Jul 01, 2020

Why Downtime Is Your Employees Biggest Resource

Every business owner holds the image of a perfectly running team, where each email is promptly replied to, every project finishes under budget, and someone comes to your desk with a game-changing idea twice a week.

Every business owner holds the image of a perfectly running team, where each email is promptly replied to, every project finishes under budget, and someone comes to your desk with a game-changing idea twice a week.

It’s not always nice to come back down to reality, which rarely runs as smoothly or as productively. Documents have to be hunted down unexpectedly. Printers stall and typos get missed. Miscommunications happen and results suffer because of it. Add those inconveniences to the plethora of distractions we already live with in the digital age and most companies are lucky if their employees are able to spend more than half their workdays on knowledge work.

In the face of these distractions, and the financial loss that comes with them, business leaders have begun placing more value on what scientist Cal Newport has termed “deep work.” Deep work is, in the words of Newport, “professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit.” It’s a term that’s been in vogue lately, as knowledge work has growing significance in today’s economy. 

Technology has already replaced many office jobs, and experts expect that up to 25% of US jobs will be replaced by tech within the next ten years. This includes cognitive roles like accountant and paralegal.

At the same time, technology is making the world smaller, meaning that your competition is many times more intense than it would have been twenty years ago. In the old business world, a law firm in Boise, Indiana, would only have to worry about competing firms that were also in or around Boise, Indiana. Now, there are firms in any number of locations across the world, ready to entice that firm’s local clients away with offers that are either cheaper or better.

In short, innovation is oil. A company’s ability to creatively strategize or glean insights is not just its ticket to success. It’s the key to survival. Deep work is the process knowledge workers use to excel in this. When employees have their focus pulled away by numerous small, insignificant tasks, they’re unable to get deep enough into the problem at hand to create truly innovative solutions. When they can devote chunks of their days to diving into one specific task, productivity increases and results get better.

It sounds intuitive, but common sense and practicality do not always go hand-in-hand. Urgent issues come up, Facebook, Slack, and email are always knocking at the door, and manual tasks -- in spite of digital transformation -- inevitably arise. Minute daily tasks are perhaps the biggest barrier to innovation. Hunting down the order form from last month’s supplies shipment. Updating and managing multiple versions of a doc being passed between content creators or decision makers. The small inconveniences of changing the printer cartridge or rummaging around for a pen that works properly. It adds up. All these tiny things are slowly killing your team’s ability to do meaningful work. How long will it be before they kill your company?

So, how can your team leverage deep work to develop business-boosting solutions without abandoning the daily duties that keep the workflow moving forward? Here are

1. Understand the goals

Start by defining what deep work looks like for each team member. Not everyone will have the capacity to stay focused for 5 hours straight. Newport suggests that people approach deep work not as a commitment to the same number of hours each day, but a commitment to staying focused for the largest period possible for your schedule on any given day. 

Deep work can also vary by task. A writer, for example, is using one skill set while researching and another to synthesize and communicate that information through text. Help your team examine the cognitive processes they employ for each part of their job. In doing so, they’ll develop a more intentional approach to these parts that allows them to get into deep work faster.

2. Neutralize time-wasters

Imagine trying to work at home and having your kid bang on your door every 10 minutes (it’s a situation many of us no longer have to imagine). Every time, you have to put down what you’re doing to address the unplanned visitor. How much work would you get done? Not much. Communications channels like Slack and email are the digital equivalents of a demanding child. They’re also much easier to appease. Encourage your team to set specific hours in their days for answering messages or discussing with coworkers. 

Yet it’s not fair to saddle pings with all the blame. As much as 55% of employees workdays are spent on meetings or manual and administrative tasks. The paper chase is a big part of this. One study found that organizations lose a document every 12 seconds. Aside from solving organizational problems, having a central digital home for all documents makes it easier and faster to extract vital insights. At the same time, miscommunications around details of a project or hold ups like printing and scanning docs to be signed hurt business results. 

Perhaps that’s why advanced use of digital technologies by small businesses has been found to drive greater revenue, according to Deloitte. Digital document management systems and collaboration tools like Lumin PDF let organizations optimize their work time. Businesses can store their entire document library in a secure and searchable online database and customize permissions for each file separately. Lumin also includes more than 20 time-saving features for business PDF work, including e-signing and commenting. Using cloud tools like Lumin lets your team free up time and mental energy to dig into more meaningful work.

3. Form a habit

Resolutions are well and good, but putting them into practice is where the rubber hits the road. Work with your team to set clear and realistic expectations for on- and offline communication as a first step. Then ask team members to block “deep work” times in their days and stick to them. 

Not only will this help you make deep work a part of your employee culture, it also will allow your team to use this time more fruitfully. Neuroscience tells us that our brains are wired to help us work more effectively when we fit certain tasks into the same part of the day. The same physiology that tells our brains to release more endorphins at the same time each day when we develop a consistent exercise schedule also applies for mental exercise. But if scheduling deep work at the same time each day isn’t realistic for your team, don’t worry. The mere exercise of focusing deeply on tasks trains our brains to focus productively over time. 

4. Closing thoughts

Deep work is one of the most valuable habits that businesses can cultivate. Instead of asking employees to be constant multitaskers, shaping your work environment and corporate culture to support deep focus will help your business gain a competitive edge over other businesses that keep their employees in the trenches of fielding urgent requests and carrying out time-wasting manual tasks. With tools like Lumin PDF, it’s easy for your team to take back control of their time and start making innovation or pillar of your business.

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