Tangoing with Time: A Curiosity-Driven Search for a More Optimized Work Schedule

Now that we’re more than a year into pandemic-related digital transformation, we’re starting to read all sorts of headlines about how work is never going back to “normal.”

Hallelujah.

As a founder, I’m not saying that because I have some grand design for saving boatloads of cash by reducing office space. In fact, I love how we have our in-person space configured — District was designed to be an open coworking ecosystem that not only houses our company, Digital Surgeons, but also people and businesses at all stages.

So, I’ve never had a conventional outlook on what a work environment should look like.

And that goes for not just the design of the office but also the design of a workday. Thanks to the pandemic, most of us in the service/design/knowledge economy know what autonomy feels like — from interns to the C-Suite. Over a year of working remotely has shined a spotlight on how the smart use of asynchronous communication opens up more opportunities for people to do their jobs in the manner they prefer to work.

I believe providing personal agency with the goal of shared purpose is possible, but here’s the kicker: that doesn’t mean we have more control over our schedule. Research shows we’re working longer hours and having more meetings.

Confession: I don’t know what I’m doing. Every chance I get, I try to gain more insight and knowledge. The reason I’m writing this article is to invite others to help me learn from their mistakes, wins, and approaches to incremental progress. If I can improve even 1%, then it’s worth it to put out new ideas and ask honest questions about how we can take the opportunity to leverage the Great Pause to retool what’s not working.

My sense is this: productivity is broken. And not just because our style of working has shifted. Nope, this has been going on for years.

It’s because most companies have yet to master creating value for their employees and capturing value from that investment. I’m not talking about the perks of a job, like health insurance or company happy hours. I mean real, tangible, personal rewards like independence, flexibility, trust, and appreciation, which positively affect people’s lives.

To do this, companies must support their people in having an optimal sense of autonomy and agency. Now that many of us are planning to head back into the office, we have to take some time to rethink how to structure the best possible environment to create more value in less time — for both employees and the company.

(Hint: this isn’t about the battle between in-person and remote work. It’s getting strategic to win the bigger war between antiquated processes vs. mindsets and productivity.)

Let’s get started.

UX Design principles prioritize empathizing with users to understand their pain points and challenges. Being able to visualize what they’re thinking, feeling, and doing when facing a particular problem is the key to being the solution they seek.

Another confession, then: Up until this past year, I put too much of my energy into honing my craft as a designer, marketer, and consultant. I spent most of my time working on human-centered design for our customers and their products but never considered critical elements for business success, like how our team members work and how our leadership takes care of our people.

If every worker’s general problem is getting their job done, then it follows that our UX work has to center around understanding how our people create, think, and operate best. That entails looking at a few things:

  • What aspects of the job are repeatable? (And perhaps can be automated)
  • What aspects are reversible? And what isn’t reversible from a decision-making perspective?
  • What is each person’s chronotype? (That is, what time of day are they most productive?)
  • When is the work interruptible? And when is it not?

So, for example, let’s think about interruption. Depending on the type of creative work that I’m doing, an interruption can be a good thing. That is especially true when I’m doing a hands-on design project. I’ve found that interruptions can lead to serendipity in some cases. Other times, the stimuli can lead to a little necessary distance that fosters new observations, leading to breakthroughs.

The key to welcoming in positive interruptions is to have a bit of space and flexibility. There are countless studies on breakthrough inventions created when we sleep, shower and aren’t head-down, grinding away at our desks or, as research shows, frying our brains on endless video conference calls.

This is an image of eight aerial pictures of a human brain showing human stress levels measured by brain waves in a heat-map design. The top half of the image has four aerial pictures of brains with red/yellow heat-maps illustrating a brain on Zoom with no breaks, the bottom half is four aerial pictures of human brains with blue and green heat-maps showing low stress levels measured in brainwaves for people with breaks.
This is an image of eight aerial pictures of a human brain showing human stress levels measured by brain waves in a heat-map design. The top half of the image has four aerial pictures of brains with red/yellow heat-maps illustrating a brain on Zoom with no breaks, the bottom half is four aerial pictures of human brains with blue and green heat-maps showing low stress levels measured in brainwaves for people with breaks.
Image Source: Microsoft/Brown Bird Design

This is when I’m best able to balance being both a maker and a manager. (Not in the shower, per se, but with fluidity as part of my day.) Paul Graham’s classic rumination on makers’ vs. managers’ schedules springs to mind. Makers need long stretches of time to be in flow, whereas managers need to fit multiple short periods of time into a given day to hammer out logistics, make decisions, and provide guidance.

That being said, when I’m doing research, immersed and consumed in a given problem space, I need solitude.

And this isn’t just me. I believe most people need to have a balance between creating things and managing things. We’re in a world where the old-school scientific management approach that broke things down into siloed processes to eliminate non-essential actions, which led to employees working in a machine-like routine, is dead.

A little inefficiency can be good — it’s part of being human and not robotic. A productivity-supporting schedule holds space for that and also allows for personal constraints and boundaries.

This is where a manager comes in. But not the old overlord style of management. In a reimagined ecosystem where we’re all makers and we’re all managers to some degree, we need a fresh perspective.

Let’s start by understanding the fundamental aspects of a manager. This position is designed to create predictable, reliable behaviors in a business’ operating system. It’s often more about governance and less about innovation because the primary task is to develop and enforce a sustainable, repeatable model.

This leaves no room for mistakes or failure, which is its own failing, and its own challenge.

In my opinion, today’s managers should focus on finding problems… not with personnel, but with creativity. How are you contributing to finding a solution? Are you available to coach and mentor? Do you hold space for your teams so they can realize their creative potential?

For example, a manager can help expedite someone’s ability to create something just by being present as a thought partner. The freedom to share ideas is a potent motivator. For example, it’s one of the reasons Pixar has been so successful. I love what Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar and president of Walt Disney Animation Studios, said in his book, Creativity, Inc.:

“I believe the best managers acknowledge and make room for what they do not know — not just because humility is a virtue but because until one adopts that mindset, the most striking breakthroughs cannot occur. I believe that managers must loosen the controls, not tighten them. They must accept risk; they must trust the people they work with and strive to clear the path for them; and always, they must pay attention to and engage with anything that creates fear. Moreover, successful leaders embrace the reality that their models may be wrong or incomplete. Only when we admit what we don’t know can we ever hope to learn it.”

More than a half-dozen years later, we have a unique opportunity to recalibrate how managers work. Why not move forward with honesty, openness, and imagination?

Within a reimagined work ecosystem, it’s essential to start differentiating between agreements and expectations. You’d think that an agreement is defined, but often it’s not. And when it’s not, it’s an expectation.

The hardest expectations to handle are invisible expectations. And you know what that is as a maker or a manager. When they surface, either you or your colleague are blindsided by them. Gallup shows that nearly half of US employees don’t know what’s expected of them — which creates discomfort and distrust. Both are productivity killers.

I’m a real newbie in this area, so lately, I’ve been seeking out experts, talking to team members, and really trying to get to the bottom of what a good agreement looks like. It’s crucial to understand how to encourage and enable people to subscribe, unsubscribe, and shape agreements.

What I’ve found is one of the best ways to turn an expectation into an agreement is to get comfortable with setting and communicating boundaries. This is both individual and as an organization as a whole. Now, this isn’t a rigid process — my advice is to find as many places as possible to decrease “or” boundaries and increase “and” boundaries.

In other words, expand opportunities for inclusivity, flexibility, and creativity.

Finally, document your agreements. Expectations are then quantified, and everyone involved can be equally engaged. This gives you the vital tool necessary to navigate communication through conflict: trust.

By better defining the way you come together, make decisions, and handle disagreements, you develop not just a roadmap forward but a vibrant, three-dimensional network.

Ultimately, the problem with productivity is that people tend to look at it as a tug o’ war: either efficiency wins or effectiveness wins, but there’s no in-between.

This is a fallacy. The truth is far more nuanced because not all efficiencies are effective, and not all effectiveness is efficient.

There’s a little bit of creative germination that needs to be in the mix.

This brings me back to what productivity really is — and it goes beyond just speed or efficiency. It’s about solving problems in innovative ways, and it’s an ongoing process. We can draw from Design Thinking at this point and frame it in a feedback loop from observation to exploration, iteration, ideation, and validation.

If you want to determine how your organization as a whole can be more productive, experiment with how you do things.

Take, for example, the dreaded meetings. For makers, in particular, meetings can hack up a day, so that focused solo work goes by the wayside. Instead, reframe meetings as holding space to achieve a specific objective. That means ditching things like standing Monday morning meetings and instead find a time that invites people to engage in a genuinely productive manner — rather than being annoyed they’re stuck in a time suck.

If researching and writing this has taught me anything, it is how much I need to rethink work and update my own operating systems to match my intentions for a value-based, purpose-minded organization.

Thanks for reading. I’d love to hear more about how you’re reimagining the workday in our post-pandemic world for yourself and your team.

Founder and Force-multiplier @digitalsurgeons. https://www.linkedin.com/in/petersena/ & http://petesena.com/

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