification. It’s easy enough to change but every so often a reboot will reset it to default. Imagine anyone thinking that a sound notification would be a good idea in an open plan office.

But is “real-time communication” a good idea? In a crisis it might be necessary, but most of the time we’re not working in crisis mode. In a recent Recode Decode interview Jason Fried said

…as a primary method of communication, real-time communication is a bad idea in most workplaces most of the time…People cannot get their work done at work anymore because they’re being constantly interrupted by all these real-time tools.

The constant interruptions break our focus, and it can take more than 20 minutes to recover our concentration. This cannot be good for productivity, every person I know has developed strategies to reduce the interruptions, including;

  • no sound or vibration notifications
  • removing apps with high notification rates from the desktop/homescreen
  • turn off notifications on apps (weirdly this isn’t always possible – even temporarily)
  • close email and any social media tools to allow focus
  • use airplane mode to appear unavailable
  • book appointments in outlook to do focused work – which triggers a “busy status” on skype

But could we also call on tool designers to rethink their notification systems from “push” to “pull”, perhaps they could allow us to schedule mini-breaks from notifications. Could system designers set up notification hubs where we collect the notifications for new work? Or could notifications get really smart and only appear when we’re working on the relevant project?

Imagine how much we would get done in a day without interruptions.

image via pixabay 

In Praise of Short Meetings

There were three messages: safety, inclusion, company performance. In that order. It was all over in about 15 minutes, and we were asked to chat to our colleagues and get to know someone new.

I wasn’t what I expected from a company meeting about annual results, and I wasn’t the only one, some colleagues who are also in their first year with the company were also surprised.

It was brilliant. It was effective. Everything about it spoke of the company’s priorities, and there was lunch.

When was the last time you joined a meeting that covered the promised agenda, inspired you, gave you lunch and finished on time?

Three things to think about when planning a meeting

What is the purpose of the meeting?

Meetings can have different purposes – informing colleagues, making decisions, problem solving, or consulting. Try to keep your meeting to just one purpose, it will make the next questions a lot easier.

Who needs to be in the room?

Steve Jobs famously asked people not specifically needed in a meeting to leave. That makes sense for consultative or decision-making meetings where increasing the number of attendees slows both processes down. However if your meeting is about informing people or problem solving the numbers matter less, and for informational meetings the audience will be somewhat self-selecting.

What is the minimum content?

A meeting is not the place to provide really in depth reporting, people can’t absorb and work with detailed data in a 30 minute time-slot through which everyone will be speaking. So go minimalist on what you present – and provide the resources/data/files later. If you’re using powerpoint create high impact slides and use appendices for the detail. The meeting I mentioned above did use powerpoint with key figures – 2 or 3 data points at most. We all walked out understanding the direction of the company and with the priorities clearly impressed on us.

And one last sneak question; do you really need a meeting? Many decisions can be made without putting an hour on everyone’s agenda. This is one area where time is money and it’s rarely factored into project costs, there are tools out there to help you measure the cost of time spent in meetings, and other tools to help you manage meetings better.

Go for a shorter meeting, your team will thank you for it.

Image: stopwatch via pixabay 

Moving the Needle

I was reading an article on Wal-Mart’s e-commerce business recently and I came across the term “to move the needle”. Since I spend more time sewing on buttons than I do driving cars at the moment the first mental picture I had was troubling. Turns out not that needle.

The expression refers to moving the needle on some instrument of measurement such as a car speedometer, possibly more specifically the analogue Vu meter used in audio recording. In a more abstract form asking whether something “moved the needle” is just asking whether there was a noticeable improvement in the results.

In the Wal-Mart article they were referring to the e-commerce side of sales, which at 0.3% of US sales (by value) is barely impacting the billions in total sales. So although sales are at over $200 million it’s not yet moving the needle. I may not be the only one unfamiliar with the term, the headline reads “Wal-Mart’s e-commerce business: Can it move the needle, be material?” I’m pretty sure those last two words have been added since I first saw the article.

In another take on moving the needle, Lisa Earle McLeod applies the term to personal changes, and shows how making small, consistent changes is significant. She says “You don’t accomplish big things overnight; you move the needle every day.” Exactly.

What are you doing to move the needle today?

Image; Pixabay

The Tyranny of To Do Lists

To Do List

Does your To-Do list look like and endless scroll? Is it a table of incompleteness that makes you feel guilty?

There are some better ways to work. There are tools out there. But first: What if you stopped using a To Do list?

They Don’t Work

Or at least, they’re less use than you think, research quoted in the “Busy Person’s Guide to the Done List” by Bailey Adams says that.

  • 41% of to-do items were never completed.
  • 50% of completed to-do items are done within a day.
  • 18% of completed to-do items are done within an hour.
  • 10% of completed to-do items are done within a minute.
  • 15% of items added as to-do items were already completed.

So we’re not using them as a list of things to do, but as a way to make ourselves feel better about things we’ve already done.

A to-do list doesn’t rank your tasks. All tasks appear equally important, and there’s no distinction between what will take you the most time. They don’t help you structure your work.

They can also be a creativity killer – when we feel under pressure to complete a list of tasks we focus on that at the expense of doing creative work. We can also focus on the small stuff and lose track of the important stuff.

Caveat: Sometimes They Do Work

You don’t want to forget something you’re responsible for, and that’s the rationale for creating to do lists. But you can do it in a smart way.

In my current job I have a responsibility for managing content on an intranet site, the requests can arrive at any time, but usually there isn’t a precise publication deadline. I have a standing appointment in my agenda on a Friday to do this work, when a request comes in I add it to that appointment, usually just by adding the email request to the appointment. Effectively I’m constantly building my Friday to do list.

But here’s why it works:

  1. I know exactly what I need to do during that Friday appointment
  2. I don’t have to think about those tasks for the other days of the week
  3. The appointment is 2 hours, if I don’t need the two hours I get the time back, but I never spend more time on the to do list than I have scheduled.

Other methods aim to make you focus on the strategic goals, the important stuff. Or to limit the number of things on your to do list (for a start, don’t add tasks that you’ve already completed).

Methods and Tools

There are a slew of methods and tools out there to help people be more productive, try them, pick one that works for you.

Pomodoro Technique

Named after a tomato, in this technique you break your tasks into 25 minute periods, and take a five minute break at the end of each.

I find 25 minutes annoyingly short, but I do use the “plan task + break” concept, with the niceness of the break in proportion to the focus needed for the task.

Bullet Journal

A paper-based system that combines a to do list, a planner, and a diary. You use symbols to indicate what different items are, and you can add more description to any item, develop a habit tracker, colour-code your entries and instagram the whole thing. My inner stationery queen loves the idea, but being realistic I don’t have time to document in this detail or to decorate my to-do list at work.

ToDoist

Todoist is an elegant task list online and on app. I like this tool, particularly because it can be used across devices and across projects. I’ve only used the private version, although I included work tasks on the list, but there is a business version.

Microsoft Planner

If you work for a company that uses Microsoft then this is probably available. It lets you create tasks, add details, and assign them to other people, there are some options to sort and prioritise, but it doesn’t act as a true project management tool. As a colleague said “where’s my Gantt chart?”

Paper and pencil

My favourite tool, and I keep coming back to paper and pencil, it works for me. I write down things I need to do per week, and group them by project, plus a category for admin and one for personal tasks. I draw a box next to each task, and I check them off when done. If I haven’t done them I draw an arrow next to them as in “send to next week”. I tick off most things each week but I just move stuff if I need to; it’s a tool not a rule.

My half-baked theory is that “to do” lists work for things we need to remember to do, but destroy creative thinking, after years of trying all sorts of options I’ve come back to pencil and paper. I keep a list on paper for the week with the tasks grouped by “project”, “admin” and “personal”. I put down things I shouldn’t forget, tasks and follow ups I need to pick up adding a check box and a two letter code for the day it needs to be done. Creative tasks don’t get listed unless I need to send some output, instead I block a chunk of time on my calendar “PPT for team meeting” for example, giving me freedom to think in that time.

 

Image: Checklist via pixabay  |  CC0

 

Productivity in 10 Minutes

Here are some things that you can do to improve your productivity, each step will take 10 minutes or less.

(1) Find out where you waste time

RescueTime is an application that tracks which sites and apps you go to. You can set it up on all your devices and really track your distractions. Initial set up takes five minutes, but you’re probably going to need to fine tune the settings later.

Quick and Dirty solution; check the sites you visit the most from your browsers default page. If these aren’t your most productive sites you need to change your behaviour.

(2) Avoid distractions

StayFocused is a Chrome extension that will block your distraction websites for a set period of time. Wordpress offers a distraction free writing mode, and there are lots of other tools out there to create a distraction free work screen.

Quick and Dirty Solution; I use two browsers, I have all my work stuff set up in Chrome (across multiple devices) and all my “fun stuff” set up in Firefox. In work time I stay in Chrome.

(3) Plan and monitor tasks

There are loads of diaries on the market, and this range of free tools. There are as many theories as there are tools. I’ve tried lots of different online options, but I come back to a paper-based checklist. I break the checklist up by project, and then add tasks to my (online) calendar as timed appointments. It’s the planning the tasks into my calendar that is key.

Quick and Dirty Solution; I use a chrome add on that can time activities and add it back into the calendar – you can see it in more detail in an earlier post.

(4) Use the small moments

When you’re really busy there always feels like so much to do and any time spent waiting feels wasteful. Here are seven ways to use those gaps of a few minutes to improve your productivity.  The article offers long term and short term fixes – spoiler alert I’m working on the long term solution for #7 in the coming weeks.

(5) Evaluate the value of what you do.

As Peter Drucker said.

productivity quote

But that might take you more than 10 minutes to solve.

Image: time via pixabay

Still  |  Hendrik van Leeuwen  |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Productivity Map vs the Procrastination Trap

When you have a “real job” your productivity is driven largely by external demands, appointments and deadlines. When you start working for yourself it’s entirely up to you to drive your own productivity; on one hand it’s great to be free of those external demands, on the other it’s harder to maintain momentum without them. So I’ve been reading up on productivity, the consensus is that there are three elements to high productivity.

The Productivity Map

1 Clear Goals and Priorities

The first step is knowing the big picture of what you’re trying to achieve, defining what are the important steps you need to take to reach that. With your priorities defined you can move to planning.

I have a month by month set of goals, which can be broken down into activities to be completed each week, and from that I can build a daily plan.

Knowing your priorities will also help you say “no” to all those requests that can derail your good plans, here’s how Kristin Muhlner, CEO of NewBrand Analytics thinks about saying no to things at work.

This is about sustaining focus on results over the longer term, not about boxing yourself into a single path. If it turns out that priorities need to change, then change them. But make the decision and then change, don’t just drift onto a new path.

2 Plan

Set out a plan for your month, week or day. Find a system that works for you and stick to it.

There are all sorts of techniques out there, from productivity planners to the Pomodoro technique, to Get Things Done or the Seinfeld method.

Which method you use will depend on your personality and your business needs. Back when I had a company job the Get Things Done method worked because there were enough external deadlines to drive me forward.

If you need an easy way to time activities Google spreadsheets and calendar offer a free add-in that will help, I made a timesheet video guide on how to set that up.

I now use an adaptation of the productivity planner and I plan a week’s overview and then plan priority tasks per day in 30 minute chunks. I do a weekly review and plan session on a Friday morning which lets me relax over the weekend with the feeling that everything is under control (ha!).

3 Monitor Progress Honestly

Productivity is about what gets done, not just following a timetable so you need to monitor your output. Be honest with yourself, and remember that part of this is to refine your planning process. Look at what got done as well as what didn’t. Acknowledge any disruptions that put you off your game.

I check at the end of each day what I got done, and make adjustments for the following day. On Fridays I review the week and give myself an arbitrary “productivity score”.

I have a wide optimistic streak which has a big upside, but the downside is I tend to somehow thing I can do five 3 hour tasks in a day so right now part of my monitoring is around the time taken to complete tasks so that I can get better on these estimates. I am timing the writing of this post, for example, it’s not strictly necessary but in creating estimates for a client accurate time estimates are important so it’s a good skill to learn.

The Procrastination Trap

Ellen DeGeneres gives a perfect example of what procrastination looks like, I’m sure  you’ll recognise it.

If you watched it you may be one of life’s natural procrastinators, welcome to the club. There are lots of reasons we procrastinate, sometimes we talk ourselves out of the hard tasks, sometimes we just get distracted – like a cat seeing a lazer light.

Setting goals and monitoring them honestly will help you build productive habits that will edge out the procrastination habits. But there are a couple of things to do in addition to this.

1 Remove distractions

Close email and social media sites, and remove notifications. There’s nothing more likely to distract you than that little flag saying “read me, you know you want to”. Checking email/status updates is a known productivity killer.There are lots of tools to help you focus when working online.
I’ve taken the simple step of putting all my work stuff into one browser (Chrome), and all my personal stuff into another (Firefox). Of course I can still fall down an internet rabbit hole, but it is a psychological help.

2 Listen to music/Don’t listen to music

Whichever helps you focus, I know lots of colleagues who find listening to music lets them focus. Sometimes it can also be a welcome way to block out office noise in open plan offices.I prefer not listening to music, but sometimes it can help my concentration if there is a lot of other background noise.

3 Tackle the hardest/easiest thing first

Some advice suggests that you should plan to start with the easiest task or a pleasant part of the overall task. Maybe that will work for you – try it.

I prefer beginning with the hardest “biggest” task, and plan the easier or more fun tasks as a “reward”.

4 Reward yourself

A reward could be a break, a walk outside, 10 minutes of facebook time, a good cup of coffee, a trip to the gym. It could also be one of the more pleasant tasks you need to do, for example, some online research for a conference to attend. Once you’ve defined your reward you can tell yourself “I’m going to finish this blog post by 11am and then I’m going out for coffee”, it’s a good way to trick yourself into focusing.

Productivity is about outcomes, but the way that we get there is by having a system that works and building productive habits. All the research I’ve found states that you need to maintain your own health, know your own goals, plan tasks against goals, monitor output, and break the procrastination habits. For me it’s a work in progress.

Image:  time via pixabay

Employee Engagement

 

 

 

What is employee engagement?

Employee engagement is often cited as a contributing factor to improved company results, and Kevin Kruse defines it as;

Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.

Engaged employees will go to extra lengths to do their job and serve the business and the customers. Kruse cites examples of people choosing to work overtime without being asked because the work needed to be finished. Essentially they’ll care for the company and its customers.

What’s in it for employees?

If you’re engaged at work you feel pride in your work, in the company you work for, a loyalty to the company. You’re likely to have more intrinsic motivation; a sense of purpose, a willingness to take responsibility, and a desire to learn.

What’s in it for companies?

Engaged employees are seen to be more productive, more service oriented, and better for the profits of the company. It’s so important to companies that they put considerable, and growing effort, into measuring engagement year on year. There is criticism on how it’s measured, but large companies still find value in measuring it.

What do the cynics say?

It’s a term that is an easy target of cynics, some label it as a new name for employee satisfaction, or teamwork. Others consider it a measure of window dressing to make the company look good. It’s often connected to “manager speak” as in this brilliant Dilbert cartoon.

Can you have too much employee engagement?

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic points to a dark side of employee engagement, reminding readers that engagement is a means to an end – companies pursue it for the productivity results. He also points out that it’s dangerous to expect higher performance to automatically come from higher engagement, managers should instead focus on developing performance at a higher level.

So much for the company perspective, what about for individuals? I believe that in some cases burnout is the direct result of excessive employee engagement. I’ve seen more than one highly professional, highly motivated, engaged employee take on levels of responsibility beyond their capacity, when the company failed to notice – and failed to support them – burnout was the awful outcome.

Can companies build employee engagement?

A friend whose work in internal communications I admire has suggested that engagement is something intrinsic to the person and not dependent on the company. I think there’s some truth in that but I’m not quite so pessimistic. I think you can destroy engagement or you can build it up.

I would like to see a change in how we talk about engagement, the conversation now centres on expectations on the employee and benefits to a company.

Instead I propose that we recognise that the contract between an employee and a company is about the exchange of money for skills and time. That agreement must be a fair exchange. Beyond that it’s up to a company to earn the engagement of all employees by how they treat their staff.

So next time people talk about “building employee engagement”, suggest a switch to “earning employee engagement” and go on from there. It’s a one word change but the approach is completely different.

image happy