Reversing 'always-on' culture by changing how we think and communicate

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Reversing 'always-on' culture by changing how we think and communicate
Organizations cannot solely structure themselves around synchronous communication tools.
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

The Harvard Business Review found that employees can spend up to 80% of their workdays communicating with colleagues in emails, meetings, and instant messaging apps on and off the clock.

While some view the emergence of 'always-on' as a symptom of the modern workplace, this culture can significantly impact employee well-being and productivity. The constant demands on our attention make it impossible to focus entirely on our projects and tasks, with employees often attempting to work faster and longer, not smarter, to compensate for interruptions.

Asynchronous vs synchronous

In a world where real-time communication is becoming an added stress, asynchronous solutions are needed to flip the way we work on its head.

Asynchronous communication and collaboration tools not only increase productivity, they’re well suited for hybrid work environments where remote workers may be juggling child care, personal or medical issues, in addition to work priorities.

This kind of communication encourages employees to slow down, think, and work at their own pace to deliver their best work. Most importantly, asynchronous solutions give employees the freedom to build large uninterrupted stretches of focus time into their workdays, allowing for better quality work and more ‘deep work.’

Deep work and encouraging better work practices

From more accessible communication with remote teams and even employees in different time zones, asynchronous collaboration tools offer numerous benefits to organisations committed to building these processes. Most importantly, it allows for deep work.

Deep work describes work produced in a state of "distraction-free concentration.” While ensuring employees have the opportunity for deep work may be a challenge, the payoff will ensure employees are more effective, resulting in less 'crunch' and better quality work.

Despite the benefits, many of us spend time in a ‘shallow work’ state; these are minor duties performed with several distractions. Zoom meetings, constant Slack messages, and even desk interruptions all disrupt an employee's workflow. Shallow work is often made up of low-value tasks that keep us from more critical, higher-value work. For example, have you ever tried to focus on a big project and been distracted by a trivial email that you felt you needed to respond to immediately?

It is challenging to remove these types of distractions from your life, especially in the modern office environment where instant messaging and video calls are our main forms of communication. And there's a reason we're more attracted to these types of tasks: they're quick and easy and give us a sense of accomplishment. In the long term, however, they're holding employees back from achieving goals that impact the bigger picture.

Some valuable tips to help with the adoption of an asynchronous approach

While a challenge, the benefits for organisations embracing asynchronous solutions practices are immense, especially in larger organisations. Asynchronous approaches can significantly reduce time spent per task. Some helpful tips include:

  • Hold stand-up meetings: 15-minute stand-up meetings keep discussions short and concise, helping to reduce meeting and Zoom fatigue.

  • Manage deadlines effectively: When scheduling projects, ensure employees have enough working time to focus on uninterrupted work.

  • Use statuses: Status updates allow you to communicate when you're in a meeting, heads down (Do Not Disturb), or away. They go hand in hand with a culture of respecting other people’s right to focus.

  • Over-communicate: Give your teammates all the information in one place (including links and files), that way, they won't have to chase you for more details later. Collaborative work management solutions are well suited for keeping a single source of truth for work.

  • Know the difference between 'urgent' and 'important': Define what’s urgent and how it should be flagged. Also encourage good judgment when it comes to @mentions, be mindful, and encourage staff to turn off notifications after hours or when they need to focus.

The verdict

Organizations cannot solely structure themselves around synchronous communication tools. While the pandemic has made synchronous communication far more common, many people have ended up working unconventional hours, giving in to the constant pings from instant messaging apps. The need to go “offline” and focus on the work that matters most is critical to maintaining and even increasing productivity. Business leaders must now consider building better work processes and adopting more asynchronous solutions so employees can continue to achieve their best work, especially given the impending transition to hybrid environments.

Andrew Filev is founder and CEO of global leading work collaboration platform Wrike.

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