Deep work (a term coined by Cal Newport) is when you banish distractions, focus your consciousness, and exercise your brain like a weightlifter straining to achieve a new Personal Best. Deep work is when you make new discoveries, synthesise information, discover new insights, and reach fresh mountaintops from whence your horizons are expanded significantly.
In an increasingly distracted and dispersed world, there are plenty of legitimate and justifiable reasons to take your eye off the ball for a moment and check in with email, Instant Messenger, and social media.
In fact, many workplaces are adopting tools like Slack, Google Hangouts, or Workplace by Facebook in a well-intentioned effort to help geographically dispersed teams improve their cooperation, collaboration, and workplace culture.
As much as you may like to believe you can multi-task brilliantly, scientific research has revealed that human beings just aren’t cut out for ‘multitasking’ – rather, we switch rapidly between tasks, with an associated drop in productivity as we do so.
The dilemma, therefore, is that these tools, designed to enhance communication and collaboration, have the potential to undermine the quality of your work by interrupting your focus and splitting your attention between the task at hand and your colleagues who wish to engage with you via online collaboration tools.
Even worse, as you repeatedly allow yourself to be distracted and work in a fragmented, continually task-switching mode, you soon lose the capacity to do ‘Deep Work’. Your brain rewires itself, stress levels mount, and you set yourself on a path of perpetual shallow thinking.
Implications for Business Management
In the same way that coworkers in a physical office space (and particularly open plan offices that are so popular these days) can interrupt your focus and distract you from doing your most mentally intensive work, your remote colleagues can interrupt you – and, indeed, be even more disruptive. Unless you switch yourself to an ‘Away’ or ‘Busy’ mode, your remote collaborators aren’t going to know that you’re focussing deeply and respect your focus in the same way that a person approaching you in your office could.
From a management perspective, therefore, it’s vital that you understand the tradeoffs when you consider technological ‘solutions’ to the challenges of connecting remote teams.
If your project teams comprise staff from multiple offices, how do you ensure an improved flow of information, sense of camaraderie, and collaboration, whilst still ensuring they have the opportunity for ‘deep work’ – focussed and undistracted time when they can clear their minds and do their most effective and ground-breaking work?
Does Your Work Environment Require Deep Work?
Striking the perfect balance starts with assessing and understanding the nature of the work your team do. Certain roles and situations don’t require much deep thinking, and instead involve ‘shallow work’ – for example, customer support, bookkeeping/accounts, and office administration are roles which typically follow a consistent process. The mandate is to do what’s always done.
Customer support teams distributed around the globe may benefit from access to collaboration tools at their fingertips, enabling them to reach out to a colleague for information or guidance in resolving a billing or technical issue.
Sales and marketing departments can benefit from being able to quickly obtain information from their manager or a colleague.
[It’s also worth noting that a lot of these types of online interactions are now being automated, with bots and machine learning/AI used to answer a question rather than speaking with another human being.]
But an engineer, consultant, or researcher who needs to analyse and interpret large amounts of information will almost certainly need the opportunity for focussed work without distraction.
Likewise, writers, programmers, artists, and other creative professions need plenty of undistracted time to come up with truly creative results.
As a leader within your company, your responsibility is to strike the correct balance within your corporate culture and business environment, optimising the human interaction of your team without eroding the quality and depth of their work.
In the near future, we will see an increasing level of automation of routine tasks – ‘shallow work’. You will have less need for staff who simply follow processes and routines. Your competitive advantage will come from developing skilled thinkers who know how to apply their intellect to ground-breaking, leading edge, game-changing issues and solutions.