The workplace dynamic is always changing to maximize performance. First, it focused on the individual: HR does performance reviews for individuals, we are hired as individuals, fired as individuals, etc. A few years ago, the focus shifted towards teams: Put together amazing teams and amazing results will come. In fact, the Deloitte Human Capital Trends 2016 report discovered that the technology-spurred evolution has fixed the organizational structure into a “network of teams.”
That restructuring has taken many shapes, from new collaboration and productivity tools to increasing team-building activities to changing the way we meet. But we’ve moved the pendulum too far—team lunch, team offsite, team brainstorm—and the forced level of inclusion is starting to become exclusive. Our goal at work is not to stay busy but to stay productive, to deliver value to our customers.
Let’s pull back the pendulum. Teamwork doesn’t mean everyone has to reach consensus on every task and that we need to be in a constant state of collaboration. It’s time to refocus on getting work done, on accomplishing the things that positively affects customers.
A time to chime in & a time to butt out
While the trend toward collaboration is powerful, it has to be done the right way. I was working closely with a team the past year that was focused on finding a group harmony, which resulted in a lot of across-the-board standards of work. It seemed great at face value to have an entire team with a homogeneous style. But part of my role as futurist at Atlassian is to have a crystal ball, and I got the sense that pretty soon this team was going to be wearing the same outfit, thinking the same way, talking the same way. Work culture was becoming a work cult–we’d gone too far.
I travel around the world monitoring the way Atlassian teams work. The groups that struggle often have very strong team identities— yet weak individual ones. Their meetings resulted in a lot of thrashing about. Everyone chimed in on others’ work. They spent entire meetings discussing things that had already happened and hardly addressed what needed to get done in the future. Everyone arrived ready to judge other work but didn’t have their own work in line. It wasn’t healthy.
The best teams had shorter, sharper meetings and much more trust. Their meetings were balanced and focused on the future, and they debriefed the past only to incorporate lessons learned going forward. So, what was the difference?
Strengthen the signal, not the noise
I’m a firm believer in the signal-to-noise ratio. Good things will come when you can eliminate noise and broadcast just the signal. Looking at a blend of recent research, the noise at work continues to grow. Consider that on average:
Workers barely go 11 minutes before getting distracted
Workers are switching tasks every 3 minutes
Fifty percent of millennial workers can’t use the restroom without refreshing their inbox
And the whopper: meetings. Workers report spending 75 to 85 percent of their time in meetings!
Part of the reason teams spend so much time in meetings is that 73 percent of workers admit to working on other tasks during meetings. This screams of inefficiency and shows that constant collaboration is not the answer.
Email, conference calls, IM, text: There are so many channels for workers to get pinged about a task that it’s becoming difficult to actually DO them. Add in the fact that Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other online tools are now a function of many jobs, and you see how easy it is for someone to stay wildly busy without actually being effective.
Enter “deep work“.
Deep work: Individual work is key to successful teamwork
At Atlassian we have a culture of sparring. In our offices, you’ll find what appear to be arguments happening over white boards. But when it felt we were getting consumed by the constant collaboration and noise, a trend popped up organically and spread. We had full design teams in Sydney that would have Deep Work Thursdays with no meetings, minimal chat-pinging, and people just getting their shit done to get closer to the desired team outcome. Later, our data and research confirmed the effectiveness, but before that we saw it firsthand.
Meetings were shorter. Laptops stayed closed. Attendees were engaged. Each teammate owned their role. Folks came prepared, and collaborative time actually improved on ideas instead of just being a forum for critiquing, because each individual was well-prepped from deep work beforehand. We stopped having the corporate classic: an hour-long meeting that ends with someone saying, “I think that was a good discussion, let’s pick up tomorrow” without any real action.
The biggest misconception about collaboration is the idea that everyone needs to be involved in every conversation. I love a concept of ‘40-60-80’–and it’s anchored in deep work: An individual handles the first 40 percent of work around a project in deep work. A collaborative stage takes it to 60 percent. Then it goes back to deep work. The individual brings an 80 percent ready agenda back to a team environment to finalize. Too often we collaborate at 20, 10, 0 percent. If I come to a meeting with an uncooked concept, that is a waste of my time—not to mention the time of the woman dialing in from London or the man on video in Bangalore. There are always exceptions, like the concept stages of divergent idea generation, but for regular team meetings you have to come prepared. That’s dependent on individual deep work.
We all strive to bring the value customers depend on us to provide, we just need room to get shit done. Talk to your manager and teams about deep work. Carve out regular time to remove distractions and just make progress building momentum in your work universe. Know your team’s purpose and be ruthless about doing your part to achieve it. The future of work will require that teams allow more deep work from individuals. And the effectiveness that unleashes when it’s time to collaborate will make everyone more productive.
Dom Price is futurist and head of R&D at Atlassian.