Deep Work in the Office Will Look Different Now Deep work is one of the most effective and productive methods of getting work done. As companies transition back into the office, there need to be changes made in order to promote this type of focus.
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As my company starts bringing people back to the office, I've been hearing the same question from many of my employees: "Are you going to expect us to be just as productive as we were at home?" They're worried I'll expect them to keep getting the results they've been getting in their home spaces that support more focus. I'm inclined to agree with them that productivity might slouch a little, but the deep work they're currently doing at home doesn't have to completely fall into a hole if the return to the office is well handled.
What is deep work?
Deep work, as Cal Newport highlights in "Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World," is the skill of focusing on professional job–developing strategies, writing or analyzing data that's cognitively advanced. By focusing on a task without distractions, you push yourself mentally and learn to work smarter rather than harder. There are additional potential benefits, as well, such as making fewer mistakes. Newport recommends working in increments of 90 minutes to tap these advantages, and I personally recommend a total of at least 3 to 4 hours a day of deep work to produce at your absolute best.
Deep work is the polar opposite of shallow work. Think physically setting up your laptop for a presentation or firing off a few quick emails that barely require a "yes" or "no." You can get a sense of accomplishment from these jobs because they're quick and easy to do. Ultimately, though, they can hold you back because they don't really challenge you or change anything. Even worse, shallow work tasks are the kind of jobs that, more and more, companies are automating. So if you don't learn to do deep work, you might find it difficult to maintain a career.
Why moving back to the office might hurt productivity
Faced with well-known office interruptions like coworkers walking by or popping in to ask a question, workers who come back on-site likely will struggle to get into the focused state of flow and thought that deep work requires. They might default to more shallow work they can accomplish without as much effort. Looking busy probably will again be common.
This situation creates two major problems. The first is that, because workers are thinking more superficially, it might be harder for them to come up with effective long-term solutions or ideas. They might fixate on addressing minor issues and not drive as much value for the business as a result. For quantification, research suggests that distractions can equate to as much as a 10-point drop in IQ.
But superficial thought and work connects directly to a second issue: worker confidence and mental health. Workers might have fewer moments where the employee can stand out to their boss or look back and say they overcame a real challenge. Superficial jobs also give workers more time to ruminate about what might not be so great in their lives, which can tank their mood and motivation. Because constant distractions force our brains to operate in a hyper-alert state, workers can get caught in the anxiety-distraction feedback loop, where they turn to Youtube videos or other activities to temporarily check out and feel better.
How we can encourage deep work
Realistically, we're probably not going to put the traditional office in the trash bin completely. But because the traditional office does make deep work more difficult, restructuring how we think about what we do in that space and utilizing it properly is a must.
One simple way to move forward is to stress the office as a place for getting together with others.
Meeting face to face has a direct influence on four key management areas, including collaboration, innovation, acculturation and dedication. Deep learning is one of the five elements that drive these areas. It lets people debate concepts in healthy ways, get feedback and understand subtle contextual differences that might change what they do. Dedicate rooms or specific areas of the office to be quiet spaces for these types of interactions.
Companies also can schedule time to be superficial, rather than scheduling deep work. This clarifies that deep work is the desired, higher-valued default. It gives workers some anxiety relief in that it's always clear when they'll be able to downshift a little.
Lastly, remember that deep work is tiring. Workers are going to need a chance to get out of focus mode and recoup. The caveat here is that breaks need to let employees totally detach. Make sure they include activities that help workers avoid work-related thoughts. Taking a walk in nature likely is better than chatting at the water cooler or inhaling a sugary snack because you're tired. If you can find detaching activities that genuinely help a worker feel positive emotionally, that's ideal. Encourage workers to truly call it a day when they clock out so they don't overwork themselves, as well.
Support deep work to help your team compete
Hybrid work isn't going anywhere, but the reality facing employees and their companies is that competition is fierce. Deep work is necessary for this environment because it allows you to produce at the highest level. To pull ahead, reassure your team that you'll support them with structured ways to use their time no matter where they are and that their ability to focus is your top priority.