A few days ago I went to a talk focused on Activity-Based-Working (ABW), which seems to be all the rage these days. If you haven’t heard about it, ABW is about “providing people with a choice of location for a variety of workplace activities”. Instead of having a designated desk, you can choose to work at a desk near the window this morning, then have a meeting in a private meeting room, strike up an informal chat with a colleague in a small corner with comfy chairs, or take a call in a sound-proof room, and so on.
Many ABW places also combine this “at-the office” flexibility with a flexibility to work from home, from a café or from whatever place suits you the most. Thus, the concept can link to a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), another trend-setting approach that was high up the list a few years ago. ROWE is about providing employees with the freedom to work wherever and whenever they want, and basing performance exclusively on results, not on hours worked or time spent at the office.
There has been a lot of discussion on the pros and cons of ABW and ROWE on performance and employee satisfaction. But what struck me as most interesting in this talk, was a sometimes overlooked key issue: the need to train your employees to work productively in such an environment.
Most of us have grown up as professionals in more traditional work environments where we had a fixed desk and a certain schedule where we were supposed to be at work. Also, in many settings, we were being told what to do next, and many of our activities in a day were not necessarily under our control.
When you became a team leader, you probably gained more freedom and also more responsibility. Learning to manage your time and focus your activities towards getting the results you wanted did not come naturally. You had to learn it.
So if we want to create a more flexible work environment for our team, we would probably be smart to provide them with training and coaching on how to be more productive under that flexibility approach.
Here are my top 5 recommendations for supporting team members to thrive in a flexible work environment. What are yours?
It’s all about habits.
When you have the luxury of managing your own time, the key thing is to create habits for yourself. Habits help us achieve results because they “automate” tasks that would otherwise require willpower to achieve.
Train your team members develop habits for their time and activity-management. First, help them figure out their most demanding and most important activities for reaching results, and then brainstorm a good habit for each of these to ensure they get done.
A smart way to create habits is using the format “when A happens I do B”. For example: “Thursdays at 9 am I sit down to write a blog post at the office.” Or, if your team member is working from home with small kids “When baby takes her first nap, I sit down to work on the annual report”.
Different places, different activities
Another smart way to reinforce habits is to create a strong association between a place and an activity or task. That way your brain gets into the right “mood” for that activity as soon as you install yourself in that place. Think about how you associate your bed with sleeping, or your favorite TV chair with relaxing and watching a movie.
You can help your team members choose a favorite spot to carry out a specific activity. For example, Monday morning strategic week planning happens always at the lounge room in in the 4th floor of the office. Or, the corner desk with the big monitor is reserved for Friday’s financial review. Your team member can follow the same scheme with flexible work, using cafés, libraries, or even different rooms in their homes.
Start with what’s most important
As Gary Keller explains in his book The ONE thing, to reach results faster and be more productive, it pays to relentlessly ask the question: What is the one thing I can do (this month, this week, today) that will make it easier to achieve my key result(s)? What will make all the rest easier or unnecessary? And then go and do that one item first.
Train your team members to create 5-10 minute slots in their calendars, every morning, every start of the week, every start of the month, to reflect on this question. Help them to create a habit (using the tips above) to tackle that one thing first. You can also focus your meetings or reviews with them on these key activities and support them in navigating obstacles to achieving them.
Meetings have a nasty tendency to spread out all over our schedule, resulting in constantly having to interrupt concentration time to go to a meeting. A good way to contain them, especially in a flexible work environment, is reserving a particular day for meetings (e.g. “Meeting Thursdays”, and packing all meetings (or as many as possible) into that day with 10-15 minutes in between each. Just make sure all your team members choose the same day for meetings!
If people will be participating in meetings from home or different places, make sure you have a solid teleconference software in place, that everyone is comfortable using it, and that all of your team members are equipped with appropriate headsets/earphones and microphones. Ensure technology works in your favor and not against you!
Create containers for “bleeding activities”
Email, phone calls, booking flights and hotel tickets, scheduling meetings, sorting through receipts, creating invoices and other activities can “bleed” all over our calendar if we let them. They seem not to take too much time (5-10 minutes), but if we tackle them randomly as they fall on us, we risk losing precious deep work time.
Help your team members to create a habit of packing these activities together into a single “container” in their calendars. For example, email is checked and answered only from 9 to 930 am and from 4 to 430 pm. If anything urgent comes up, people know to send a text message.
Another good habit is creating an “Admin Friday” container. For many of us, its hard to be productive on Friday afternoons, so use this time (or any other routinely unproductive time) to take care of a list of small admin tasks. As these show up during the week, write them down in a dedicated notebook/sticky note. Then tackle them one by one in order of priority during your Admin container time.
Flexible places to work can be great, and very attractive for our teams. It is up to us as leaders to ensure everyone is equipped to be productive in such an environment.
What are your best tips to help our teams use this work flexibility to be super productive? Let me know in the comments, on FB or on Instagram.