Could remote and hybrid working be the key to unlocking focus in an increasingly technological world?

How to redesign your working habits to maximise your productivity and sense of fulfillment in the future of work.

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I drafted this article with a pen and paper while sitting in the lounge at a day spa. While writing it, I was tempted to pick up my phone and ‘just quickly check’ something at least 15 times, but I couldn’t, because the spa is a mobile-free zone – which is exactly why I was there in the first place. (aka a ‘grand gesture’ to deep work)

While this may seem an extreme way to self-isolate, many of us go months or years without ever fully disconnecting from technology, even for a few hours, if we don’t make it a conscious practice.

The benefits of disconnecting from technology have been extensively covered, however the focus of this article is that we should be questioning and actively adjusting our relationship with technology as we become clearer on what the ‘new normal’ or future of work is going to look like.

The trends that emerged through the 3rd industrial revolution – the digital revolution – led to increasing integration of technology in our day to day lives – at work, through social media, bingeable TV channels and next-day deliveries. We have increasingly come to build our days around these short, transactional, dopamine filled interactions.

We have now entered the 4th industrial revolution – the symbiosis of technology as it integrates seamlessly into our day-to-day lives and boundaries are blurred. When we ask somebody a question, even email doesn’t cut it anymore – we want to be able to see that they’re online and instant message them through Teams or Slack, getting a response immediately.

We live in a world of constant interruptions, and while many may have adapted to some degree by turning off push notifications, closing extra tabs or shutting down their email until specific designated times of the day, it’s certainly not the norm.

Our focus is fragmented and our attention spans are suffering.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport (pre-pandemic) reflects on what is needed for success in the future of work. One key is that we must be able to learn and adapt quickly as technology advances, to avoid our knowledge becoming obsolete, and this requires the ability to focus intently and absorb new information.

To remain valuable in our economy, therefore, you must master the art of quickly learning complicated things. This task requires deep work. If you don’t cultivate this ability, you’re likely to fall behind as technology advances.

Cal Newport, “Deep Work”

Additionally, as more and more repetitive tasks become automated, the difference between humans and machines that keeps us ahead of our own creations will increasingly be the ability to think; deeply and critically.

The lack of focus from our fractured, interrupted days not only creates risk of obsolescence and low productivity, it makes you feel BAD. There is a creeping, pervasive sense that you are constantly busy and yet not achieving anything. As you work your way through a 300 email backlog in your inbox, you wonder what you are doing with your life, and if you really make a difference.

Little wonder we turn to tick-listable tasks that give that next small hit of dopamine and sense of achievement.

One early manager of mine told me when I started work that whatever I do, please do NOT cc him on emails unless it’s actually critical. And even then, to call and make sure he saw it. He knew that he received far more items in his inbox than he could practically handle (and still be productive) and that important messages could get lost.

The answer may lie in the remote-first, hybrid future of work.

With this change comes the unprecedented opportunity to build and defend the space we need to be able to focus deeply and relearn how to think.

Following mass, forced adoption of work from home, Accenture reported that 83% of workers prefer a hybrid model, with at least 25% remote work. 63% of high-revenue-growth companies allow work-from-anywhere models, while 69% of negative or non-growth companies favour fixed workplaces.

And yet up till now, for most companies the ‘great remote work experiment’ simply transplanted what we were already doing, interruptions and all, to a different desk. (I’d also note that ‘remote work’ does not necessarily mean ‘work from home’, but that’s a topic for another article.) However, the changes most of us adopted in our panic to hold things together during a pandemic were likely to be logistical, not strategic – for example, which video conferencing software to use so we could still hold our weekly team meetings.

83% of workers prefer a hybrid model, with at least 25% remote work. 63% of high-revenue-growth companies allow work-from-anywhere models, while 69% of negative or non-growth companies favour fixed workplaces.

Accenture

This unplanned, reactive adoption to remote work has created a dangerous boundary creep which erased existing lines between ‘work’ and ‘home’ and filled up calendars with back-to-back zoom meetings to satisfy the habit of continuously being able to touch base and get quick answers.

What we have seen is not a sustainable, strategic implementation of remote work that can truly build the future where human knowledge and innovation thrive.

This is a new age, and it requires new habits and systems; instead of focusing on how to make remote work match office work as closely as possible, we should be acknowledging the different advantages of each and maximising those strengths.

To truly thrive in a remote or hybrid workforce, teams need to adopt a new approach to time management, allocating either specific days or times to uninterrupted focus. This change gives us the opportunity to break free of bad habits we’d unconsciously slipped into over the last 30-40 years – like constantly checking our emails, a task which might have been reasonable with a few emails per day but is completely counter-productive when they number in their hundreds.

Accept that different tasks require a different mentality, and that while yes, building relationships with your colleagues IS important – so is the ability to focus and think critically about your work, to raise your productivity, ability to innovate, and sense of achievement of something more significant than ticking menial tasks off a list.

Gensler architectures design forecast predicts the future of workspaces to be those which foster collaboration and creativity. The hybrid model of the future will incorporate togetherness in shared spaces and time to focus when working alone.

In order to build a future in which we can delve into the depths of the human mind, we need to build personalised time maps which allow us to reach a deep state of focus, and control our relationship with technology rather than letting it control us. While there is no one size fits all solution for this (some examples of how I’ve adapted it in my own life follow at the end), we can start by asking questions as the foundation for an informed design.

  • How quickly do we really NEED to respond to emails – or rather, what do we give ourselves permission to do? Most consider it necessary and acceptable to delay replying to emails for an hour whilst in a meeting – yet allow mail to interrupt them and respond to the pressure for instant replies without carving out any time for true focus – why? Can we consistently block out meetings with ourselves, treating our individual work with the same reverence and respect as collaboration?
  • How will we handle spontaneous questions and ideas and still maintain focus on a single task at a time? Can we create a list, ideas Kanban or question repository to quickly note things down, giving our brains permission to forget them and deal with them later?
  • What current tasks, behaviours and communications activities do we engage in and which are truly critical or just habits?
  • How much time should certain roles spend on focused knowledge work, and how much time does collaboration really require? What models exist (for example, Agile style stand-ups) to quickly catch up on everybody’s status without the need for hours of video meetings?
  • What tasks need to be performed on site – collaborative tasks and those requiring special equipment – and what tasks can be broken down into individual components and performed at any computer with an internet connection (or without, if you’re really dedicated to removing distractions)
  • What personal factors might we need to account for within a team or department, for example people working part-time, those with business travel obligations, or parents who often pick up their kids and catch up on their work in the evenings?
  • Where do the available times and commitments overlap?

From here, we can begin to build personalised work-maps. After reviewing the above questions, we could start by mapping out times or actions which are TRULY critical on-site activities, and then doing the same for collaborative actions and team meetings.

Block out times for collaboration, updates and follow-up where the available times and commitments between team members overlap… and then let individuals control the when and where of the tasks they need to focus on individually. For example, can you create a meeting ban between the hours of 9 and 11 every day, allowing space for uninterrupted focus?

Changing these habits will allow us to both embrace the remote, technologically symbiotic future of work and allow us to recover something which until now, advancing technology has progressively stripped us of – the ability to deeply focus without distraction.

We might just end up happier and more fulfilled because of it.


Anecdotes and examples

Young professional, pre-pandemic

Several years pre-pandemic I negotiated a package which included remote and flexible working 3 days per week. I lived alone, and had no children at the time.

As someone with lifelong sleep issues, I have often struggled with fatigue. The flexibility that I had on these days allowed me to rearrange my life significantly.

I woke up a little later 3 days a week as I didn’t have to commute or dress for the office.

I worked as normal through to around lunch time, then had lunch and took a couple of hours off. I either took a nap, went out for a walk by the beach to clear my head and refresh my ability to focus, or ran errands, which I was able to get done much quicker as there were rarely crowds at those times.

I then continued working from mid afternoon through to 8 or 9 pm in the evening.

The time I freed up by getting errands done quickly and efficiently (for example, grocery shopping without having to hunt for parking or stand in queues) allowed me to have my entire weekend open for more enjoyable activities.

I scheduled all meetings for the 2 days that I was in the office, and was able to focus on tasks like project planning, competitor research, and writing on the days that I was at home.

A tale of two pregnancies

My first pregnancy was just before the pandemic came into full play, with my daughter being born in April 2020.

Like many other women, in my first trimester I suffered from nausea as well as extreme fatigue.

Working at that time in a 9-5 office job, for those few months I mentally clocked out around 2pm and sat in my chair staring at my computer and trying to squeeze out any few remaining drops of productivity from my brain.

I distinctly remember, on several occasions, literally holding my eyelids open with my fingers when nobody was looking in an effort to stay awake.

My total daily productivity, despite sitting in my chair from 9-5, was realistically probably around 5.5 hours.

During my second pregnancy, I have been working for myself.

During my first trimester when I was plagued with fatigue, after trying to keep ‘normal’ hours for the first few weeks and being too exhausted for either productivity or spending quality time with my daughter after day care, I adjusted my day to allow for a nap of up to two hours.

I could then work from approximately 8:30-12:30, then have lunch and sleep.

This refreshed me enough to do a little more work, from around 2:30 until picking my daughter up at 4:30, actually have the energy to play with her in the afternoon and prepare dinner, and then continue working again after dinner from around 7 to 10 or 11 in the evening.

My total productivity on these days could be up to ten hours, and I felt markedly better both about work and life than I did during my first pregnancies first trimester when I was really only being productive for five and a half.

Balancing Individual Needs

As a hypothetical, let’s imagine that we’re trying to create a new remote-first time map for a team of 5 people. Let’s call them Team Talent.

Team Talent is made up of

  • Rosie, a mum of 2 young children who has to do the school pick up every afternoon
  • Cam, a recent graduate who is keen to learn from his teammates,
  • Suzie, a low-tech traditionalist who does not want to set up a home office,
  • Matt, a semi-retiree who only wants to work Monday, Wednesday and Thursday and
  • Chris, the manager who is trying to juggle individual preferences with company requirements and not end up working 80 hours a week.

Prior to implementing a remote or hybrid process, this team worked a typical 9-5 schedule with the exception of Rosie, who worked at 75% so she could leave early to pick up her kids, missed the Friday afternoon wrap ups and often had a lot of emails to catch up on each morning from team members who had been trying to keep her looped in on conversations the afternoon before – so she got up earlier and started earlier than the rest of the team to make this up. (If you want to consider gender equality in the workforce, this workload also influences Rosie’s likelihood to be up for promotions, as well as her total earnings and pension contributions during the period of her childrens school years).

The team met twice a week, on Wednesdays for a status report and on Friday afternoons for a wrap up (which both Rosie and Matt missed).

The team decides to implement a hybrid model and try to reduce the amount of time wasted playing ‘catch ups’ on email conversations and being distracted by interruptions such as emails, background phone calls, and Cam’s continuous questions (although his enthusiasm is appreciated and he is generally liked).

Their key considerations are:

  • Rosie and Matt’s availability
  • Improving focus and productivity
  • Support Cam’s continuous learning and ensure ongoing access to all experienced colleagues
  • Ensure the team maintains their critical touch points
  • Be flexible, but:
  • Ensure Chris doesn’t end up working crazy hours trying to be available to a team who are on totally different schedules

They end up adopting the following solution.

Everyone is in the office on Mondays, and the team implements a Monday morning meeting to allow them to quickly review any outstanding actions from the previous week, then collaborate and plan out the coming week.

The rest of Monday is primarily spent on meetings, product planning and collaborative sessions like brainstorming, at the end of which everyone will have clearly outlined their individual objectives for the week.

On Tuesdays to Fridays, the team are free to come into the office or work from home as suits them best, and Cam has a 1-1 meeting (which could be live or virtual) with a different team member each afternoon. He starts using a Kanban board to collect questions and thoughts he has during the week instead of springing them on team members as they pop up. Sometimes, by the time he reaches his next 1-1 meeting, he has already discovered the answer himself when addressing a different task.

Mornings are dedicated meeting-free times, when team members work on their individual tasks and are able to focus deeply without interruption. Right after lunch, the team have an hour of ‘open office’ time (colleagues working remotely sign into a virtual office) where they can address any critical issues that popped up during their mornings individual tasks that would prevent them from moving forwards. Or simply catch up on emails.

The afternoons may then be a mix of additional small individual tasks, meetings, phone calls, and emails, but team members are free to organise their time as they like. The Friday afternoon wrap-up meeting is changed to a quick status update, run virtually, in which each person simply confirms if they were able to achieve all their weekly actions or if anything was holding them up which they required help with.

Rosie decided to keep going to the office 2 days a week, and has any meetings she needs to with Suzie and Cam on those days. On the days she works at home, she is able to work an hour longer each day as her kids school is near their home, and with a reduction in interruptions and emails she no longer has to start earlier in order to catch up on missed messages. She also chooses to work a few extra hours in the evenings and is able to go back to full time employment. Since the Friday wrap-up is now simply a status update, she leaves her comments with Chris before she finishes up for the day and he is able to present them to the team.

Matt chooses to work in the office on Mondays but work remotely the rest of the time. Without having to worry about wasting time commuting, he decides to distribute his time a little more evenly across Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and even signs in quickly to join the Friday afternoon status update.

Suzie keeps going to the office 5 days a week, but since not all her colleagues are there every day, she has a lot more time to herself to focus, and organises her own time so she performs her collaborative tasks on the days that they ARE in, to reduce her virtual meeting time as much as possible.

Cam comes into the office most days as well, but he now comes in a bit later, spending the mornings sleeping in and then doing exercise or sports before coming into the office for the afternoon. He picks up and completes his individual focus work in the evenings because he’s always been a night owl.

And Chris is able to accommodate most of his teams individual preferences and needs without extending his hours, because they have clarity on which touch points are critical to the team, when they should check in with each other, and what tasks can be done independently. He is in the office Mondays for the weekly meeting, Tuesdays for meetings with other departments, and Wednesdays for his 1-1 with Cam. He works from home every Friday and runs the quick Friday status update virtually.

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