Digital transformation should be a means to an end, but it often gets mistaken for an end in itself. This is partly why 70% of all digital transformation efforts fail — because they’re done purely for the sake of going digital without full consideration of the bigger picture.
The pandemic accelerated many trends, from streaming, e-commerce, and food delivery platforms to the widespread adoption of remote work. But instead of taking advantage of this opportunity to improve how we work, most organizations simply took their offices online, along with the bad habits that permeated them.
During the pandemic, most organizations got no further than level two of WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg’s five levels of distributed teams framework. Instead of back-to-back meetings, people got back-to-back Zoom calls. Instead of physical interruptions, they got more interruptions via Slack or Teams.
Despite the elimination of commute times, people ended up working longer hours and less efficiently than before, resulting in more excessive workloads and less work-life balance, two key drivers of workplace stress. Today, 83% of American workers suffer from workplace stress, with Gallup finding that a similar number of people globally — 85% — are not engaged at work.
The pandemic, of course, exacerbated all of this, as this meta-analysis published in Nature notes higher rates of anxiety and depression globally due to Covid-19. This is nothing short of tragic when we consider that most adults spend about half of their waking hours at work.
Changing How We Do Remote Work
A move to a better way of working remotely is desperately needed. And it has prompted calls from a number of governments and business leaders worldwide to legislate the right to disconnect — a proposed human right with respect to disconnecting from work-related electronic communication during non-work hours, something that France introduced in 2016. But telling people to log off at 5 p.m. misses the point entirely, because it fails to address the reason for excessive workloads and rising stress — that is, how we work.
Well-meaning band-aid solutions achieve little if the toxic norms that rob knowledge workers of autonomy and control remain in place. We can help remote workers get on top of their workloads and mitigate work-life balance conflicts by moving away from hyper-responsiveness and real-time communication towards greater asynchronous communication — the type that truly gives people the freedom to decide when and where to work.
The following tools can help leaders implement systems to influence how we work for the better.
The average person sends and receives about 121 business emails a day, spends about 23% of their time on unnecessary emails, and sends about 200 instant messages per week via platforms such as Slack. This dependency on email and instant messaging leaves people in a cycle of hyperresponsiveness, checking email once every 6 minutes as a result, and probably staying logged in to Slack all day long.
Task boards, which provide a transparent and single source of truth for the status of project tasks, give us a clear view of what our colleagues are working on when, and how much progress has been made.
Whether it’s a task board from Trello, Asana, Monday, or Basecamp, boards permit users to leave comments and ask questions in a way that promotes asynchronous responses instead of the real-time pull of email and instant messaging.
This transparency puts downward pressure on communication leads associated with reporting and status updates and helps people prioritize their work in a way that’s aligned with longer-term goals. This helps prevent them from falling victim to always heeding the arbitrarily urgent task instead of the important one.
Office Hours and Scheduling Tools
Bartleby’s Law posits that meetings waste 80% of the time for 80% of the people in attendance. A 2017 study led by Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow lends credence to this idea, with 71% of senior executives saying that meetings are unproductive and inefficient. Given this, and given that the average person spends between 35% and 50% of their time in meetings and is suffering from Zoom fatigue, ending the meeting madness offers us a clear path to liberating people’s time.
To do that, we need to end the indiscriminate booking of time in our colleague’s calendars with little regard for their priorities and commitments. Office hours is a concept that can help to do this, popularized by Cal Newport, author of Deep Work. Essentially, it refers to a period of time that people carve out for meetings on a daily or weekly basis. Ideally, time slots are ring-fenced to no more than 30 minutes, notwithstanding urgent or extraordinary circumstances, and are aligned with people’s preferred work patterns. For example, early birds are best advised to block out their mornings for deep work, whereas night owls are likely to do the same with their afternoons. Tools such as Calendly, x.ai, and others can facilitate booking time slots that don’t sacrifice other people’s priorities and can help to improve meeting efficacy.
Shared documents empower people to work on the same document asynchronously without bearing the burden of version control. Simple examples of this include Google Docs and extend to Dropbox Paper and user interface design tool, Invision, all of which support in-document annotation and team member tagging.
Visual collaboration platforms such as Miro and Mural support both real-time and asynchronous whiteboarding for brainstorming and strategy work. The use of shared documents during real-time Zoom calls also ensures that important messages aren’t lost in translation, decreasing the likelihood and cost of rework in the future.
Instant Messaging Plugins
Plugins can help to effectively slow down apps like Slack, getting us out of a cycle of viewing and sharing tons of cat gifs and pop culture memes each day, moving us toward a more asynchronous use of instant messaging platforms. We can escape information overload with the Must-Read plugin, which serves up only messages that colleagues have tagged you in. TryRoots’ AutoResponder lets other Slack users know that you’re currently away, when you’ll be back online, and offers a path for recourse if necessary. Plugins like Team Standup take the pressure off routine tasks such as daily standups and have people answer questions relating to their workload for the day by way of an automated bot, as and when it suits them.
Plugins such as BlockSite, Freedom, or Inbox Pause can block the constant influx of email for periods of the day. Gmail plugins such as Quick Compose open only the compose email window when we need to write an email, and help us avoid chasing furry rabbits down rabbit holes.
As remote becomes par for the course for organizations the world over, a new wave of tools is likely to emerge. One such tool comes from the team at Automattic. They herald P2 as a platform for teams to share, discuss, and collaborate openly, without interruption. “Conversations on P2s take place in line, update in real-time, and provide space for threaded replies,” says Mullenweg, founder of Automattic. P2 is being used to support both project collaboration and onboarding new remote hires.
Above all, however, digital tools are only as effective as how effectively you use them, and alignment between managers and employees is critical to the success of any digital transformation initiative.
Leaders must lead by example and communicate that it’s okay not to respond to things in real-time, that it’s okay to decline meeting requests, that it’s okay to turn off notifications, and that it’s okay not be online all day. Doing so will not only give people a fighting chance of addressing the chronic state of workplace stress and engagement worldwide, but will also help them win the battle for talent, something that can only be good for the bottom line.
Distributed work is here to stay — how your business can adapt
It’s no secret that the business world and working environments have changed drastically since 2020. With fierce competition in recruiting for skilled labor becoming a critical issue for businesses, having employees in varied locations around the U.S. or even internationally has become an increasingly common solution. It looks like this distributed work model is here for the long haul, so it’s time to get your business on board.
What is distributed work?
Distributed work is defined as a business that has one or more employees who work in different physical locations. This can range from having different in-person office locations, remote work or a blend of the two — often termed “hybrid work.” Large companies having a distributed workforce is nothing new, as having multiple locations allows companies to meet more of their customers’ needs.
The difference now, though, is the massive increase in remote work triggered in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic, ramped-up competition for skilled workers, and how those factors have combined to impact smaller businesses.
If you’re struggling to keep up with today’s workforce demands, take heart. Distributed work can provide some solutions.
Millennial and Gen Z workers strongly prefer flexible working environments and a distributed work policy fits into that preference nicely. Additionally, distributed work structures have the benefits of increased access to international talent, more productive employees and higher job satisfaction.
How to adapt your small business for distributed work
Making the leap to a distributed workforce can feel daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. Software solutions tailored specifically for supporting a distributed work environment can help ease the transition and make your business run efficiently.
In this guide, we’re going to take a look at important adaptations needed to bring your small business up to speed for distributed work and how to accomplish them.
- Get your business security up to date.
- Tap into global talent pools.
- Maintain quality communication between employees.
Let’s take a closer look at each point below.
Get your business security up to date
When remote work exploded in early 2020 due to COVID-19 office closures, it quickly became obvious that improvements to business security protocols were necessary. Now with many businesses planning how their company will operate going forward, security continues to be a crucial consideration.
What are some security considerations important for businesses with distributed work environments? Here are a handful of important security features you’ll want to think about:
1. Avoid losing business documents with automatic saves
The stress from losing hard work or entire documents altogether is something most people have dealt with at some point. Having to backtrack and redo lost work is tedious and unproductive.
The best way to avoid that ordeal? Automated saves.
With Microsoft 365, your Office documents are automatically saved for you. Whether it’s a document in the company Sharepoint or in your own OneDrive account, your hard work won’t go to waste.
Additionally, Sharepoint allows your company to collaborate on documentation without having to worry about whether the current document is the correct version. An average of 83% of the current workforce loses time daily due to document versioning issues. Microsoft 365 makes it easy to avoid lost time and frustration, with the added benefit of simplifying collaboration.
2. Maintain business security across all user devices
In the United States, 68% of organizations reported being hit by a public cloud security incident when polled in 2020. Attacks like these can cripple your business’ productivity and lower public perception of your company as a whole.
Both Sharepoint and OneDrive offer multiple layers of security to keep your business documentation safe on the cloud servers themselves, including:
- Virus scanning for documents
- Suspicious activity monitoring
- Password protected sharing links
- Real-time security monitoring with dedicated intrusion specialists
- Ransomware detection and recovery
With these built-in protections, you can keep your company safe no matter where your company’s distributed work happens.
3. Adopt company-wide security policies
Effective company security policies protect your organization’s data by clearly outlining employee responsibilities with regard to what information needs to be safeguarded and why.
Having clear guidelines set ensures that both your company information and your employees are safe from security threats.
Items to include in your security policy might include:
- Remote work policies
- Password update policies
- Data retention policies
- Employee training guidelines
- Disaster recovery policies
This list obviously isn’t exhaustive, so we’d recommend using a security risk assessment tool to pinpoint specific areas your business should address.
Note: Social engineering and phishing are major security threats for businesses of all sizes. To avoid becoming a target, your company must implement strong security practices for your users. For example, using a secure two-factor authentication setup can help prevent unauthorized users from accessing company documents.
4. Ensure communications are secured
Having a distributed work environment tends to mean that most (if not all) communications occur digitally. As such, keeping digital communications secure should be a top consideration.
If video calls are a major part of your business needs, Microsoft Teams offers robust encryption for your calls. Additionally, email through Microsoft 365 offers top-tier anti-phishing protection for your business.
To learn more about available tools for secure business communication, refer to the Microsoft documentation here.
Tap into global talent pools
The pandemic triggered a drastic reshuffling of how workers view their jobs, leading to what has been dubbed the Great Resignation. In the United States, more than 11 million jobs were sitting unfilled as of January 2022. With jobless claims on the decline, the domestic labor pool is small and competitive.
It can be easy to feel overwhelmed as a small company attempting to attract talent in the current labor market. You’ll want to ensure that you’re offering competitive wages and benefits, but it can be difficult to go toe-to-toe with large corporations.
However, this is another instance where distributed work can help. One solution? International talent.
The distributed work model makes employing remote workers worldwide more seamless than ever before.
A few considerations here to keep in mind, though.
- You’ll need to apply for certification from the U.S. Department of Labor to hire outside the country.
- Be aware of additional taxes that might result.
For more information, review the official documentation for this process.
Note: The same standards do not apply to international contractors, but there are special considerations for contractors as well. Read this guide for more details.
Maintain quality communication between employees
Successful businesses rely on open communication for everything from keeping employees up to date on company information to maintaining morale. Let’s go over a few ways to implement quality communication in a distributed work environment.
1. Cultivate a healthy work environment
Company culture can feel like an afterthought when your teams work separately from each other. However, cultivating a strong company culture is vital, especially for distributed work environments.
The first step here is to clearly define the company culture that you want. By setting the company standards early, your employees will be able to benefit from a solid starting point.
Second, reinforce the culture that you’d like to create. Setting goals, establishing performance metrics, fostering accountability, building trust with employees, and being open to feedback from workers all help reinforce a healthy company culture.
And third, it’s important to prioritize the mental and physical health of your employees. Encourage vacation time, allow for flexible working arrangements, and make mental health support a priority.
2. Foster open communication
Digital communication is key for distributed work environments, so keeping open and transparent channels for communication is imperative.
Here are a few suggestions on building healthy communication for your distributed work teams:
- Make empathy a priority.
- Greet employees every day.
- Create a virtual water cooler to encourage socialization.
- Announce company updates directly.
- Give recognition and feedback regularly.
By encouraging clear, focused — but also fun — communication, your teams will grow to trust each other and interteam collaboration can flourish.
Distributed work is the ‘new normal’
Building your business toward a distributed work model is a solid investment in growing your company in the future. Tools like Microsoft 365 offer an all-in-one solution to take the pain out of transitioning your business, so take charge of your business’ future today.
How to Build a Culture That Honors Quiet Time
If you could travel back in time to Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 to visit the legendary meeting hall where the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were doing their work, you’d find something rather strange.
The street in front of Independence Hall was covered with a giant mound of dirt.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution had ordered the construction of this earthen sound barrier because they were concerned that the noises of horse-drawn carriages, street vendors, and conversations outside would disturb the intense concentration that would be necessary for completing their task. The delegates weren’t going for total monastic silence. The historical records show that there was plenty of vocal debate and disagreement. But there was an underlying recognition that the group needed a quiet container for doing their extremely challenging work. That was the point of the big dirt mound.
Fast forward about 240 years, and you’ll find that lawmakers in the United States have a rather different attitude toward noise. One of us, Justin, worked for several years as a legislative director in the U.S. House of Representatives, and he consistently found that it was too noisy to think. With cable news blasting, Twitter notifications dinging, high-decibel alarms signaling votes, to say nothing of the informational noise that pervades Capitol Hill: endless time-sensitive emails and the constant pressures of networking, politicking, and media management.
The example of this radical shift over 240 years illustrates a simple fact: An organizational culture can be noisy, or it can be quiet.
A World of Noise
There’s empirical evidence that life is noisier than ever before — there are louder and more ubiquitous TVs, speakers, and electronic device notifications in public spaces and open-plan offices. Across Europe, an estimated 450 million people, roughly 65% of the population, live with noise levels that the World Health Organization deems hazardous to health. All this has serious implications for our mental health, our physical health, and our ability to generate creative work.
The meaning of noise can sometimes be subjective. One person’s symphony is another person’s annoyance. We define “noise” as all the unwanted sound and mental stimulation that interferes with our capacity to make sense of the world and our ability to act upon our intentions. In this sense, noise is more than a nuisance. It’s a primary barrier to being able to identify and implement solutions to the challenges we face as individuals, organizations, and even whole societies.
So, how do we transform norms of noisiness? On our teams and in our broader organizations, how can we build cultures that honor the importance of silence?
If we want organizational cultures that honor quiet, there are a few general principles we need to apply to make the transformation. The first is that we have to deliberately talk about it; we need to have clear conversations about our expectations around constant connectivity, when it’s permissible to be offline, and when it’s acceptable to reserve spaces of uninterrupted attention. These conversations can get into deeper cultural questions like whether it’s possible to be comfortable in silence together rather than always trying to fill the space, or whether it’s OK to be multitasking when another person is sharing something with you.
We’ve found that, across different settings and situations, answering the following three questions can help teams begin to honor quiet time.
In what ways do I create noise that negatively impacts others?
Starting a conversation about shared quiet doesn’t just mean seizing the opportunity to point fingers at other people’s noisy habits. The best starting point for a conversation on group norms is a check-in with yourself. How are you contributing to the auditory and informational noise facing the greater collective?
Maybe you unwittingly leave ringers and notifications on full blast. Maybe you “think out loud” or habitually interrupt others. Perhaps you impulsively post on social media or send excessive texts or emails that require responses. Maybe you play music or podcasts in common spaces without checking in with others or jump on important work calls while your daughter is sitting next to you doing her homework.
Take some time to question whether any given habit that’s generating noise is necessary or if it’s really just an unexamined impulse — a default that needs to be reset. If your self-observation doesn’t yield clear insights, ask a truth-teller in your life for observations about how you could do better.
What noisy habits bother me most?
Susan Griffin-Black, the co-CEO of EO Products, a natural personal care product company, tells us that she made a vow years ago to, “never be on my phone or computer when someone is talking to me, no multitasking when I’m with someone else.” She upholds her golden rule, despite having hundreds of employees, a family, and a lot of social commitments.
Like Susan Griffin-Black’s commitment to not multitask in the presence of others, you can set a golden rule for mitigating noise or bringing in more deliberate quiet. Model what you want to see more of in the world. Stop to consider what you value most when it comes to mitigating noise and finding quiet. What personal golden rule reflects that? Or, alternatively, consider what noisy habits bother you most. What golden rule would address those?
How can I help others find the quiet time they need?
In the 1990s, as an executive with Citysearch (now a division of Ticketmaster), Michael Barton noticed a problem. Workers, particularly programmers and developers, were struggling with noise and frequent interruptions in the open plan office. A young analyst at the company offered him an idea: Give each team member a “red sash” — a three-foot-long/three-inch-wide strip of bright red fabric — to wear as a “do not disturb” sign. There would be no stigma involved with wearing it if everyone knew they could simply open their drawer, take out their red sash, put it over their neck, and be considered “out of the office.” Barton took the idea up the chain, and the company decided to try it.
The red sash was not a panacea. It didn’t eliminate many of the problems of noise and interruption. But it was a start. It led to several other experiments, including quiet phone-booth-sized mini-workstations and a hermetic “tech cave” for coding work. More importantly, however, the red sash intervention raised the issue of noise and distraction and opened an important dialogue.
Where it’s appropriate, and when it’s within your influence, consider how you can be a champion for quiet — not just in the whole organization, but specifically for the people who lack the power or autonomy to structure their own circumstances. Maybe you’re in a position in your company where you can call out the plight of an engineer or copywriter who obviously needs a sanctuary from the workplace din. In the personal sphere, maybe you suspect your introverted nephew could use an occasional break from boisterous family events, and you can gently raise the issue with your sibling.
While you can’t set the overall group norms and culture unilaterally on the basis of what you think is right, you can be on the lookout for new ideas to propose or new possibilities for managing the soundscape or enhancing the ambiance, especially ones that serve the interests of those who lack influence.
Transforming Norms of Noise
The participants in the 1787 Constitutional Convention had norms that honored quiet deliberation. Facilitating pristine attention was a shared goal. That big mound of dirt reminded them — and the public — that the point of their gathering was to get beyond distraction in order to do important work. While a mound of dirt would not solve today’s problems (the noise is so often inside our offices and homes), there are ways, as we’ve seen above, to shift organizational cultures with respect to noise and quiet.
At Citysearch, it was the red sash. For Susan Griffin-Black, it’s adhering to a golden rule. But there are many more ways to help create cultures of quiet. At some organizations, it’s “no email Fridays” or “no meeting Wednesdays.” At others, it’s eliminating the expectation of being available and on electronic devices during weekends or after 5 pm. For some workplaces, a redesign of the floor plan might help specific kinds of workers get the focus that they need. One solution might be authorizing uninterrupted blocks of time during the workday. Another might be giving up on the open floor plan and moving the whole office to a new building. For others still, it’s eliminating email as the primary means of communication and turning instead to a twice-daily team update meetings or an electronic system that preserves quiet headspace.
Across our society today, norms of noisiness run deep. Demands like constant connectivity and maintaining a competitive advantage still prevail in most office cultures. Few organizations prize or prioritize pristine human attention. But there are simple strategies we can employ in order to find our own personal sanctuaries and to shift broader cultures. By reclaiming silence in the workplace, we can create the conditions for reducing burnout and enhancing creative problem solving.
Even in an increasingly noisy world, we can be quiet together.
To Get Results, the Best Leaders Both Push and Pull Their Teams
Over the past year, there has been a call for leaders to be less demanding and more empathetic toward individual employees. To get results, managers needed to rely on “pull” — giving employees a say in how they carry a task out and using inspiration and motivation to get them going. But an analysis of thousands of 360-degree assessments showed that the most effective leaders also know how to “push” — drive for results by telling people what to do and holding them accountable. The takeaway? Your efforts to increase empathy shouldn’t diminish your ability to, on occasion, push when needed. The data shows that it can be a strong force that builds confidence among employees. The key is to know when to use which approach, depending on the task, the timing, and the people.
When you see a task that needs to be accomplished by your team, do you “push” them to get it done or do you “pull” them in, giving them a say in how they carry it out and using inspiration and motivation to get them going? These are two very different approaches to reach a goal, and the latter is often the best one, but knowing how to combine these two paths is an important skill for managers and leaders.
Take this example from a client of ours. There had been an ongoing discussion about the company’s policies around the environment and sustainability. The CEO had allowed debate and encouraged everyone to weigh in. The CEO strongly supported the need for change but allowed time for ample discussion (using the pull approach). However, two members of the executive team were naysayers and dragged their feet on enacting any of the proposed initiatives. After two months of inaction, the CEO announced to the team that the company was going to implement two initiatives and stated that everyone needed to get on board (moving to the push approach). One of the executives balked at this and made clear he wouldn’t support the initiatives. The CEO terminated him by the end of the week (using the ultimate push approach).
Leaders who are willing to try hard with pulling but ultimately resort to a strong push provide a good example of the power of the combination of these two approaches. Pushing too hard can erode satisfaction but, at times, is needed, especially when pulling just doesn’t work.
In our research, my colleague Jack Zenger and I identified two leadership behaviors directed at the same end goal but utilizing opposite approaches. We call one behavior “driving for results” (push), and the other “inspiring and motivating others” (pull). Let me define what I mean.
Defining Pushing and Pulling
When a leader identifies a goal that they want to accomplish, there are two distinct paths to get there.
Pushing involves giving direction, telling people what to do, establishing a deadline, and generally holding others accountable. It is on the “authoritarian” end of the leadership style spectrum.
Pulling, on the other hand, involves describing to a direct report a needed task, explaining the underlying reason for it, seeing what ideas they might have on how to best accomplish it, and asking if they are willing to take it on. The leader can further enhance the pull by describing what this project might do for the employee’s development. Ideally, the leader’s energy and enthusiasm for the goal are contagious.
Gathering data from over 100,000 leaders through our 360-degree assessments, we measured both push and pull and found that 76% of the leaders were rated by their peers as more competent at pushing than pulling. Only 22% of the leaders were rated as better at pulling, and a mere 2% were rated as equal on both skills.
We also asked the people rating those leaders (over 1.6 million people) which skill was more important for a leader to do well to be successful in their current job. Pulling (inspiring others) was rated as the most important, while pushing (driving for results) was rated as fifth most important.
Understanding What People Want and Need
While our data is clear that most leaders could benefit from improving their ability to pull or inspire others, our research revealed that leaders who were effective at both pushing and pulling were ultimately the most effective.
We gathered 360-degree assessment data on 3,875 leaders in the pandemic. In this analysis, we did the following:
- The direct reports rated the leader’s effectiveness on both pushing (driving for results) and pulling (inspiring and motivating others).
- The direct reports were also asked to rate their confidence that the organization would achieve its strategic goals and their satisfaction with their organization as a place to work.
- We ranked leaders’ data on pushing and pulling into quartiles and identified those who were low (bottom quartile) and high (top quartile).
The results are captured in the chart below. When both push and pull are in the bottom quartile, both confidence and satisfaction of direct reports are low. When push is high and pull is low, both confidence and satisfaction increase. When pull is high, satisfaction increases to a level substantially above confidence. When both are high, then you see the most significant increase. (Note: High confidence and satisfaction were measured by the percentage of people who marked 5 on a 5-point scale. This is a very high bar for satisfaction.)
Bringing Push and Pull Together
As many leaders across the globe grapple with retention and how to prevent their employees from joining the Great Resignation, they’re asking themselves hard questions. How do you motivate people to stay? How do you encourage them to increase their efforts? What is it they really want and need from their work environments?
Over the past few years, there has been a call for leaders to be less demanding and more empathetic toward individual employees. More pull, less push seemed to be what’s needed to retain talented employees. While I agree with this sentiment, this data also offers a clear warning. Your efforts to increase empathy shouldn’t diminish your ability to, on occasion, push when needed. As our data shows that it can be a strong force that builds confidence.
In fact, your influence as a leader comes from your ability to know when to use which approach, depending on the task, the timing, and the people. So next time you’re trying to accomplish a significant goal, consider whether your team really needs a good push, a big pull, or perhaps both.
Ken Abel, Sales Director at Trailstone Insurance Group, Interviewed on Influential Entrepreneurs Podcast Discussing the Core Values Working With Trailstone Insurance.
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