Work-from-home productivity requires more than uninterrupted focus

If each person on my team had a dollar for every time I stuck my head in their office for “one quick question,” they’d be set up for retirement. That would be pre-COVID, of course. Work-from-home means fewer interruptions (from the boss, if not from the kids), and that has some people feeling they and their teams are more productive now than they were in the office.

No doubt people are finding themselves better able to focus, better able to control how their discretionary time is used. Anyone who suffered in the high-traffic areas of open-plan offices is probably better off.

But how are we defining “productive”? Hovering over the inbox and leaving no email unanswered? Busy does not equal productive.

I feel we’ve done a good job in our shop along most dimensions of WFH. If I had to pick an area for improvement, it would be setting expectations and goals, and reviewing them regularly.

Cal Newport, writing recently in the New Yorker, says in the modern office, supervisors provide clear goals and leave employees alone to figure out how to accomplish them. This hands-off approach is appropriate for complex and creative office work, he says. Ambiguity and fluidity aren’t necessarily drawbacks, as long as they are balanced by continuous, informal course-correction. It’s this informal communication we’ve lost in the COVID era. (1)

These days, I’m much less likely to do the virtual equivalent of popping in. Not to overestimate the value of my unannounced visits, but these interruptions that contributed to distraction in the office were also the vehicle for a lot of clarification. The interruptions served a purpose, one we should replicate if employees are going to apply their newfound focus productively.

What was once informal (though disruptive) has not been effectively replaced by informal online interaction, which tends to require planning and a certain deliberateness. We have to be more deliberate not just about what we do, but how we do it, Newport writes. As organizations consider extending work-from-home into the future, beyond COVID, it is important that we diagnose these issues.

Newport suggests that our loosely-run organizations adopt some of the project planning tools of software developers, which provide transparency across the whole team as well as removing a lot of the ambiguity around which tasks have been assigned to whom.

“More structure, more clarity, less haphazardness,” he says.

Talk to your team and each individual about your, and their, expectations. Set goals and measures of success to ensure accountability. Regularly review goals and progress. Continuously reclarify at the team and individual level to maintain focus, and modify as needed to ensure progress is actually being made and that team members are engaged.

Remote work carries the promise of focus, but it will remain only a promise unless we ensure people are given a relatively small number of things to work on at a time and are able to go deep on them with a clear sense of direction.

  1. Why Remote Work Is So Hard—and How It Can Be Fixed,” by Cal Newport, The New Yorker, 26 May 2020