Whether your team is working from home or in the office, workplace distractions can be difficult to avoid. A Zoom meeting or Slack message can dislodge you from your flow state just as surely as someone sidling up to your cubicle and asking you about your weekend plans.
At our company—a PR and marketing agency—the issue of distractions also created some divisions within the team. Like most professional services firms, we have client relationships to manage and work product that must be created for our clients. Our account management team handles client communication and project management, while our PR and marketing teams focus on the creation of the work product, from press releases and white papers to websites and social media plans.
We’ve long had an unstructured approach to our days in which meetings were scheduled whenever calendars allowed for it. This approach was convenient for the account team and prioritized the client relationship. Unfortunately, it also led to a challenge with our company’s work product—one that got worse, not better, when we changed to a largely remote work environment because of COVID-19.
Namely, it takes time for creatives crafting a homepage design or content plan to get into “the zone”—the mental flow state of full immersion in an activity. Getting into the zone isn’t like turning on a light switch; they have to work up to it. This meant that when an account manager put a meeting on their calendar or peppered them with questions on Slack, it often broke their rhythm and forced them to restart that mental journey all over again.
At least a half dozen of our employees came to me to voice the same frustration: “I am working more hours but getting less done.” We had to get to the bottom of it.
A team of managers and makers
We realized we needed to take a step back from how we structured our days to rethink how to best accomplish our work. This began by first accepting, then adapting to the reality that while we had one team, it comprised two very different sets of people.
Specifically, our team was made up of managers and makers.
We borrowed these labels from a blog post at Shane Parrish’s Farnam Street that described how a novelist might be most productive working without interruption from 4 a.m. to 10 a.m. and then taking the rest of the day off, while an entrepreneur might fill a long day with back-to-back meetings and phone calls in between. The entrepreneur is a manager. The novelist is a maker.
Managers manage projects, processes, and clients. They need to interact with people to do their jobs. Our account team was made up of managers.
Makers think, create and do. They need uninterrupted time to do their jobs. Our PR and marketing teams were made up of makers.
We next came across the concept of “deep work,” popularized by the author Cal Newport. Deep work is Newport’s take on flow state. It is, as he defines it, “Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”
Whenever makers are pulled away from their deep work by “shallow work” such as responding to an email or Slack message, the interaction results in what the academic Sophie Leroy calls “attention residue.” Attention residue keeps makers preoccupied for a period of time even after completing these small tasks.
The push and pull between managers and makers can lead to a lot of wasted time. And that’s exactly what we were experiencing at our company, especially after COVID hit.
How remote work led to increased distractions
As we studied our work practices to identify opportunities to make our team less distracted and more focused, we quickly realized the changes we had made to accommodate remote work because of COVID—especially our increased reliance on Zoom and Slack—had become a double-edged sword. In fact, they were making deep work more difficult than ever for our makers.
Our two biggest aha moments were:
- We found that asynchronous communication methods, such as Slack and email, were being treated as synchronous communication methods. Team members–both managers and makers–came to expect immediate responses to their questions. By allowing these asynchronous tools to morph into our default means of real-time conversation, we had created an always-on distraction from which our makers were unable to escape without being viewed as unresponsive.
- We found that remote work led to more meetings, not fewer. The ease of use of Zoom made the scheduling of meetings a snap—but also less disciplined. It was much easier to add half a dozen team members to a Zoom invite to discuss a client issue than to think through what each individual actually needed to know or contribute and whether they needed to be there at all. Each new meeting meant less deep work getting done –and more attention residue for makers.
New roles and new rules
Once we had identified these issues, we began collaborating as a team to solve them. We ultimately settled on the following two-pronged approach:
- We set new rules for communication. We defined a specific role for each of our communication tools. Slack and email, as well as our project management tool, Teamwork, would be used exclusively for asynchronous communication. A same-day or next-morning response would always be sufficient for these channels, and no one should expect a response sooner than that. If a manager needed a response within an hour or two, they were to send a text. If they needed an immediate response, they were to pick up the phone and call. No exceptions.
- We divided our company’s workday into manager Hours and maker Hours. To empower our makers to get into the zone and stay there, we officially split the day into two parts: mornings would be maker Hours and afternoons would be manager Hours. This meant that managers were to only schedule Zoom meetings with makers after lunch. After a couple of months, we listened to feedback from our team and decided to shorten the morning maker time block slightly and to add a second, shorter block in the late afternoon. makers currently have a 150-minute uninterrupted time block in the morning and a 90-minute one in the afternoon.
Is our system perfect? No. Is it better than it was? Absolutely. The team is reporting lower stress levels, there is less internal frustration and conflict–and most importantly, we are becoming more efficient in delivering our best work to clients.
John Lacy is president and COO of Idea Grove, a unified PR and marketing agency based in Dallas that helps its clients “Grow With TRUST,” its service offering for building trusting relationships between brands and their audiences.