2020 has seen the rise of virtual working and teams being dispersed across locations, and even countries, therefore it’s important to pay focus to work management. Although the research by many companies cites an overall increase in productivity, there is a risk concerning the concept of over connection.
Over connection refers to being online all the time, for work, for family, and for friends. Although on the surface it appears a positive thing, the lack of a clear distinction between work and life can have a detrimental effect on the work-life balance and even the mental wellbeing of our teams.
From a work perspective, this over connection manifests itself in the level of interruption by well-meaning colleagues (and Clients) as well as a lack of individual work management.
A common complaint about the current ways of working is the inability to control the incoming work and requests from others which ‘eats’ time leading to team members feeling disheartened and unmotivated on the days when they feel they have achieved little.
This more frequent request for work and information is in part because of the rise in virtual working, which in turn can be put down to the inability for people to walk across the office and ask for information, or see the teams delivering outputs. The psychological effect is a perception of a lack of visibility.
Recent McKinsey & Co research shows the increased pace of requests and reviews since the Covid19 outbreak; detailing those activities that would normally have taken place annually (such as funding and de-funding of activities) or less often now required on a monthly basis, along with re-allocation of talent; whilst monthly requests for information are being required (up to) weekly.
The impact on PMO teams has been a return to more administrative functions, collating information for analysis on a more frequent basis at the expense of more strategic or supportive work that enables the successful delivery of change.
To alleviate this, team members should focus on being able to work smarter, not harder. Focusing on high-value activities and devising tactical ways to manage workload and the inevitable interruptions.
Work Smarter in Practice
There are numerous concepts that exist to support individuals with their work management, some of the common ones are detailed here which may provide some insight into how best to manage workload.
The Eisenhower Matrix was developed by the ex-US President and utilises a grid where activity can be plotted based on its urgency and importance. Once plotted, the concept provides four possible strategies for dealing with it:
- Do First – urgent and important
- Schedule – important but less urgent
- Delegate – Urgent but less important
- Don’t Do – not important or urgent
By considering the requests individuals receive as well as personal tasks through this lens, it provides an idea of how to deal with it. However, it is highly unlikely that from a Project Management perspective you can simply ignore tasks, so your typical approach may be better placed in the Covey matrix instead which provides a view on the type of work:
- Quality work relates to activities that will enrich your personal or professional goals but that we often put to the side waiting for a ‘better time’
- Necessity work tends to be initiated by the expectation of others or unexpected occurrences
- Waste includes the activities that ‘eat’ time throughout the day and would be better off ‘chunked-up’ to gain efficiencies
- Deception often relates to someone else’s urgency that masquerades as your own and activities that we would do well to say no to. Consider the latest Clockwise research highlighting that 78% of people feel that their meeting schedule is either always or sometimes out of control
Mark Twain said, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first.”
What he meant with this comment is that work is all about prioritisation. Focus on the biggest items first; importantly however the biggest does not necessarily mean ‘time-consuming’. We should look at the complexity, the level of thinking or decision making that needs to happen and who needs to be involved to define ‘bigger’.
Theoretically dealing with the ‘bigger’ items first, provides a relief in focus and attention or the remainder of the day, however, it can lead to exhaustion and a lack of progress on other activities later in the day if not managed properly.
Attention Management is covered in one of my favourite books; How to be a Productivity Ninja and comprises the concept of understanding your own different types of attention.
- Proactive attention
- Active attention
- Inactive attention
By identifying your individual flow of attention (on a daily basis) you are able to schedule key decisions and tasks during your period of proactive attention, day to day work in your active attention slot, and less meaningful work during your inactive attention time.
Your attention pattern will change, but there will also be several threads that you can follow fairly consistently; like for example are you a morning person or a night owl?
Elon Musk pre-plans his days in advance using the method of time-blocking for every 5-minutes of his working day avoiding the opportunity for random interruptions; every two hours is broken down into 24 5-minute blocks of time.
This approach may seem extreme and unrealistic as it requires enormous discipline, but it is all about finding what works for the individual.
People often assume that if they block every moment of the day estimating the time needed for each activity, everything will get done. The reality for many (maybe less disciplined) is in fact the opposite because:
- Over connection means there are many interruptions to deal with
- The estimating funnel – we anticipate incorrectly how long things will take the earlier in the process we are
- Optimism bias – we believe that we can achieve more in the time than we can
- Chunking down – we end up having to reschedule finishing something instead of completing it in one go
Focus time is hugely underrated and underused. So, instead of assigning your whole day, maybe try assigning focus time periodically (once a day, twice a week, or whatever suits) to deal with the key pieces of work that you need to concentrate for.
Tech note: If you use the Microsoft Windows, Cortana can help you by identifying slots suitable in your calendar for focus time based on your regular usage, and Focus Assist can stop notifications during your focus time.
However you choose to schedule it, during focus time, turn off notifications, emails, phones, and most importantly let people know in your organisation; “if my calendar or my status says ‘Focus Time’, then please avoid interrupting me unless it’s absolutely necessary”. Remember other people’s urgent tasks are not your urgent tasks.
Creating a to-do list can be very helpful to manage and make visible tasks that are upcoming, however, they are often used inefficiently.
- Have one task list for personal and work
- Categorise your tasks (comms, client, personal, team, project name)
- Create views to avoid all tasks all the time
- Use easy to understand descriptions (Write to…, Design…, Respond to…)
- Try to add a due date to every task
- Keep rescheduling tasks, go back to the priority matrix, and re-assess the task urgency and importance
- Expect to ever have an empty list!
Many of us are masters in the art of re-scheduling tasks ad activities, moving due dates, and asking for extensions.
It is important to find out what style of work management suits you best as an individual, commit, and be disciplined in its application.
If you do this, your load will feel lighter and your colleagues will appreciate the consideration you place around interrupting them too.
Learn more about how you can work smarter with Microsoft.