“Woo-hoo! I get to work from home!”
Before the coronavirus, a lot of companies were hesitant to let people work from home. “Working from home” rhymes too closely with “Shirking from home.” It includes surfing, posting, grazing, running errands, crushing Candy Crush, calling your brother “just because,” rereading online stories about the coronavirus, updating your LinkedIn resume, spacing out on conference calls, and telling your boss, “I’m still waiting for Bob to get it to me so I can work on it.”
But what if working from home looked different? What if working from home made you 13% more productive, made you feel more satisfied with your job, and made you half as likely to quit?
This is exactly what was found in a 2015 Stanford study of a large Chinese travel firm called CTrip. Researchers randomly split 249 call center employees from Shanghai into two groups. For nine months, half of them kept working at their desks as usual, and the other half were told to work from home four days a week (one day a week they came into the office). Then the researchers measured everything from the number of calls they made, to job satisfaction, to breaks taken, to sick days… everything but Facebook Likes and Candy Crush scores.
One conclusion: Working from home can make people more productive.
But wait. Before you try to sell the conference table on eBay, there’s a huge caveat from this study (aside from country and culture): These workers had very specific measures of productivity—phone calls per minute and the amount of time spent on the phone.
Whereas those in customer service, copywriting, or design might have very specific measures of productivity (dollars, calls, pages, or projects), other workers might have to deal with more collaboration and face-to-face meetings. For them, working at home can be challenging. It requires accountability, better work habits, and a general ability to get things done when there are roaring distractions all around.
Since working at home requires a discipline muscle that many of us need to strengthen, it’s easy to let our first days or weeks at home be structured by meetings and not our mission. That is, we might view the phone or web meetings on our calendar as the “Big rocks” of our day instead of seeing our biggest projects as our biggest rocks. After you conduct a weekly review of the projects that are most pressing, these suggestions might help.
• Identify the three biggest project tasks you need to complete each day
(not including meetings).
• Make a promise to complete these tasks and deliver results to another person
(boss or coworker).
• Check in for a follow-up after making the delivery.
This is the productivity side of working at home. But there’s another side to working at home that has been widely ignored. It’s the human side.
There’s a story of three people who find themselves stranded on an uncharted desert island. Sort of like Gilligan’s Island, but without commercials. After years of learning how to smoothly work together to survive, the trio one day finds a bottle with a genie in it. The genie grants each person a wish. The first wishes to be back home in California, and—poof—she’s gone. The second wishes to be reunited with his family in Texas, and—poof—he’s gone. The third person looks around the empty island and says to the genie, “You know, I miss my two friends. I wish they were back.”
Here’s the rest of the story about the Chinese workers.
After nine months of working at home, the study was over. The workers were told they could continue working from home four days a week or they could come back and grind it out in-office for the full five. Slightly more than half of these workers wanted to come back and work in the office. They reported they were too “lonely.”
There’s a human side to working at home. We can use VitalSmarts tools to strengthen our communication muscle and our productivity muscle, but we might still feel like something is missing.
Leaning in (versus spacing out) during meetings might help, and checking in or following up after finishing a project piece might help. But this human solution will need some personal thought and personal tailoring for each of us. If we’re feeling restless after 4 days at home, the human side is where we might want to look.
And maybe call your brother “just because.”
(This is the one version of the blog I wrote as the Executive Director of Research for VitalSmarts).
Congratulations. You’ve just been asked to assemble the smartest team in your organization. This will be the Einstein, Ninja, Go-To, Delta Team that will have to solve the toughest problems you face: How to increase growth by 70%, how to cut costs by 25%, how to rebrand the company, and what to do if the CEO’s spouse repeatedly staggers up to monopolize the Christmas Party Karaoke machine again next year.
Who would you choose to be on your Brainiac Committee? You could line everybody up by their IQ scores and pick the ones at the head of the line, or you could pick people who have a cool British-sounding accent, or you could pick that one person on the second floor who was a runner-up nominee for the Supreme Court. But according to an article in the journal Science, if you really want the smartest team that was going to make the best decisions, you should use a different approach.
The article dives deep into collective intelligence. The authors analyzed 699 people who were working in teams of two or five to solve a wide range of problems like brainstorming, moral judgements, and negotiation.
As it turned out, two things differentiated the teams that made the smartest decisions from the rest. First, teams where one or two people did most of the talking made less intelligent decisions than groups where everyone spoke up.
Second, teams with higher percentages of females made better, more effective decisions. They were more sensitive about getting input from everyone; they were better able to reach compromises, and they were generally more effective. This is consistent with an earlier 2006 study by Wellesley professor, Sumur Erkut, who showed that having two or more women on a corporate board brings “a collaborative leadership style that benefits boardroom dynamics by increasing listening, social support, and win-win problem solving.”
The research shows women are less polarizing, more collaborative, and more likely to reach a solution that makes everyone happy. The New York Times columnist, Bruce Feiler, recounts a story of having dinner with a Google executive who said, they always make sure there is more than one woman at a meeting. Their decision was based on this study. Turns out “diversity” isn’t just a fair word, it’s also a smart word.
The high-performing teams in the Science study tended to weigh options, encourage everyone to speak up, and to compromise better. These may be skills that come more naturally to some people than others, but they are all skills we can learn. In fact, they’re skills we’ve been teaching for 30 years. And yet, we just can’t assume they come naturally to everyone. Find ways to enable your people to learn the dialogue skills the enable everyone around the table—regardless of power, position, or authority—to speak up. And look carefully at the makeup of your teams. Be sure they are diverse enough, in gender and experience, to create a dynamic where thoughtful and smart decisions are made.
If you get it right, that diverse, dialogue-armed team of yours might also be able to solve that Christmas Party Karaoke problem. More karaoke, yes. More eggnog, no.
There are 100 things on your mental To-Do list. Daily duties (like email and planning dinner) and pre-scheduled stuff (like meetings and appointments). But what remains are the big things that are easy to put off because they don’t have hard deadlines – things starting a new initiative, exploring a great idea for a side hustle, finishing a pet project, or taking the first step to follow that crazy dream you’ve had for 10 years. These are the things that could have the biggest impact on you, come the end of the year.
But these projects are also the easiest things to put off or to only push ahead 1 inch each week. If you push 100 projects ahead 1 inch each week, you’ve made 100 inches of progress at the end of the week, but your desk is still full and you’re feeling frustratingly resigned to always be behind. This is an incremental approach.
A different approach would be to push a 50-inch project ahead until it is finished and falls off the desk; then you could push a 40-inch project ahead until it falls off; and then you can spend the last of your time and energy pushing a small 10-inch project off your desk. This is the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach.
Both approaches take 100-inches of work. However, the “push-it-off-the-desk” approach changes how you think and feel. You still have 97 things left to do, but you can see you made tangible progress. For about 12 years, I tried a number of different systems to do this – to finish up what was most important for the week. Each of them eventually ended up being too complicated or too constraining for me to stick with.
Eventually I stopped looking for a magic system. Instead, at the end of every week, I simply listed the projects or project pieces I was most grateful to have totally finished. Super simple. It kept me focused on finishing things, and it gave me a specific direction for next week (the next things to finish). It’s since evolved into something I call a “ 3-3-3 Weekly Recap.”
Here’s how a 3-3-3 Weekly Recap works. Every Friday I write down the 3 biggest things I finished that week (“Done”), the 3 things I want to finish next week (“Doing”), and 3 things I’m waiting for (“Waiting for”). This ends up being a record of what I did that week, a plan for what to focus on next week, and a reminder of what I need to follow up on. It helps keep me accountable to myself, and it keeps me focused on finishing 3 big things instead of 100 little things. Here’s an example of one that’s been scribbled in a notebook at the end of last week:
Even though you’d be writing this just for yourself, it might improve your game. It focuses you for the week, it gives you a plan for next week, and it prompts you to follow-up on things you kind of forgot you were waiting for.
Sometimes I do it in a notebook and sometimes I type it and send it to myself as an email. It doesn’t matter the form it’s in or if you ever look back at it (I don’t), it still works. I’ve shared this with people in academia, business, and government. Although it works for most people who try it, it works best for academics who manage their own time and for managers who are supervising others. They say it helps to keep the focus on moving forward instead of either simply drifting through the details of the day or being thrown off course by a new gust of wind.
I’ve also used this with others who I work with, and we usually use it as a starting point for our 1-on-1 weekly meetings. They usually email it to me and it’s a useful check-in. It helps them develop a “Finish it up” mentality, instead of the “Polish this until its perfect” mentality. Also, you can give feedback on what they’re choosing to focus on, and you might be able to speed up what they might be waiting for (especially if its something on your desk).
Good luck in pushing 3 To-Dos off your desk and getting things done. I hope you find this helps.
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I'm Brian Wansink, and I've been lucky to work with lots of wonderful researchers to discover insights on how to help people become more effective, happier, and more meaningfully connected with each other.
See what works for you, and share it with others.