Is individual productivity at odds with organisational productivity? Or rather, can the things that improve productivity on the individual level at the same time hinder or slow down productivity on the organisational level? It’s an honest question, and one that is on my mind right now.
As the covid-19 pandemic came to my country, we were asked to work from home at the huge enterprise where I was contracting. The same thing happened all over the world. Suddenly, people who were used to work in an office found themselves in a situation where they had to work remotely for the first time.
Since this is something I am used to and have knowledge of, I shared a list of tips and best practices within the section where I worked. If you’ve been into productivity and remote working for a while, you’ll find no surprises in it. It was basically:
- Turn off notifications and distractions. If you’re in a position that requires availability for urgent support issues, keep only those dedicated channels open but turn off notifications for everything else.
- Batch process messages. Dedicate times of the day where you go through the incoming messages (both email and chat), perhaps twice or three times daily. Don’t use the email inbox as a todo-list. Triage the emails: answer the emails that can be answered shortly, write down the things to do somewhere else, and then archive them.
- Use the chat for asynchronous messages outside agreed meetings. Don’t start with “Hello” and wait until the other side responds before stating your errand. Write your question directly and let the team member get back to you when appropriate to them. Don’t expect immediate responses and don’t feel pressured to respond immediately. If you happen to catch them and you can have a bit of back and forth, great! But don’t make it an expectation to have a response time of X minutes.
- Schedule synchronous communication when you need it. Some things are much quicker to handle by talking directly than to play email or message ping-pong. This can be as simple as “Can I call you at 14.00?” or “Can we chat in 20 minutes?” No need for a fancy calendar invite.
- Keep communication flowing. Communication is oxygen, and it’s more important than ever when you are not seeing each other face to face. A small “I’m still working on X, no progress” is way better than silence, every time. Agile development teams usually have a daily sync meeting which is great. If you’ve previously worked at an office, I assume you’re in the same time zone as your co-workers so it should be fairly easy to start one if you haven’t got it already.
- Take breaks and keep your working hours. One of the biggest risks of working from home is not that you work too little, it’s that you work too much. Set a timer or reminder for the breaks. Try the pomodoro technique if you haven’t already.
- Setup (new) normal routines. Take a shower and get properly dressed. Create a routine for starting your work day with a similar one for ending. One great suggestion was to put the work laptop in your bag each evening as if you’re “going home”, and then each morning you bring it out again when “going to work”. Work from the same place every day, or have one place (like a desk) where you do one kind of task and another place (like the kitchen table) where you do another kind of task. This is an awesome hack for getting the mind in a specific mode.
This solicited mixed reactions. One of my colleagues called it the best email they had ever read within the organisation. But I also got pushback from my manager.
Productivity for the individual is not the only goal
He was of the opinion that focusing only on individual productivity was simplifying things too much, and that the productivity in an organisation is not equal to the sum of all individuals. He further noted that optimising for an individual instead of the flow of a task can lead to longer lead times (like waiting times for others). An increased productivity for one individual might decrease the productivity for another individual while they are waiting.
These are valid points, but I also think some of the fears are unfounded and the risks can be mitigated.
This perceived threatening situation of having tasks “wait in line” while some individual finished his or her working session in order to have a look at it should not be different from being in the office. Reducing and diminishing distractions and interruptions is needed in any place of working, no matter if it is remote or on-site. Making sure co-workers do not tap each other’s shoulders needlessly is an important part of work etiquette, especially with the current predominance of the open plan office.
In fact I’d say that thinking that this practice, the assumption that the constant availability to have a “quick chat” with a co-worker is somehow beneficial to the organisation as a whole, is a fallacy in itself and a big drain on organisational resources.
The cost of an interruption for the individual
According to often cited research, each time someone interrupts you it takes an average of 23 minutes to get back to the place you were before. If you have a 45 minute task, and get interrupted twice for about 2 minutes each, you have potentially doubled the time it will take to do that task.
So if one single task needs to pass by three individuals before getting finished (like needing an answer to a question), that one task might get to completion faster through interrupting people but at the same time it has added an hour of waste to the organisation.
But has it? This famous 23 minute result comes from a research study conducted by Gloria Mark, Daniela Gudith, and Ulrich Klocke. In their study, 48 participants had one main task to focus on, but they were also directed to deal with other tasks as they came in (i.e. interruptions via email).
When interrupted, an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds passed between the moment of interruption and the point where participants resumed working on the main task. So the 23 minutes isn’t the amount of time it takes to refocus after switching tasks; it includes the time it takes to complete the task that interrupted you.
And what’s more, the findings of the study was that interrupted work was conducted faster. When interrupted, workers compensate for the time they have been interrupted by speeding up the original task in order to end up finished at about the same time as if they weren’t interrupted in the first place. So when measuring the output vs time, it looks like being interrupted actually makes you more productive, not less.
The hidden casualty here is our mental health.
In the study, people in the interrupted conditions experienced a higher workload, more stress, higher frustration, more time pressure, and effort. This increased speed of work comes at a cost. Simply put, being interrupted makes us miserable.
The cost of an interruption for the organisation
To add insult to injury, this style of working (and by now this “modern” way of working has almost become norm) lets you easily fall in the trap of multitasking. Trying to juggle answering other’s questions with getting answers to your own questions, participating in multiple email threads at the same time as moving a specific task forward yourself. This is also something we know is detrimental. For our stress levels, for our ability to focus, and simply for the quality of work itself.
Researchers have found that even sitting next to somebody who multitasks during a lecture drops your own comprehension by an astounding 17 percent. And importantly for an organisation (temporarily discounting the detrimental effects on individual’s mental health) is that multitasking makes you less effective at prioritising to achieve goals. In the researchers words: multitaskers have a high attentional impulsivity which allows “goal-irrelevant information to compete with goal-relevant information”.
All work is not created equal. Multitasking and the culture of interruptability rewards important tasks getting derailed by unimportant ones. It encourages workers to attend more to the urgent but not important quadrant of the Eisenhower matrix, rather than the important but not urgent one.
The cost of over-focusing on individual productivity
But I understand the need of optimising for the flow of a task. Because what easily happens is that tasks get stuck. Something gets stuck in somebody’s inbox, you wait three days for an answer when all you needed was 10 minutes, and suddenly that 45 minute thing took over two weeks before finally getting to Done Done.
The individuals might find themselves very busy and feeling productive, but the speed of the organisation is halting to a crawl. That is naturally also totally wasteful and inefficient.
The needed shift in ways of working
So what is the solution here? I see the whole thing as a mindset shift from single-thread/multi-task to single-task/multi-thread, and from working in a synchronous to an asynchronous manner.
(Fellow developers: yes, asynchronous programming and thread-based programming is not the same. But the analogy works well enough for a layperson so bear with me here.
For non-developers: no, this is not exactly how computers actually work underneath the hood. But it’s a useful image.)
Threading is a concept borrowed from computer science, where it refers to a thread of execution. A bit simplified we can say that programmed instructions are executed one by one within something called a thread, and the thread needs to wait for each instruction to finish before continuing with the next instruction. In order to to multiple things at the same time, the computer/program/process creates multiple threads that can work in parallel.
You have probably heard of background tasks on your phone that can do things while you are spending time in another app. That is because the phone has different threads going on for those background tasks, so your current app is not affected.
In the case of the individual’s productivity, having multiple threads mean that you have multiple things that you work on in parallel. That would be Projects in GTD-speak – something that takes more than a couple of steps to accomplish. Tiago Forte uses the definition of something that takes more than two working sessions to finish. It is a project because you need to keep track of it until completion, and it has several tasks or steps associated with it.
But we can’t create multiple parallel threads of execution when it comes to our tasks. We really don’t have a choice here. We only have one single thread of attention, one brain and one body. We have to do one thing at a time or we will break down.
Enter asynchronous work.
In programming, making something asynchronous means that you are not blocking the thread by having to wait idle while an instruction or calculation finishes. Instead you break those longer tasks off in subroutines that you then “await”, and the program will continue with the next thing while doing so. Async implementations often have an event loop that is responsible for dispatching subroutines and checking when they are done.
Single tasking, with multiple check-ins for progress
Working asynchronously in our general context means that when you send off that question to your co-worker, you don’t wait idle until you get an answer. You move to the next thing on your list, moving another project or another task forward in the mean time. And just as the event loop does, you need to check in periodically that the things you have “awaited” are done and that you can pick up again and continue with. By working this way, you are never blocked by having to wait for something. Your productivity is not decreased, and you are still respecting the productivity of your co-worker.
The key differentiator is the single task focus. You do not allow yourself to be interrupted by that ping from the email when the co-worker responds, dropping everything from your intermediary task and continuing with that first thing. Because that would give you two open loops and two things to juggle in your working memory. The initial task and the one you started in the mean time that got dropped in mid air. Instead finish what you have in front of you, and then check if that first item is ready.
But what about the task, you might ask? The task is blocked in a waiting state, even if you are productive with something else. And this was the whole problem from the start: that the time from start to finish on a single task expands beyond reason.
It is true that this task is blocked while waiting to be picked up by somebody else. But if everyone is working in this manner it will not stay blocked for long. Because part of your event loop is to check in where you’re at regarding things that other’s are waiting for you on and unblock them. James Stuber even puts it on his calendar, as a routine he has several time per day.
I truly think that it is possible to find a sweet spot. Where individuals get to work interruption free for the benefit of increased work quality and mental health, but also where no task gets stuck in a long forgotten and overflowing inbox while the responsible person is “in the zone” and everybody has to wait for ages before anything happens.
If everyone cleared their inboxes and triaged their messages and requests every day – or regularly a couple of times per day – I’m convinced that the time you would need to wait for responses would shorten dramatically. The overall efficiency of the organisation would increase, not decrease.
This whole availability for interruptions idea would be freed up to only be used for the things that are both urgent and important.
Clarity on what’s important
And here comes another elephant in the room. Because what is both urgent and important for one individual might not seem like it to another individual. One of the reason things get stuck between people and departments in an organisation is this discrepancy of what is considered urgent and what is considered important.
So for an organisation to be productive, everyone needs to be on the same page regarding what is important but not urgent, vs urgent and not important. Not only for the individual, not only for the team or department, but for the larger organisation as a whole.
Otherwise, the risk is that everyone is running after the urgent stuff. The culture of interruption favours the urgent over the not urgent, leaving the “important but not urgent” stuff to the lucky coincidence of a day with fewer disturbances than yesterday.
This relates to organisational goal-setting and management which is obviously a much larger problem to solve, and way beyond the scope of this article.
Optimise for the constraint of focus
In essence, I agree that the productivity in an organisation is not equal to the sum of all individuals.
But optimising on the flow of the task should not be done to the point that it interferes with the individual’s ability to work. Which ultimately is what we are talking about here. The negative effects on mental health will have a bigger long term impact on the organisation, with decreased motivation and happiness at work and increased sick leave caused by higher stress levels.
There is always somewhere a weak link, the bottleneck, where identifying and working on this constraint renders the whole system more capable (see Theory of Constraints). I see the individual’s ability to focus as one of the biggest constraint of them all. Optimising for that constraint will inevitably lead to increased productivity and benefit for the organisation as a whole.