Episode 13 – Q&A

Productivity and Work Ethic

Published: 14th March 2021

 

Click on the audio player to listen, or read the episode transcription below.

This is the fourth episode of season two.

 

Hi and welcome to Episode 13 of Creating Cadence, a podcast for life and work in motion. I’m your host Mich Bondesio, a writer, business coach and consultant and the founder of Growth Sessions.

 

For this season, I’ve introduced a Q&A element to some of my episodes and that’s what we’re doing in this one.

 

Today I’m covering issues relating to our perceptions of what constitutes “being productive” when we’re working from home. How productivity and wellbeing suffers when there seems to be too much to do, and how we can be seen to be productive without having to literally be visible online all day.

 

We touch on the fallout and repercussions of bad work ethics or negative work behaviours that have carried over into our current distributed working situations. And why it’s important to work on changing our mindset and behaviours around what we think is expected of us, when this way of thinking is a construct of an outdated working culture that essentially originated way back in the industrial revolution, and doesn’t fit our current scenarios.

 

But first, for those who might be new here, here’s a bit about me…

 

I work with individuals and small teams in creative and digitally-focused workplaces. Through my coaching work I help people to develop more mindful approaches to work, that better support their creativity, productivity and wellbeing.

 

It’s my mission to help us all build better work-life cadence, so that we can activate more of our potential and lead more extraordinary lives in full colour. Because, as we’ve all discovered especially over the last year, life is far too short to settle for a life of bland magnolia.

 

You can find out more about me and what I do, and sign up for my Cadence newsletter at www.growthsessions.co.

 

So let’s get cracking with this episode…

 

Part One

 

Although it appears that in coming months, life and work might return to a slightly less restrictive playbook, for many of us, the decisions have already been made to continue working in a distributed or remote way. And that means we will still face certain challenges working online, which aren’t going to go away when lockdown does.

 

Today I’m focusing on 3 observations that were recently shared with me. They are views on what is essentially the same topic, namely that of entrenched work mindsets. And more specifically the perceptions we may have around a work ethic and what it means to be productive and to be seen to be productive.

 

So first up is a comment from a listener in the United States who works in government administration.

 

She writes: “I don’t know why I thought that the people who barely functioned at doing their work while in the office, would suddenly have a work ethic while working remote. The greatest challenge for me has been to TRY and not let it get to me. I know my work ethic, but damn it ticks me off when I have to pick up the slack for those not doing their job.”

 

First of all, my commiserations to you dear listener, that must be incredibly frustrating.

 

We’re obviously all under additional pressures in the current pandemic situation, so having to take on more work on top to make up for what others aren’t doing, is clearly unfair, not to mention stressful and unhealthy over the long run.

 

But it’s probably happening more than we realise too… So I’m sure you are not alone in your challenge here.

 

I’ve read in the past that work apathy can be commonplace in public sector environments. But the reality is that it can happen in any workplace.

 

In general, although many people have taken to distributed working like ducks to water, unfortunately it’s not the best fit for some. And we don’t always know what’s going on in the background of someone’s life that might be influencing how they show up at work, or don’t.

 

But for people who do the bare minimum to scrape by, they are missing out on the benefits that come from developing strong cohesive team dynamics.

 

When each team member puts in the effort and pulls their weight, and does what is expected of them, then they work for the good of the team, but everyone benefits individually too. Everyone is supported better when the work load can be more evenly distributed.

 

This is especially relevant in small teams where each member may need to perform several functions or have more than one role. If one member of the team isn’t pulling their weight, that compounds the added weight that now falls to others.

 

The individuals who make up a team, can make or break a team. And if you are in the position of wanting to build high performance teams in your company, then supporting better team cohesion is essential.

 

And that starts when you recruit.

 

So consider hiring for mindset as much as for skill and experience. You need to know that your team members will show up when they are needed, whether you are managing them or not.

 

How can you help under performers to activate more of their potential and show more initiative at work?

 

For one, they have to be invested in the bigger picture of what you are trying to achieve or they won’t show up with passion, energy and a strong work ethic. (And that’s outside of trying to work well in a crisis situation, like oh let’s say a pandemic, which is a whole other ballgame.)

 

For existing team members who aren’t pulling their weight, consider what you can do to set a better example for what is expected? How can you communicate minimum requirements for getting the job done? How can you engage them to find out why they are apathetic about their work?

 

Perhaps they haven’t been trained to do the job properly, in which case, that’s an area where you can support them better.

 

What about getting your team involved in co-designing a more supportive and effective team culture around communication and delivery?

 

This involves deciding collectively on what’s important for both the team and its individuals, and how you can all help to make those things happen. When these needs and wants are brought into the open and discussed as a group, then people are more likely to understand the ramifications of not bringing their full self to their role, and it can help to shift things in a good way.

 

Standard performance appraisals don’t always work, as they are often a general overview, done once or twice a year. And don’t forget that we’re humans first and resources second. Positive numbers on a P&L spreadsheet or a KPI status report mean nothing, if team members are crying in the bathroom or bitching behind each others backs on Slack.

 

It’s common knowledge, but has also been proven by research, that we excel better being in positive environments with constructive feedback, than in a toxic culture of punishment and penalisation.

 

As mentioned before, this is in a normal setting. If your company is still operating in crisis mode due to the pandemic, then even more care needs to be exercised around creating a psychologically safe space for opening up this dialogue.

 

Consider whether you’d all benefit from regular, informal feedback sessions, or whether private, confidential opportunities, where issues and suggestions can be raised safely and anonymously, are a better fit for your organisation.

 

How can you create the safe space to have the difficult conversations?

 

If you’re serious about building a high performance team, then those who aren’t interested in being part of the team, are the ones you will need to consider either letting go, leaving behind, or transferring to a different role that suits them better.

 

Obviously, if you need to “unhire” someone, make sure you’re following the relevant HR processes, so that you’re not in contravention of the law. But sometimes, laying things on the line, helping under performers see the bigger picture, and giving them a second chance to do better, is all they need to come around.

 

Part Two

 

Next up let’s consider a traditional but rather flawed mindset we tend to have around productivity. It has been burned into our brains over countless years of toil in an unhealthy, capitalist and outdated working regime, originally sparked by the industrial revolution. (Perhaps you can tell how I feel about it by the language I’m using?)

 

First an observation from another listener about the pros and cons of now doing business meetings online.

 

Jenny is the director of an arts commissioning programme in the UK. She commented on how much easier it has been in lockdown to progress projects and forge new partnerships because her team and collaborators can all hop on a Zoom call rather than trying to juggle schedules to accommodate travelling long distances to meet somewhere physically.

 

To quote Jenny, …

 

“We’re picking up things a lot quicker, but it means sometimes being even more frantic, and there’s something about the pace of work, working from home, where you feel like you’ve got to prove that you’re being productive in some way. Because you’re not physically being seen by people all the time. So there’s something about that, she says, that I’m finding less comfortable…”

 

Jenny’s comment is a good example of how those of us with a strong work ethic are all doing so much, and yet we still don’t feel like we are doing enough.

 

The ‘bums on seats’ perception of productivity and needing to be seen for our contribution to be acknowledged is unfortunately quite deeply ingrained across work cultures. But it’s an unhealthy perception supported by synchronous working styles. Where we think we always need to be in contact and connected.

 

So why do we think we need to?

 

Well, because we’re not in a physical workspace, the visual cues of “being at work” and therefore being seen to be working are removed. So we feel we have to prove we are working. Of course this is not necessary, but our brain has been trained to think it is.

 

Feeling this guilt can also be a consequence of past experiences with micromanagement. Or it can be due to a situation where teams can’t self-manage their work as individuals, perhaps because culturally there have previously been no boundaries around how their time is managed, and they feel unable to impose them now.

 

Or we could feel guilty because we are still in the process of mastering the discipline that’s required to effectively work from home. Believe me, from what I’m hearing and reading, even after an enforced year of working this way, people are still struggling to get it right.

 

Why are we struggling and why do we feel uncomfortable about not being seen to be productive? We feel this way, because those traditional notions of the workplace are so deeply ingrained.

 

Part Four

 

Now let’s look in a bit more detail at this uncomfortable issue around how we think others perceive our productivity.

 

Introducing Mel, who is also from the UK and works as a project delivery manager for a University. She wrote in to share her thoughts about the ups and downs of working from home and she gave some great examples.

 

To quote Mel, she says ,

“ With working from home full time it’s great, saving commute time to and from work. I’m lucky we are well supported and the culture is now more open to flexible working hours etc. Especially supporting those with carer or homeschooling responsibilities.

 

However, why is it that some of us have feelings of guilt if we’re not online at our desks by 9, and if we take a half hour mid-morning break and/or an hour over lunch etc. All of which are encouraged.

 

So many people hardly manage to stop for lunch and the hours we’re putting in have increased.

 

If we were in the workplace we’d spend quite a bit of time away from the desk – walking to meeting rooms, chatting as we grab a brew etc. Now we feel if we’re not glued to the screen we’re slacking. There’s also other ways of working – for example, on paper, off-screen time etc. But I feel it’s not really work?!

 

Mel asks, what’s a good approach to managing these feelings? I know it’s not as productive at times – glued to the screen – and I know there are more productive ways to focus and get things done! “

 

Thanks Mel, this is a common challenge that I’m hearing from clients and which I’m also reading about, as new research about these impacts comes to light.

 

If our organisations are encouraging adequate rest and time away from the screens and we still don’t feel able to comply, then this is predominantly a mindset issue. And it runs deep, because of aforementioned perceptions of what we think others think about us, brought about by our traditional work culture.

 

It’s going to take some personal development work to shift this entrenched thinking about having to be “present and visible” to be seen to be doing good work.

 

This shift is part of the uncomfortable phase of transitioning from synchronous to asynchronous working styles, where we take more control over how we work and consequently build more cadence into our workflows and work days.

 

But the first thing we have to do is get over ourselves, because we are doing this to ourselves. And we need to stop placing importance on time over quality of output.

 

In the current time, where our other responsibilities are crowding into our day, it is totally unrealistic and unfeasible for most of us to be expected to be putting in an 8-9 hour work day, because we also have to fit in the other work – the teaching, the caring, the making lunch for the kids, the dog walking, etc.

 

I discovered through my own experimentation that I can get far more done in 4-6 hours if I’m working in a focused, asynchronous manner using strategies like time blocking or closing my email for 2 hours, than I can do spending 8 hours glued to my screen with all the tabs and apps open, where I’m at the whim of whoever is messaging, emailing or dictating how I need to use my time.

 

What I am getting done in lesser time, is being done to a higher level with professional delivery, rather than trying to deliver in a mad-dash multi-tasked, half baked manner.

 

That way of working, where we are permanently on standby and permanently online is detrimental on every level, and we need to keep reminding ourselves of that.

 

Even for someone like me who might be somewhat clued up on this stuff, I still experience these feelings. At the start of this year I suddenly found I was also beating myself up for not being at my desk at 9am.

 

I was getting there at around 10 – which is actually nothing new. Unless I’m doing an early workshop, that’s my usual starting time, and I work flexibly during the day depending on what’s going on. Sometimes it’s 6 hours straight, sometimes I take a break in the afternoon, and return to do a few hours in the evening.

 

There are two reasons I typically start at 10am. First, that’s when my ultradian rhythms indicate I’m most receptive to deep work. And second, because I have pre-work activities I do which take up 2 hours of my time before then.

 

But here’s the thing … the pre-work I do (whether that’s yoga, journaling, meditation, learning, reading, or running) is actually all part of the work. They are the things I must do in order to be able to function effectively during the rest of the day.

 

These activities are an integral part of my framework for intentional productivity. Through much experimentation, trial and error I’ve discovered these are the things which support my productivity, creativity and wellbeing best.

 

Just like Buddhists do yoga to keep their bodies limber to mitigate the long hours of sitting meditating, the pre-work sets you up for your main work. It’s the foundation for getting the other stuff done well. Without it, eventually we crash and burn.

 

The same goes for the quiet, off-screen work we do. It is also work, and it supports the digital element of your work. We process thoughts and ideas differently when we write compared to type. For the brain geeks out there, studies show that more manual activities such as writing and drawing light up a different part of our brains.

 

If your job requires strategic, critical, creative or lateral thinking, then it’s imperative that you carve out time to do some of your work away from a screen. And keep reminding yourself that it’s not slacking off. It’s proper work.

 

So take control. Setting boundaries (with yourself as much as others) and creating more supportive cycles, schedules and routines for different types of work can all help.

 

The best way to work remotely is to work asynchronously as much as possible. That means you work “out of time” or you work to your own schedule. That means creating blocks of time when you are focused on the project or task at hand, without interruption or distraction from emails, calls, messages etc.

 

You really don’t have to have your email open all the time. You can choose to check it at certain times. Think about how you can build a ritual or routine around when you’re accessible to the world, and when you are not.

 

Can you set a limit on the amount of Zoom meetings you are prepared to have in a day. Can you block time out on your calendar for other types of work. Try it. Adding it to your calendar tells your brain how you wish your day to go and what you want to focus on.

 

If you have to be available and on standby at all times during your work day, then could you negotiate that you work that ridiculous schedule for only 3-4 days of your work week, then take a day or two to do the other quiet work when you can disconnect from all of that, to help your brain and body recover from the digital overload. Or how about splitting each day between being fully connected and fully unavailable?

 

Treat it like an experiment, testing what works and what doesn’t until you find a reasonable cadence that works for most of your days. Then the knack to making these better practices stick, is to practise them daily.

 

In episode 12, I spoke about the Burnout Crisis and Zoom fatigue (which has been identified by Stanford University researchers as a real physiological issue).

 

We need to be factoring in time in our days to be off screen and to be unavailable for video meetings, so that our bodies can rest and so that we have the energy to use our brains in the multitudes of different ways needed as part of our work.

 

I keep harping on about this, because it really is that important for our overall performance and our future brain health.

 

When we build strong foundations that support our productivity and wellbeing, we don’t stop once they are built. We have to keep practicing, keep building, keep supporting those good habits.

 

Or we default back to those old behaviours that are deeply ingrained in our neural pathways, just waiting for a weak moment to revert back to joining the hyperactive hive mind (That’s Cal Newport’s term for being permanently contactable and on standby).

 

Just because we might be going back to the office, doesn’t mean we have to fall back into very bad habits. So guard your time, your productivity and your wellbeing as best you can. Building good habits now, will stand you in good stead when the next shift in our working culture starts becoming a reality. Which is going to be very soon.

 

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this episode. If you have a question relating to productivity, wellbeing or remote work. Or want to share the challenges you’re experiencing with your focus, work performance or culture, or even the solutions you’ve found to support your work better in current times, then please write in to hello at growthsessions.co

 

The Creating Cadence podcast is a place where I share thoughts, ideas, tips, and the latest research on productivity, behaviour design and digital wellness, to help us all develop a better work life cadence. If you want to understand the concept of Cadence in more depth, please have a listen to episodes 1 and 2 from the first season.

 

So thanks again for listening.

 

Until next time, please take care out there. Be brave, think big and keep moving forwards, one step at a time.

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