I feel like I’ve finally reached a level of homeostasis since work from home orders were issued eight months ago; yes that was eight months ago. The separation anxiety caused by being away from my coworkers, blurred lines between personal and professional life, and dreading the never ending onslaught on video calls are pain points of the past. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll jump at the opportunity to go back into the office when the time comes; but I have to admit, I’m seriously starting to enjoy my two second commute into “work”, with hipster coffee at a fraction of the cost—because who isn’t a barista now?
Unsurprisingly, businesses are also realizing the benefits of a distributed workforce. Companies like Shopify, Google, Mastercard, and Salesforce are just a handful of the many organizations who have given employees the license to operate remotely post pandemic.
Whether you love it or hate it, work from home is here to stay—which means, the job market is now global.
More Productivity, More Access
For some, peering past the current challenges of working from home may be difficult, but there are mutual benefits for employees and their companies with this approach. Matt Mullenweg, one of the cofounders of WordPress.com (meta since this blog is hosted on WordPress) and the current CEO of Automatic has been a long time advocate of this model, touting productivity and access as two key benefits of transitioning to a distributed by design environment.
As an organization, there’s an inherent competitive advantage in leveraging a remote workforce because value creation never stops; workers in different time zones can work asynchronously to drive bottom line growth. In fact, a 2015 Stanford University study found that employees who worked from home took less time off, clocked in fewer sick days, and impressively, had lower turnover rates when compared to their in office peers. Additionally, they found that employees who set up shop at home had a 13% uptick in performance because they were actually engaged in their full eight hour shift, undisturbed by the proverbial office activities.
Alongside productivity gains, access is another compelling attraction to remote work. Companies are no longer bound by their local talent pools and consequently, geography is no longer a barrier to entry in the marketplace. Intelligence and talent are evenly distributed throughout the world, but opportunity isn’t. Case in point, there are currently 43,995 engineering roles in California posted on LinkedIn, but only 4,561 in Ontario. Moving forward, companies can bolster their rosters by acquiring the technical talent of Silicon Valley, the financial prowess of candidates from London, and the manufacturing expertise of individuals in China.
What is Your Strategy?
In his seminal paper titled What is Strategy?, Michael Porter challenges conventional approaches to differentiation amongst competition. His thesis is that a business should not try to beat the competition by solely focusing on what he calls operational effectiveness, that is, performing similar activities better than rivals. The reason this approach fails is because they are tactics that can easily be copied, eventually providing diminishing returns. For example, imagine Coca-Cola increased its profit by marginally reducing the amount of raw ingredients per can of soda without compromising consumer sentiment. While this would give them a short term edge over their key rival Pepsi, it wouldn’t be a sustained advantage because Pepsi could easily replicate the tactic.
Conversely, strategy refers to deliberately choosing a different set of activities that deliver unique value. This tends to materialize in solutions that provide similar utility as the competition at a fraction of the cost or higher value at a significantly higher price. A great example of this is Netflix Vs. Blockbuster. Both operated in a similar market category but deliberately took a different approach to providing value to its customers.
In today’s world, Porter’s concept has a new found meaning because the stark reality amidst the globalization of employment is that every single one of us will now be facing increased levels of competition in the job market and need a unique strategy to oust our competition.
Increased pressure in the job market is coming at a time when most workers are constantly distracted at work causing poor output. We’re rendered impuissant by the plethora of attention sucking, creativity robbing outlets at our disposal. Slack, Gmail, Tik Tok—the list is endless. Interestingly, a 2012 McKinsey study found that the average knowledge worker now spends more than 60% of the workweek engaged in electronic communication and internet searching, with close to 30% of a workers time dedicated to reading and answering email alone.
Much like Dug the Dog from the movie Up, our attention is so quickly taken away from the task at hand due to the number of squirrels around us, leading to a negative impact on our performance. Sophie Leroy, a professor at the University of Washington has done extensive research on what she refers to as Attention Residue. Her research suggests that when you switch from one task to another, your attention doesn’t immediately follow, a residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. Compounding the detraction, the residue gets especially thick if the work on preceding tasks are unbounded and of low intensity like brainlessly scrolling through Instagram.
Theories aside, I’m sure this is something we’ve all experienced. The second we subjugate to some type of distraction, we’re less focused on work that actually requires our attention and it eventually turns into a vicious cycle. My personal crux is Yahoo Finance; once I open it in my browser, my productivity plummets.
Deep Work is the Strategy
In our increasingly competitive world, the ability to quickly master hard things and the ability to produce at a premier level, both in terms of quantity and quality, are key components to differentiation. In order to operationalize the strategy, we have to engage in what Cal Newport refers to as Deep Work, in his Wall Street Journal bestseller. Specifically, Deep Work refers to professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that pushes your cognitive abilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skills, and are difficult to replicate.
Throughout his book, Newport provides several tangible tactics that can help achieve a state of Deep Work; such as practicing meditation, developing habitual rituals before engaging in a session of work, and even creating a visual scoreboard to track the progress of key deliverables. The common theme is to develop some type of a system to support attaining heightened levels of focus. For me, the key tactic in supporting my strategy has been to take a deliberate approach in eliminating distractions.
When I have focus time blocked out in my calendar, I literally put my phone on the other side of the room, turn off workplace communication tools like Slack, and importantly, I only have tabs open in my browser that are relevant to the task at hand. That means no Gmail, no Yahoo Finance, and no LinkedIn.
The liberties of working from home are plentiful; but conversely, they exacerbate the already distracted nature of work. In a global talent pool, taking a deliberate approach to strategizing your individual efforts in order to contribute to organizational goals is imperative. Simple activities can drive a wedge between you and the competition when showcasing value to the world. Don’t fret the FOMO of communication and the news. Rather, relish in the flow of bounded creativity. All it takes is a little focus and maybe a mint mojito java.