The ability to multitask used to be a highly sought-after skill. In many cases, it’s still included as a requirement on various job postings.
However, more recent research has found all that juggling employees are expected to do is actually making them less productive and less likely to produce quality work.
The statistics on multitasking back this up. For instance:
- On average, it takes 25 minutes to resume a cognitively demanding task after being interrupted.
- Employees who multitask take 50 percent longer to complete an assignment compared to employees who focus on a single task.
- Multitasking leads to a 40 percent drop in productivity.
While we can’t eliminate multitasking entirely, more workplace leaders are recognizing the value of what’s known as deep work. Here’s what it is and how you can encourage more of it in your workplace.
What Is Deep Work?
Cal Newport, a computer scientist at Georgetown University, first coined the term in his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. According to Newport, deep work is a set of “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.:
By executing deep work, you can “create new value [and] improve your skill.”
Deep work has been shown to contribute to greater creativity and better outcomes. The idea of focusing intensely on one task for a long period of time certainly isn’t new, but it’s increasingly being viewed as a competitive advantage in a world where the average American checks their smartphone 80 times a day. (Millennials check their phones almost twice as much.)
Ultimately, whether or not an employee engages in deep work is up to him. But workplace leaders have the power to create an office that either cultivates a deep work ethic or hinders it.
Here are a few tips that can help you reduce productivity-killers in your workplace and encourage more deep work.
Consider Every Employee’s Workstyle
The workforce is not composed of robots (not yet, at least). Every employee in your organization has their own individual needs when it comes to their productivity. While a workplace leader can’t support every one of these requirements (for example, Benjamin Franklin’s habit of starting every morning standing stark naked in front of his windows), he or she can offer the workforce different spaces to work within the office where they can focus without distraction.
Activity-based working (ABW) does just that. In an ABW environment, employees choose the type of workspace that best supports their productivity. This could be a quiet area tucked in the corner of the office. Or it could be a high-traffic area with plenty of comfortable seating.
The atmosphere described in the latter example may seem as if it inhibits productivity. But extroverts are actually biologically programmed to be more energized when they are in presence of external stimuli. So if your workplace is too quiet, the extroverts in your workforce can’t be as productive. Similarly, if it leans too much toward the boisterous side, the productivity of your introverts will suffer.
Recognizing the different workstyles of your employees and creating an workplace that supports them is the key to cultivating a deep work ethic.
Support and Promote Flexibility
“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence or a vice; it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets… it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”
— Cal Newport, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
The act of incorporating this sentiment into the workplace is a little more intangible than implementing ABW. It’s more about fostering a particular attitude in the office, rather than changing the physical workplace itself.
Whether they are an early bird or a night owl, every employee will at some point during the day reach the point of diminishing returns. In their book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength, social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister and New York Times journalist John Tierney explain that we all “have a finite amount of willpower that becomes depleted as [we] use it.”
Workplace leaders must collaborate with the organization’s management team to cultivate an environment where employees feel comfortable taking a breather from time to time. The office should never be a place where members of the workforce feel as if they have no freedom. As long as employees are fulfilling their obligations and meeting the appropriate deadlines, they should be encouraged to work in the ways that are most conducive to their productivity.
This might mean adopting a hybrid workplace strategy that allows employees to work remotely at least part of the time, which can enable more deep work . It might even mean implementing “flex time”, a policy adopted by companies like HubSpot and Hershey alike. Flex time allows employees to work with their managers to create a work schedule to accommodate their lives, allowing for things like picking up children from daycare or attending college classes.
Deep Work Is A Philosophy, Not an Initiative
While the overall goal of deep work is the same for every employee — “produc[ing] at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed” — the way members of the workforce achieve that goal will rarely be the same across the board. By making the office a place that is free from distractions and supports each employee’s unique habits and workstyles, workplace leaders can ensure that employees are maximizing their productivity while also enjoying a better work-life balance.
Keep in mind that deep work isn’t an initiative or a trend, but a philosophy that requires a new mindset. If your workplace can find ways to encourage more deep work, you’ll have a clear competitive advantage in this distracted world.