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Virtual Teams: Why Your Remote Work Might be Suffering and How to Fix it

The current nature of work means that many of us no longer work in a brick and mortar office with our peers and teams. We have been forced to work remotely, and while many people are reporting increased productivity and progress from their teams or projects, some people feel they can’t seem to gain their footing in this new “virtual working world.”

Studies done by several sources show that many workers only spend a little over 40% of their time in their ‘titled roles.’ For instance, a report by Rescue Blog, a website dedicated to reducing stress and increasing productivity in the modern workplace, conducted a research project and determined that software developers spend approximately 41% of their day developing software!

Time Thief Meme

So, what is it that steals so much of our time? What is happening that makes you feel less productive even though the project is progressing at a much better rate? Likely, it is two things – and they are related to each other…

1. Context Switching

2. Shallow Work vs Deep Work

Context Switching

Context switching in computers is exceptionally powerful and beneficial. Context switching allows your computer to store the context or state of a process so that it can be reloaded when needed and resume at the same point it was halted. This allows your CPU to be shared by several processes all at once, meaning the computer can handle all types of different work, even if it is unrelated.

What about you, though? Have you ever started working on something and then set it down to do different work? Were you able to pick it right back up where you left off? Be honest, most of us cannot do that. There is an “on-boarding” period to remind ourselves where we were and ‘spin back up’ to where we were when we put it down.

Shallow Work vs Deep Work

In his 2016 book entitled Deep Work, Cal Newport described two different types of work: shallow work and deep work. Shallow work is described as “non-cognitive” or “logistical” work. These are things you can do in a state of distraction. Conversely, Deep work are described as “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive abilities to the limit.”

In other words, minimal mental capacity is spent on shallow work tasks and do not require you to minimize distractions to accomplish these tasks. Other work (which is likely the hardest assigned work of your project) requires you to create an environment where you can be free of distraction to perform optimally.

So how do we provide the ‘fix’ to get ourselves to a productive state? Let’s see how Agile project management handles it and see if we can borrow some rules for our own work…

Agile PM Practices to Provide “Optimal Flow”

Preventing Context Switching

An agile methodology excels at reducing context switching and allowing for deep work states – Kanban, meaning “signboard” in Japanese. In Kanban, you limit context switching by limiting work in progress for either the team or for team members. In other words, you only allow the team or team member to work on a specific number of items simultaneously. That way, if they must put work down to assist another team member or do different work, there is less needed to set up your mind to restart a previous piece of work.

In their book Kanban In Action Marcus Hammarberg and Joakim Sunden graphically described it like setup time for a machine in a factory. If the machine is rigged for creating Model A of a product, it will take time to readjust the settings to produce Model B. If you alternate back and forth rather than finishing Model A and then moving to Model B, there will be lost time due to the setup. See the graphic below to see a representation of this inefficiency:

Context Switching Diagram

Deep Work in Agile

An extremely easy “fix” that can be applied from agile is the practice of ‘caves and commons.’ In agile methodologies, the team works very closely to each other in a common space optimized by the removal of walls and other barriers, which means they can benefit from helpful things like osmotic communication and paired work when hitting blockages. However, there is also a ‘cave’ the team member can go to allow for private meetings or deep work

5 Actionable Steps for Productivity

1. Understanding how you work (or need to work) – Determine the best approach to your work needs and your environment. The four most common approaches are:

  • Monastic – Remove all distractions permanently. As an extreme measure, the monastic philosophy ensures there would be no outside distractions such as phone, email, or social media. It is just you and the work to be done

  • Bimodal – The bimodal philosophy allows you to divide your time between shallow and deep work in spans. You can do large chunks of time where you are set up for deep work (turning “Do Not Disturb” on for all your distraction sources.

  • Rhythmic – This philosophy sets up a habit of deep work at scheduled points of the day. You build this into your calendar and follow it. If it is not needed, bypass it until the next deep work session.

  • Journalistic – The least structured of the philosophies, journalistic deep work periods switch you to deep work cycles whenever the time allows.

2. Determine what you want to achieve. Set the goals for your deep work session and using the philosophies for ‘how you work’ get it done. Understand what success looks like (“begin with the end in mind”) and set the deadline to get there in your deep work sessions.

3. Establish rituals. Knowing what you want to accomplish is only one of the steps to gain the productivity. You need to know when you will stop and then ACTUALLY STOP. Personally, I find using a Pomodoro Timer is a highly effective way to do this. It allows me to segment work into 25-minute segments with a 5-minute break. You can use that all day long or several times a day, but in either case, it establishes routines and rituals around how you work.

4. Be unavailable during deep work times. Setting your devices or notifications and shutting down other programs like chat and emails during your deep work sessions prevents you from context switching as new messages or emails arrives.

5. Retrospectives are important to assess what is working. When you are complete with the work, or periodically through your deep work sessions, determine if you met your goals. Be honest about what is working and what is not working. You will not improve if you make excuses for your failures, but you can be unflinchingly honest and make small improvements in how you work. Determine the changes that you can make to improve the results for future deep work sessions.

Some people are already very productive and are enjoying the ‘work from home’ lifestyle, while others are still struggling to make it work for them. I am interested in hearing how your work is going and what performance improvements you have made, including things not listed in this article. I’m looking forward to your comments!!

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