How to strike the balance between deep work and collaboration

What does your typical work day look like? For many of us, it will be punctuated by meetings, emails, chats with co-workers, notifications from collaboration tools, and if we’re really honest, browsing the web and getting sucked into social media. Our days are often spent switching quickly between the items on our to-do list.

But when was the last time you were able to carve out a good chunk of time from your work day to really concentrate and focus on a task? That might feel like a distant luxury.

Enter “deep work”

What happens in these long, uninterrupted stretches of time is what Cal Newport calls ‘deep work’ – “Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit”. In his book of the same name, Newport argues that our tech-driven culture is making insane demands on our attention, and also reducing our ability to focus. But for those that are able to engage in frequent deep work, it’s hugely advantageous for developing expertise, increasing productivity and advancing professionally.

Deep work is not just for professional development. It’s also more enjoyable and meaningful to us personally. We knew this in some part from Mihaly Csikszentmihaly’s concept of “flow” where we are so engrossed in a task that we lose sense of time and space. In “Drive”, Daniel Pink introduced us to the three elements of motivation for knowledge workers – autonomy, mastery and purpose. Mastery is key here, where being engaged in a task and seeing improvements to our performance is what makes us tick.

Has collaboration gone too far?

Many workplaces don’t seem to be set up for deep work. Instead they seem to be steering employees into a state of ongoing ‘shallow work’ – the type described in the first paragraph of this post. It’s a frustration that was covered in The Economist article “The Collaboration Curse”. The article explored whether the pendulum has swung too far in favour of open plan offices, endless meetings and being constantly responsive to collaborative tools. Despite it’s very loose (and some might argue, incorrect) definition of collaboration, the article seemed to resonate with many people. We’re finding it increasingly difficult to hunker down and concentrate when we need to, especially with our noisy co-workers.

Even more worrying is the impact that this has on the most willing workers. In “Collaborative Overload”, Harvard Business Review explored how, unsurprisingly, the most responsive and helpful employees are the ones that are the most overworked – “As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance… they are so overtaxed that they’re no longer personally effective”. Being highly cooperative can have its downsides.

The tricky balance

But this isn’t an argument to return to more solitary working over collaboration. Both deep work and collaboration have a role in the workplace. They are complimentary, which is something that Newport covers later in his book. We’ve long moved past the idea of the “lone genius”, and recognise that purposeful collaboration is essential for innovation. We value the diverse minds and skillsets that come together in teams to solve complex challenges. But this also depends on each team member bringing their expertise to the table – the expertise that needs to be developed through regular deep work.

Managing this is a tricky balance. Linda Hill identifies this in “Collective Intelligence” as a paradox between “affirming the individual and the team”:

“A rich, diverse supply of ideas will only emerge if group members are willing and eager to contribute their thoughts. The more diverse their ideas, the better. Indeed, a leader needs to amplify people’s differences because they are what produce a richer and more robust marketplace of ideas. Thus, leaders encourage and support the individuals in their groups because they are the source of ideas that constitute the raw material of innovation.

Yet the ultimate innovation will almost always be a collective outcome, something devised through group interaction. Rarely will it be the result of one person’s flash of insight, though several such flashes may occur along the way. Most people’s idea will be considered and discarded by the group, adopted only in part, or combined with other ideas to make something different.”

We also need to do more work to establish the group of individuals as a team, and ensure that they work well together. As research has shown, the individual IQs of team members has less of an impact on the team’s success, than how they will work together. Instead, factors such as equal contributions and social intelligence make the difference.

So what can we do strike the balance between the deep work needed to develop individual expertise, and the collaborative effort needed for creativity and innovation? There’s room at individual, team and company level to make this happen.

Individuals

We need to develop our own ability to focus and be disciplined in pursuing the habits and routines that facilitate deep work, such as this manager at Google who outlined his method for separating maker and manager time. Newport dedicates the second part of his book to suggest various time management strategies and productivity tips.

It’s not only a challenge to fight distraction and the attraction of shallow work, but also to communicate this to our colleagues. Newport proposes asking bosses for a ‘shallow work budget’ which involves setting an upper limit for this kind of work. 

Teams

Alternate between individual and group time. When a new project starts or team comes together, give each person the opportunity to reflect on and communicate how they work best. Identify the times needed for deep work, when you will come together as a team to share progress and develop ideas, and how you will communicate between these times. Design your project workflow and timeline based on this, and make it a regular task to check in and review.

Make your time together highly productive. Ensure all team meetings and workshops have a clear purpose and intended outcome, then plan and facilitate them effectively. Recognise that although you can cover a lot in these sessions, there will always be follow-up work to do. After a good workshop, people will have clear actions and the opportunity to build on ideas in their own individual way. Workshops can be stimulus for further deep work.

Atlassian seem to have figured this out. They found that their best-performing teams made better use of their time together because they had long periods of focused work. As a result, people came to meetings more prepared, which made them them more productive.

Consider how to achieve team flow. Deep work doesn’t always have to be solitary. Sometimes working alongside others can provide the motivation for intense work too. This post from Asana looks at ‘flow contagion’ – feeding off of one another’s energy and making productivity contagious. In a summary of Keith Sawyer’s Group Creativity, Eric Barker provides a lists of elements that makes this possible, including: having clear goal, close listening, and equal participation.

Companies

Foster an appreciation for deep work. There can be various aspects in a company’s culture which shows that deep work is encouraged. This could be accepted ‘focus signals’ such as wearing headphones, or giving people time to work from home or outside of the workplace.

Or it could be an initiative implemented at a higher level like Asana’s No Meeting Wednesdays. Employees are encouraged not to hold any internal meetings on this day, and receive a gentle reminder each week.

Invest in space for individual working.  Companies that are serious about balancing deep work with collaboration build it into their office design. Open spaces that foster serendipitous encounters are combined with pods and quiet areas where workers can spend time working alone. They no longer feel they need to escape the office environment, or have to hide away in a corner to get their work done. We’re likely to see more innovation in this area, like the collaboration between the Self-Assembly Lab at MIT and Google on a transformable workspace.

Collaboration is essential for organisations, but so is the focused, concentrated time that enables employees to develop expertise in their work. Individually, we’re responsible for our managing our own time and stay focused during deep work periods. But companies must also understand the need for and accommodate deep work. A good balance of both individual work and teamwork will lead to a more productive workplace, with happier and more engaged employees.

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