Work Without Walls | Book Review

"Daydreaming in the grocery line can actually be more productive than checking email. Seemingly idle times like that are often the very moments when we have mental breakthroughs." (p. 38) 

In Academy Leadership's Creating a Motivational Climate workshops, Hackman & Oldman's job design research is cited. Maura Nevel Thomas goes further, offering the contemporary leader a practical guide for an effective workplace both today and tomorrow in Work Without Walls.

Thomas dispels common myths many of us were conditioned to believe are characteristics of a productive knowledge worker (p. xii):

• Being available for work 24/7/365
• Maximum face time in the office
• Working on vacation
• Multitasking
• "I can sleep when I'm dead" attitude
• Busyness as a "badge of honor"

Rather, Thomas reminds us the individual productivity of a knowledge worker is based on the extent to which that person makes progress on his or her significant results in any time frame (p. xiii). This requires knowing what our High Payoff Activities (HPAs) are as we discovered during Setting Leadership Priorities workshops or via sustained deliberate practice.

This review explores and discusses an effective leader's responses to the crumbling walls between work time and personal time -- and between work spaces and personal spaces (p. ix).

People |Energy

Like Schwarz, Thomas identifies energy management via the term Holistic Well-Being, intersecting (p. 2) both Employee Wellness and Employee Engagement, and calling out calm, happy, and energized as the three states of mind that most achieve effectiveness and performance.

Similar to Energy Management workshop participants auditing hourly energy levels with corresponding activities, Thomas cites Dr. Travis Bradberry (p. 3): "Highly successful people don't skip meals, sleep, or breaks in the pursuit of more, more, more. Instead, they view food as fuel, sleep as recovery, and breaks as opportunities to recharge in order to get even more done." What gets in the way of good energy management? Self-evaluations frequently inform us that daily distractions or "fire drills" are often the cause. Thomas instructs us that attention management is the antidote to distraction (p. 6). It's a worthy term we should use in coaching sessions. Imagine asking how well one has managed their attention toward high payoff corporate goals. Not many business leaders do this today. Thomas calls out Rupert Murdoch, Oprah Winfrey, and Arianna Huffington as executives who intentionally and strategically incorporate mindfulness into their business strategy (p. 7).

Is yours a stressful work environment, leading to burnout and high turnover? Burnout is more intense than stress, and often the results are more dire. According to psychiatrist Dr. Harry Levinson, the symptoms of burnout include chronic fatigue, anger at those making demands, self-criticism for putting up with the demands, cynicism, negativity, irritability, a sense of being besieged, and hair-trigger display of emotions (p. 11). It's not surprising many organizations are incorporating wellness centers, gyms and the like as a countermeasure.

Distractions | Email

In numerous Setting Leadership Priorities workshops, distractions such as email overload frequently dominate discussions and shared stories. Technology is not the only culprit. Research has shown that employees in open offices experience reduced attention spans, productivity, creative thinking, concentration, and motivation (p. 22).

Thomas recommends providing comprehensive productivity training rather than time management training (pp. 26-28). A Personal Leadership Philosophy can be of great help, especially if aligned with company goals.

Look at the typical work day (p. 39) and how much time email captures. One quick tip is to review messages between tasks rather than during them (p. 41). A deliberate action is required as there seems to be no end to daily email volume. Bottom line: Make a conscious decision about both how often you will review email and how much time in your day you will leave available for email processing (p. 42).

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Thomas suggests a knowledge management approach may be more useful. Consider taking advantage of group communications tools such as Slack or HipChat which are designed to take important information out of personal inboxes and storing it instead in a corporate resource that anyone can access (p. 45). More generally, as leaders, we must set the example and dispel productivity misperceptions:

Being connected in off-hours during busy times is the sign of a high-performer. Never disconnecting is a sign of a workaholic. And there is a difference. (p. 47)

Recall a leader's responsibility is creation of a motivational environment. Gaia Grant author of Who Killed Creativity and How Can We Get It Back? writes (p. 51): "Creative thinking requires a relaxed state, the ability to think through options at a slow pace and the openness to explore different alternatives without fear." To what degree do we as leaders foster such surroundings? Or facilitate meetings?

Vacation | Rest | Recharge

One of the most noticeable differences between U.S. work environments and our overseas counterparts is how vacation is viewed. A 2013 study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) for the U.S. Travel Association shows that huge majorities of American workers say paid time off (p. 58):

• Helps them relax and recharge (90 per cent)
• Offer the opportunity to do what they enjoy (88 per cent)
• Makes them happier (85 per cent)
• Improves their concentration and productivity (66 percent)
• Results in greater satisfaction at work (61 per cent)

If we consider vacation time as people recharging and re-energizing rather than fewer billable hours, the research suggests a much more positive and productive work environment will result. Consider the opposite. Arianna Huffington, only after collapsing from exhaustion, realized that mindfulness and taking care of your well-being are critical measures of success (p. 63).

This mindset is also consistent with a leadership development ethos. Full Contact (A Colorado technology company) documents in their blog:

If people know they will be disconnecting and going off the grid for an extended period of time, they might actually keep that in mind as they help build the company. For example:

• They might empower direct reports to make more decisions.
• They might be less likely to create a special script that ... only lives on their machine.
• They might document their code a bit better.
• They might contribute to the company Wiki and share knowledge (p. 67).

Office | Work | Improvement

Thomas has learned through research that the open office (about 70 per cent of workspaces) impairs cognitive function due to the noise and constant interruptions (p. 73). Interestingly, while visiting a client (Front Burner Brands), distractions from an open layout were mitigated with white noise generators, greatly improving productivity. Many other communication and productivity methods are also implemented there.

If, as leaders, we keep in mind that the products of knowledge work are creativity, communication, and decisions, none of which thrive in noisy, shared workspaces where interruptions abound (p. 77), we can seek creative solutions to open physical workplaces. Chances are, we only need to ask what will help most.

Are you the type who believes subordinates must be constantly monitored? Thomas suggest managers who have the outdated bias that employees must be supervised in order to be productive should have a skill update (p. 100). Again, much of this is mindset. Part of that challenge is leaving behind notions about what constitutes productivity -- such as constant availability, face time at the office, and even a certain pride in working at a relentless pace (p. 107).

As leaders, continuous vigilance for distractions is required. Professor Gloria Mark and the University of California, Irvine has conducted research that shows the costs of distractions (pp. 109 - 110).

A great antidote: create a culture with intention. Think of Jim Collins' references to alignment. These steps can help (pp. 112 -113):

• Identify misalignment between your culture and your stated beliefs.
• Set policies and best practices
• Get the word out and model the behaviors you want to see
• Equip workers with the skills they need to succeed in the world of work without walls

costs of distraction.png

An additional benefit: What might be less obvious is that these same issues that influence productivity also influence happiness (p. 117).

Looking Ahead

Thomas asks us to include #workwithoutwalls and/or @mnthomas or otherwise tag her to stay connected and share. She also includes a great section on "Access Economy" Companies, plus further reading and terrific apps, tools, and other resources in appendices at end of book.

Note: Maura Nevel Thomas generously provided a copy of her book for review.

JE | January 2018