Having a remote staff has many advantages: from lower costs and quicker onboarding to more flexibility and access to the highest level of professionals. But when it comes to productivity, managing a remote team comes with its challenges.
You might notice that your team members seem tired during a Zoom call. Or take longer than usual to finish the tasks, and deadlines get pushed off to another day. It can be an important indicator that your remote team is not making the best use of the time they have. It is where you step in trying to help your team members increase productivity and get involved in deep work.
Deep work is a concept from Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a distracting World”. By Newport’s definition, it describes: “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 skills, and are hard to replicate.” In other words, deep work gets you into the zone and into the flow state that allows you to reach higher results.
You probably remember that day when you were very focused, without any distractions and had uninterrupted time to think or work on something. It would mean that you were productive, proactive and creative and most likely, did the work well. It is what the deep work session looks like.
When it comes to remote teams, they often rely on constant online communication to exchange ideas, set meetings, and complete other tasks. It can often lead to creating the “office-like” setting with different types of chats: from group chats to project chats and beyond. Imagine all the notifications that come from those chats, in addition to emails, and phone calls. And this is what kills deep work.
While deep work is highly valuable in any team and any setting, it won’t happen on its own. Here are several ways you can help your staff make time for deep work and be more productive.
Identify the barriers
For anyone to solve the problem, it’s important to first identify the issue. In the book, Newton also mentions “shallow work” which refers to non-demanding, non-cognitive logistical tasks that might not create any long-term value. It can be answering emails or arranging a team meeting or attending a Zoom call where you did not say a word. According to Atlassian, we spend on average 6 hours a day reading and answering emails. And we spend over 31 hours in unproductive meetings in a month. This time can be reduced by a simple exercise.
Ask your team members to look at their calendars and count time spent on deep work and shallow work during the week. Once they compare numbers, they would be able to see where they could make use of the time better. For example, how many hours they could have saved by not attending a couple of Zoom meetings. Or what important task they could have completed in two hours they spent answering routine emails.
Think about the barriers that might keep you and your remote team members from diving into deep work.
- Level of difficulty – shallow work is easier to do. So people tend to complete these tasks first and get engaged in deep work. Crossing out many tasks from your to-do list might create an illusion that you are being productive and working hard. But it does not mean that you are getting work done. So encourage your team members to prioritize those tasks that have long-term value.
- Distractions – whether you are working from home or sitting in a cozy café, there can be many distractions. With constant chat messages and notifications, and children running around the house, our everyday life can get chaotic. And deep work cannot be done when we are constantly distracted and lose focus every 10 minutes. We recommend asking your remote team members about the biggest distractions they have to handle and then thinking of ways to reduce them.
- Context switching – we often tend to switch from task A to task B then to task C and task A again. Imagine you started writing an email, but did not finish it, and then opened a document for the report. But in the middle of it answered a call. As Cal Newport explains in his book, once you switch from one task to another, part of your attention does not follow, it stays with the original task. So you are still thinking about that email you opened but did not finish writing. Try to reduce context switching by telling your employees to do the same type of tasks in a certain period of time. For example, dedicate one hour to only sending emails or if they have several calls to make, do not spread them throughout the day.
- Work-life balance – those working remotely know the pain of managing your working schedule. No matter how organized you are, it might still be a challenge to finish work on time. It’s important for you to set boundaries together with your team members, set the expectations straight and define exact working hours. As a result, they would be able to keep more energy during the day and stay motivated.
- Work culture – if there is an established ritual of having a five-hour Zoom call every Monday, it would most likely get in the way of deep work. Try to minimize the time spent on unnecessary administrative tasks.
Help with creating a space
Some remote workers seek the office-like atmosphere in modern co-working spaces, while others choose to work from the comfort of their homes. Recent research from the Harvard Business Review suggests that people who work from home on the same office schedule, get more done during the day. The employees said it was the quiet environment that helped them be more productive. But it might not be the case for everyone.
Ask your remote team members where they usually work, what is the space like, is a private office, a couch or a spot at Starbucks. Think about helping those who face distractions on daily basis. There are many ways to do so: offer time or discount at a co-working space, invest in a desk and comfortable chair, provide the necessary equipment, such as noise-canceling headphones, suggest an option of moving around working hours on their preference and so on. An organized and comfortable workplace leads to productive workdays and in the end, better results for the entire team.
Less time for meetings and communication
Based on Atlassian, over ½ of meetings are considered time wasted by employees. Try to avoid those meetings and turn them into other types of communication. Some Zoom calls can easily be emails that would take less time to read. Others can have a strict agenda, and ending time.
Another way to free up more time for deep work is to set a time for checking emails. Instead of doing it ten times an hour, encourage your workers to set aside an hour in the afternoon. This way they won’t lose focus and minimize distractions while working.
Invest in tools and technology
We live in a world where we can chat with friends across the globe, read breaking news in a matter of minutes and work for a company that’s based on another continent. Being connected allows us to live a more fulfilled life and reach for higher goals, but it also comes with a price. We all struggle with being present and focused for an extended period and it often prevents us from engaging in deep work. And so, the anti-distraction apps were born.
One of the apps that you can invest in is FocusMe which helps with developing healthy working routines. It not only blocks specific apps and sites for certain periods but will remind your remote team members to take breaks, create a schedule and set goals. Another effective tool is Dewo which would help your staff members take back control of their time. It mutes notifications from all connected apps and tracks your web and desktop activity to determine what distracts you the most. Using these insights, the app then suggests improvements and tries to “reinvent the calendar for deep work.” Twist, Notion, RescueTime and Forest are also some of the most popular anti-distraction apps.
Think about where your team faces challenges and what tools it needs the most. Investing in the right technology might help your remote team stay focused in a highly distractive modern world.
Support good habits
Help your remote team members prioritize deep work and adopt the habits that would boost their productivity throughout the day. Ask them to divide their calendar into blocks of time and dedicate some of those to deep work. When we have a lot of deadlines, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole with administrative tasks. We all try to follow the schedule, and once there is a dedicated time slot for deep work, we tend to do it. And guess what, deep work gets stronger with more practice.
Ask your remote team members when they are the most productive, in the mornings, or later in the day. Suggest rescheduling their days according to this and doing non-cognitive tasks during those hours when they might not have much energy. It would help to save the most productive time for deep work.
Supporting good habits also means holding your team members accountable for doing deep work. Discuss how they are doing in your feedback sessions and regular meetings. Ask what deep work they did during the week, where they struggled and how you can help. You can also make notes and get back to them after months to see what has changed in terms of productivity and time management.
Promote a healthy work-life balance
When it comes to remote working, employees who are located across time zones might feel the pressure to be “always available”. It can lead to overworking, lack of productivity, and loss of motivation. According to a survey, remote and hybrid workers are more likely to work over 50 hours per week compared to on-site workers. Remote workers tend to experience burnout more often because they struggle with setting boundaries.
As a team leader, you should be the one promoting work-life balance. Try to create a remote work culture that doesn’t pressure workers for constant communication. Instead, aim for the one that encourages them to “shut off” when it’s time and prioritize personal well-being and mental health. You can help them embrace one of the main benefits of remote working – flexible hours. It allows them to build the working schedule around their personal lives and, as a result, get more work done.
Be the advocate for deep work
You won’t be able to improve your team’s deep work habits if you are not the one practicing them yourself. Look through your calendar and think about how many hours you dedicate to deep work, where you need improvements and what tools and techniques you can use. Once you become a pro of deep work, it’s easier to help others.
Deep work is a powerful activity that can enable you and your team members to enhance productivity, complete important tasks on time and in the end, reach for higher goals. When people work together from different parts of the world, practicing deep work affects the productivity of the team. As a team leader, think about the factors that might keep your team members from engaging in deep work: meeting culture, communication tools, lack of deep work time slots, too many switches in a day and so on. Establishing routines, adopting habits, and investing in the right technology would help your team get more done. Once you prioritize it, deep work becomes part of your virtual work culture and operations. And when it does, you and your team are on your way to success.