Boost company productivity by resetting expectations around response times

Summary

  • Deep work leads to greater productivity, but requires blocks of uninterrupted time
  • Traditional office environments over-index on synchronous communication, which is not conducive to deep work, partially explaining the greater productivity of remote workers
  • Traditional on-site offices can also realise these productivity benefits by resetting expectations around response times and shifting the communication mix towards async

The value of deep work and flow

Cal Newport, an assistant professor of computer science at Georgetown University, introduced us to the idea of deep work, which he defines as,

“professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limits.”

Based on this, he suggests in his book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World that, in order to be truly productive, we should be logging out and working, uninterrupted, for long stretches at a time every day. But for most people, the modern workplace doesn’t support such a work style, instead,

“We instead find ourselves in distracting open offices where inboxes cannot be neglected and meetings are incessant—a setting where colleagues would rather you respond quickly to their latest e-mail than produce the best possible results.”

Such an environment cannot be conducive to productivity and yet we all accept it as the norm for modern workplaces.

Perhaps, the never-ending distraction of real-life offices can go some of the way in explaining why remote workers are more productive. Based on a nearly two-year study on China’s largest travel agency, where a group of 500 participants were divided into two groups – a control group (who continued working at HQ) and volunteer work-from-homers, it was found that there was an astounding productivity boost among the telecommuters of approximately 13%.

This naturally brings us to the question of why are remote workers so much more productive? Given that the individual stays the same, what changes to their environment bring about the heightened productivity? What is unique about the remote worker’s environment compared to a traditional office? By definition, the remote worker is not co-located with their team, making in-person communication significantly more difficult and rare. In general, the key communication channels would be digital channels i.e. voice, video, email, and instant messaging. However, one could argue, that all of these tools are also available to those that are working in a traditional office. So where does the difference lie?

One fundamental difference is the general expectation around response time.With the rise and proliferation of chat and email, many companies have work cultures that demand an always-on mentality. Teammates will make a request through a chat system and if you see the message, you’ll often feel compelled to respond. The problem with being always-on is you stay busy, but don’t reach much depth. Your co-workers may appreciate your quick responses, but your work will often be shallow. Conversely, for remote workers, the perception is often that because they are in a separate location they may be unavailable or otherwise occupied in a task that the colocated individual is unable to see – perhaps the remote individual has just gone to the bathroom or gone to lunch. Perhaps the places you’ve worked haven’t had such a stark difference in expectations, but the fact remains, it is significantly easier to walk up to someone located within the same office and tap them on the shoulder versus someone who is potentially in a different country.

The drivers between the differences in expectations are just one face of the issue, the fundamental difference we are talking about is the difference between synchronous and asynchronous communication. As such, traditional on-site offices can also realise these productivity benefits by resetting expectations around response times and shifting the communication mix towards async.

Synchronous vs Asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication is increasingly becoming a buzzword, but what does it mean? Simply put, asynchronous communication refers to communication that doesn’t require an immediate response, while synchronous communication requires immediate attention. For example, a traditional meeting which requires all members to be present and participating is a synchronous form of communication, while a physical letter is asynchronous.

However, it is interesting to note that the synchronous or asynchronous nature of communication may not be solely determined by the underlying technology. Sure, where you have technology that is fundamentally asynchronous e.g. paper mail, it would be difficult to use it synchronously. However, where you have a communication channel such as email, which is able to achieve delivery speeds close to instant, the situation is slightly different. Email started off closer to being asynchronous due to the expectations around response time. However, as people became increasingly connected, this expectation has slowly but surely shifted – a recent study from USC’s Viterbi School of Engineering, showed that the most common email response time is just two minutes!. Perhaps this is indicative of communication channels inevitably moving towards the highest level of synchronicity possible. So then, how can we use any digital channel asynchronously, and how do remote workers maintain a higher level of asynchronous communication?

Technically, with the exception of perhaps in-person conversation, all other channels of communication could be used asynchronously if response time expectations are reset. However, this is harder in practice, sure you could mute Slack, reply slower to emails etc – but the perception remains that you were online and received a ping or notification and wilfully chose to ignore it. Perhaps a tool that works without statuses or notifications, would more forcefully enforce async communication. This is one of the key reasons why TribePulse leverages an Activity Stream instead of notifications. However, it is undeniable that any widespread shift towards async will require larger cultural shift across the organisation, perhaps in the form of greater respect for people setting their status to busy on Skype or Slack, or just explicit statements in emails specifying whether an immediate response is required or necessary.

Why is synchronous communication often the default?

We believe there are three key reasons why people tend to default to synchronous communication:

  1. Synchronous communication is more natural – if we consider that the most natural form of communication is face-to-face, which is the most synchronous form of communication possible, it begins to become easier to see why synchronous communication is often the default.
  2. Synchronous communication gives instant gratification – even where a response is not required instantly, the feeling of having an issue resolved instantly and closed out is more gratifying that waiting a few days
  3. Asynchronous communication is harder and requires better planning from all people involved – Unlike synchronous communication, the longer lead time associated with asynchronous communication requires better planning so that time is not wasted with unnecessary back and forth.

Downsides of synchronous communication

In addition to the constant drain on attention previously discussed, the other downside of synchronous communication usually mentioned is the cost associated with simultaneously using the time of several employees.

Benefits of asynchronous communication

Asynchronous communication has many benefits beyond the positive impact it can have on employee focus.

  1. Automatic documentation – Due to the nature of asynchronous communication, it is often automatically requires the creation of some form or record so that it can be processed at a later date. Inherently this leads to better documentation, as the discussions leading up to decisions are captured automatically. This has the benefit of helping remote workers feel more included, in getting the grounding around why decisions were made rather than being surprised.
  2. Higher quality discussion from more voices – Asynchronous communication also tends to promote greater reflection before responses. This tends to lead to higher quality discussion that is more thought-out and well-considered. An adjacent benefit of this, is that introverted personalities tend to be less overshadowed in such a setting.
  3. Timezone equality – By communicating asynchronously, team members in other timezones are not disadvantaged and have the chance to get their opinions into the discussion.

Balance is needed

Despite the benefits of async and the disadvantages of sync, it is undeniable that a balance is required. There are certain use cases for sync communication that can never be replaced by async. For example, socializing with your team and emergencies that need to be resolved immediately. Communication across an organisation will not succeed if purely asynchronous or synchronous and the specific balance will vary based on the industry, task at hand and type of work to be done. However, we firmly believe that in most modern workplaces the balance has tilted too strongly towards synchronous communication, and most companies will be able to realise productivity gains by resetting response time expectations towards more asynchronous communication styles.

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