A wise woman once said, “We all have the same amount of hours in the day as Beyoncé.”
This past year my team has had to do more with less. Less headcount, static budgets, and zero of the kind of reciprocal energy gained from being in the same physical space as our colleagues. Most importantly, there’s been no singing Matchbox 20 at karaoke and then realizing that 80% of my colleagues were 3 in 1997. Like Beyoncé, knowledge workers have access to endless and abundant information (can you imagine what her inbox is like!?), but our attention and time are finite.
In a remote work environment, there’s an underlying need to stay reachable and appear productive by being responsive. Some have called this trap the “cult of busyness.”
We multitask by default, so our twitchy waking hours are exhausting due to unregulated and unprocessed information and inputs. Multitasking is not only inefficient, it actually causes the slow degradation of brain function:
When you start to objectively measure [multitasking] with different types of brain scans, scans that are measuring the function of the brain or particular parts of the brain at any given millisecond, you find that you actually expend quite a bit of energy just to switch from to task to another. You think you‘re doing both simultaneously but you’re probably doing neither as well as you could be and you’re probably going to take more time than if you just did them linearly.” — Dr. Sanjay Gupta in conversation with Terry Gross.
Identifying the problem
In 2020, the Operations Team at Guru received the feedback that “communications are noisy.” We knew this wasn’t unique to us. It’s a common complaint that is a symptom of suboptimal processes that allow for (and even promote) multitasking, such as chat, email, and all other tools that signal a new “to do” with a badge and a push notification.
We asked ourselves: was a simple reduction in the volume of communication (messages, pings) going to A) alleviate distraction and B) enable teammates to digest information more effectively?
First, we set out to reduce the number of private direct messages in Slack as 86% of our messages were happening in DMs, thinking this would improve the employee experience. But it wasn’t that simple. While this reduction in volume was marginally helpful, it didn’t have a holistic impact on our company full of multitaskers.
So, this time, we changed the question: How can we enact both cultural and process changes that A) create focus time and B) alleviate the mental load of low-grade decision making?
How we’ve worked to fix our communication overload
1. We developed and evangelized communications principles with a cross-functional working group.
We realized that before making changes that require cultural buy-in, we first needed to agree on “the why” behind the changes we proposed.
2. We pressure-tested our processes for scale.
Here we asked whether our communication principles, systems, and processes in their current forms would hold up as we grew. The answer was a definite no, but in order not to be disruptive, we had to stagger updates into phases (i.e. getting our key projects into Asana vs. an unruly google sheet) instead of tackling them all at once.
Scaling also required identifying and building relationships with a network of internal champions (usually people managers). These “influencers” are in a position to reinforce change and chip away at functional silos.
3. We standardized communications channels for consistency and cadence.
This all might sound simple, but a 2020 audit proved we could be better at utilizing the functionality of the tools in which we’d already invested. After all, a tool is only as effective as the way in which you use it.
But before we could fix all of our other problems, we had to make sure our main method of communication would help and not hinder the solutions. That’s why we consolidated communications channels and standardized naming conventions in Slack, going over every channel we could find in order to eliminate redundancies.
We also created prioritization signals in Slack. These standardized visuals (emojis!) ensure that team members know when a response is required so that every ping is not perceived as urgent (using common visual language tells our brains and our parasympathetic nervous systems that it can relax). We want our team sharing thoughtful responses instead of knee-jerk reactions and believe this is better for growth and productivity. Here are the posting guidelines we developed:
4. We established information routines.
“Time isn't the main thing. It's the only thing,” said Miles Davis. So we established specific communication cadences and formats that our employees can expect and trust. After all, there’s enough uncertainty around other parts of all businesses (and the world at large), so we didn’t want the way in which our employees receive information to be unexpected or disruptive.
We decided to use announcements to share and track company-wide updates. Unsurprisingly, these Alerts are now sent most frequently (~30% of the time) at the beginning of the fiscal quarter to inform the ways in which Guru’s company goals relate to each employee’s individual work; and as far as time of day, all-company announcements are primarily sent after 12pm/ET to accommodate distributed teams and focus time.
5. We agreed upon a decision-making framework for accountability.
From the very beginning of the company, we’ve placed a premium on accountability and transparency. That’s why all Guru employees have the ability to access and see progress on OKRs (objectives and key results) through a combination of Guru (for dynamic documentation) and Asana (for project management).
But we realized we needed to structure accountability in order to scale it. To do that, we decided to implement the RACI decision-making model, which establishes clear expectations on who is going to complete what action. This decision-making framework has reduced friction and illuminates blockers and gaps.
The end result? We don’t know yet!
Ultimately, we want to enable employees to focus deeply, using their skill and brainpower on the projects and problems they were uniquely hired to tackle with the time that they have. But since what works for a company of 15 doesn’t work for a company of 150, and what works for a company of 150 definitely won’t work for a company of 500, we’ll continue testing both top-down and bottom-up cultural and process shifts as we grow. We’ve seen some great initial results, and our latest eNPS poll included a finding that Slack is less noisy. Is that enough to help people find deep focus? Not on its own. But it’s a start.