“Technology should create room for deep work, and not hinder it.”
I shared this statement with Joe Thomas, the CEO of Loom, while preparing to re-enter the workforce during the pandemic. Through the course of interviewing at Loom, a company that provides asynchronous video communication, I came to realize how important it is to define a new era of work — and how much that meant to me personally.
This particular conversation with Joe was about the shift to hybrid work, in which companies are rethinking the five day work week as a blend of in-person and remote, sync and async. The issues knowledge workers and tech companies at large are facing won’t be resolved by a full return to office. The tensions inherent in our work weeks have been mounting well before the pandemic. Going back won’t solve burnout, stress, and employee turnover. However, figuring out how to unlock collaboration and deep work in this hybrid environment could open up a wholly new era of productivity and satisfaction.
It’s hard to discuss the future of work without talking about the impact this virus has had on all of our home lives as well. Personally, I took a year leave of absence to care for my new son, who was born very early in June 2020. My miracle boy, disabled due to his prematurity, has changed me in ways deep and profound. Several of my friends have lost parents, careers, or big parts of themselves. Still, many others made it through relatively unscathed, and were able to do things like do bucket list travel, and learn new truths about themselves. Whatever side of the coin you landed on, no one disputes that we have all collectively changed.
I experienced a moment of clarity during these talks with Joe. I have always been fascinated by the ways in which knowledge workers actually work. For my MBA some years ago, I partnered with a surgeon at UCSF to study burnout. More recently, I was part of a program at Stanford called Rebuild, which was conceptualized to explore the post-pandemic future. My interest in this topic has also led me to read countless books on neuroscience, work psychology, and more. Up until this point, my career was in cybersecurity and infrastructure technologies aimed at helping the world operate online. But as I had this series of conversations with Joe, I realized I’d been essentially hobbying as a sort of organizational behaviorist; I’d formed strong opinions around what work should be! This realization made the decision to join Loom an easy one. I’m excited to be at a company where I can help others get back to doing work they love, on terms that work for them.
To start, we need to identify and examine the roadblocks in front of us, then design approaches at an organizational and individual level to maximize mental health and remove those barriers. It’s a multifaceted issue, but I believe there are four core tensions impeding our best work.
Tension 1: Notifications and Alerting
B2B Technology companies are constantly re-packaging the concepts of fast, instant, and real-time. They do this to sell you their products, but there’s no denying that speed is a competitive advantage. The ability to instantly react to an opportunity or crisis, using real-time notifications and alerting, is the future. Thus, most work software utilizes alerting and notifications to constantly nudge or engage the worker.
In the consumer application environment, we already know that notification-heavy social media apps zap our neurochemicals and create addiction. They do this in a variety of ways, but alerts and notifications are at the top of the list.
This is becoming true at work as well. The typical knowledge worker is likely to have access to 30 or more software programs that each send alerts and notifications. Notification overload steals attention and creates an inability to focus for 25 minutes after each distraction. Twenty-five minutes! And if you are also using real-time chat apps and email, it’s game over.
It’s high time we build guardrails. For example, turn off notifications for every app that you can, within the limits of your job. Carve out times when you can fully close chat apps for a few hours every day. Remove work apps from your personal phone. Or, add guardrails to prohibit addictively opening them. One easy way to do this is to stay in a logged-out state, limiting your ability to compulsively scroll or check-in. If there is one Tension to be ruthless about managing immediately, it’s this.
Tension 2: Time
Building on the first Tension, the need for businesses to compete in a digital, global world requires them to run 24 hours a day. As humans, our 24 hour days are roughly split into three parts: work, sleep, and everything else.
Manuel Castells, a Spanish sociologist who published frequently in the late 1990s, described the future as a “network society.” This is a “society whose social structure is made up of networks powered by micro-electronics-based information and communications technologies.” Castells brought forward the concept of “timeless time,” in which we are all connected, globally and instantly. When all things are instant, what is the concept of time? How can humans who work in this field structure their days, using the standard biological ways of time keeping?
In a practical sense, many employees already collaborate globally, working in real-time across multiple time zones. However, technology was supposed to make everything faster and automated. In reality, we’re working longer hours to consume more information and manage more work. This is exacerbated by global work.
Post-pandemic, many knowledge workers have moved to new locations, no longer constrained by the need to be close to a physical work site. But it is not yet fully understood how this will impact individuals and teams working across 4+ hours or more of time zones. While it provides more flexibility, it also further erodes the boundaries between work time and family or personal life.
Achieving effective work in this new global setting requires that we reduce our hyper-focus on real-time collaboration and find new ways to work asynchronously.
Tension 3: Meetings
A reasonable hypothesis is that work is much more cross-functional today, meaning more stakeholders, more status updates, and more meetings overall. But I believe there are also deep, psychological drivers at play here too.
Since the pandemic, Big Boss can no longer look out on the floor and see all the workers working. This gives them anxiety. Big Boss needs to SEE that knowledge worker on video, at their desk, in their home. And to be clear, Big Boss is ultimately responsible for what these employees are up to, during work hours.
The second factor is the employee. Workers seek feedback, and find silence from an organization to be isolating and anxiety-provoking. These feelings are amplified by the pandemic, during which many have been physically isolated as well.
However, both of these led to meetings becoming the primary vehicle for interaction and reassurance. That comforting feeling doesn’t last for long; it’s not an effective or sustainable solution. Instead, creating positive workplace environments and visibility of work would help to solve these anxieties rather than an overload of meetings on the calendar.
Thankfully everyone is talking about the excessive amount of meetings. We’re all feeling it. Apps (like Google calendar) are introducing gentle reminders to show you just how many meetings you’re in. And entire companies have emerged (see: Reclaim.ai) to address this.
Moving forward, we all collectively need to align on new expectations and guidelines for how to handle meeting time. What does a healthy amount of meetings look like, and how does that change across roles? How can we build digital environments in which people are connected, seen, and have autonomy over their time?
Tension 4: Misinterpreted Communication
The primary cause for misinterpreted communication is often tone. It is easy to misconstrue tone in the written form. Writing styles are different across generations, cultures, language, gender, job functions, and so much more.
Some of us make jokes at work. Some are more formal. Some write long, some write short. Even punctuation, like using a period instead of an exclamation point, can be interpreted differently. This is complicated!
Being on the receiving end of a communication that makes you feel bad (whether intended or not) really sucks. It can wreck your day, week, or month. And inadvertently sending a message that’s misunderstood by the recipient also sucks! At a micro level, it can mess with daily productivity and team connection. At a macro level, employees leave when they don’t feel valued or understood.
People are aware of this issue. And that is why we all spend so much time, writing and rewriting, editing, and crafting communication in order to prevent a misinterpretation and ensure the message lands. But that also means wasted time and hand-wringing.
Companies and individuals will see a return on investment — both in morale and productivity — by teaching the art of communication, and building a path to the company culture they desire.
The Case for Modern Work
The stakes are high. These four tensions, if left unchecked, can lead to employee disengagement, burnout, and turnover. In the post-pandemic world individuals should seek workplaces that prioritize their well being. Workplaces, in turn, should seek to design organizational cultures that limit these tensions, optimize for deep work, and prioritize cohesion and connection. That is Modern Work! This will allow individuals to do their best work, and protect their fulfilling life outside of the office. For corporations, a consistently engaged workforce will help drive the company to new heights.
This is a big undertaking, and it will take time. But there are actionable ways to start. Employees should begin to map out their day and identify how core distractions of alerts, meetings, misinterpreted communication, and time constraints are affecting their ability to excel at work. Communicate this information to your managers, heads of People or HR, and IT teams. If you’re unable to get traction, or if you’re currently looking for a job, ask a prospective employer directly how they manage employee engagement and productivity. Get specific about how time zones, meetings, and work hours are managed. This will be a signal that candidates are paying attention to this and have clear expectations.
Corporations also have work to do. The employee experience is typically driven by a Head of Human Resources, while productivity and software decisions are driven by the Head of IT. The movement around Modern Work is creating a wholly new role: the Digital HQ Manager. The alignment of IT and People Ops/HR through a shared charter will help create workplace principles that guide a work culture of minimizing tensions and maximizing employee engagement.
It’s been seven months since my moment of clarity while interviewing at Loom, and I’m more optimistic than ever for this future. I’m encouraged daily by the public dialogue on what future work can and should become. However, to get there, we need the early adopters of Modern Work to share what works and how they are doing it, so others can follow suit. This will come from individuals, but even more so from the executives and organizations leading the way. At Loom, we’re dedicating much of 2022 to seeking out and amplifying these stories. Stay tuned.