We’ve been banging the four-day work week drum for a long time now – we’ve found not only that it improves productivity and wellbeing for everyone on the team, but also that it’s helped us to grow as a business.
That said, the four-day week is only one part of what we’re trying to do at Blink. Our wider goal is to create the right environment for employees to do exceptional work.
As we’ve shifted primarily into remote work, our ways of working have shifted as well. Our physical contact is limited, which means our online communication channels have become our primary outlet for collaboration. And while these are vital for helping us stay connected, we’ve also found that they can be damaging to our productivity and capacity for extended periods of concentration.
The situation we’re trying to change is what computer science professor Cal Newport calls the “hyperactive hive mind”. The hyperactive hive mind uses low-friction communication to get things done. Tasks are managed and goals are worked towards via the hum of constant dialogue which, now that we work remotely, is predominantly asynchronous – instant messages in Slack, and emails.
This is a natural way for people to collaborate. A hive mind of sorts is necessary for teams to work together, but the result of this way of working is that our collective capacity for periods of meaningful concentration becomes severely undermined. The inefficiencies of the hyperactive hive mind aren’t always visible, especially in smaller teams, but as we scale and the number of communication channels we have to maintain increases, it’s become clear to us just how much time is spent managing these communications as opposed to concentrating on larger goals.
Encouraging flow states
Over the last few years, a concept known as the “flow state” has come into the spotlight. It was identified by psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and describes that state of mind in which you perform best, where you’re so focused on what you’re doing that time just sort of melts away.
And while we’d usually associate this sort of state as one we experience for personal hobbies, it’s one we can achieve when working professionally, just under the right circumstances.
One of the biggest inhibitors to the flow state is interruptions. In part, this is due to the “switch-cost effect” – something the author and journalist Johann Hari describes perfectly in his recent book Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention.
“It means that if you check your texts while trying to work, you aren’t only losing the little bursts of time you spend looking at the texts themselves – you are also losing the time it takes to refocus afterwards, which turns out to be a huge amount.”
And we’ve found this to be true. Switching between written communication and an ongoing task can not only be taxing and an inefficient way to work, but it can also result in less output and an output that’s of a lower quality.
Importantly, not only does context switching inhibit productivity, it’s also stressful. Excessive switching between different tasks increases the stress hormone cortisol and decreases glucose in the brain, leaving us feeling tired and less able to focus.
Implementing shifts that result in our employees achieving this kind of deep focus isn’t going to happen because we make a few tweaks around the office. It involves broader insight and a wider cultural shift, with some changes that will only affect us and how we work, while others will influence how we work with our clients and partners.
But how can we achieve all this while also remaining a happy and engaged team, and running a growing business? It’s something we’ve put a lot of thought into.
Changing office hours
Our attempt to encourage all this starts with changing our office hours. Not when we’ll be working (our working hours are 9am–5:30pm, Monday-Thursday) but when we’ll be available to manage communications.
In order to create an environment where our team is free to concentrate, we’re aiming to minimise interruptions. For this reason, we’re now implementing new “office hours”, which will be the only hours in the day where we’re online and available to both answer asynchronous communications and conduct scheduled synchronous communications, leaving the rest of the day for offline work.
Therefore, our new online office hours will look like this:
- Internal availability: 9-9:30
- External availability: 12:30-15:30
- Internal availability: 17-17:30
The first and last periods will be reserved primarily for internal communications, while the central block of three hours is where all client and internal calls are to be scheduled (and for team members to have a lunch break at a time of their choosing).
The reasoning behind choosing these times is because morning periods are generally regarded as the best time for extended periods of concentration, so we can begin each day with a brief period for answering any pressing communications before quickly moving onto deeper work.
Afternoons, on the other hand, are usually not the best time for extended periods of focus on a single task, so we can spend this time conducting (essential) client meetings and answering questions from other members of the team.
We’re not saying we’ll be totally unavailable to one another, or to our clients. And these rules will not be enforced in any way. Everyone will have the flexibility to set up how they can disconnect during their offline time, whether that’s closing Slack and emails completely, or just setting a status to indicate they’re in the middle of deep work.
The bottom line is, we won’t expect them to answer emails or Slack messages during their offline hours, and any emergencies will be handled via a different process altogether.
How is our company culture changing?
This shift might seem like an artefact of post-pandemic work trends – increased atomisation and reducing the natural kinds of interaction that we all enjoy in a healthy working environment. The important thing to remember here is that it’s not fun to be on Slack answering questions all day when you have things you want to do.
The hyperactive hive mind undermines the most important aspect of autonomy – giving an individual the freedom to work towards a goal according to their own judgment. So rather than a free and engaged team, the hyperactive hive mind contains people who are seemingly free, but actually working under significant and stressful limitations.
By removing unnecessary interruptions we can work more comfortably, and when we’re online together we can enjoy memes placed in the #random channel even more.
How will we help our employees?
This is not a straightforward transition. It’s been a natural and instinctive way of working for some time and we don’t expect people to feel immediately comfortable with new extended periods of offline working.
The framework we provide employees should be one that makes this situation easy. If someone has a question, there should be an external resource that answers that question. This means that all of our processes – from wider business processes to the processes behind individual tasks – need to be recorded and easily accessible.
These processes can then be refined and updated, but at any given moment it should be possible, at least hypothetically, for someone to find what they need to get something done at any given time, without the need for low-friction dialogue to find where the resource is or what it contains.
There are then the questions of socialising and encouraging engagement among the team as individuals. Meetings and lengthy Slack threads were an opportunity for this to happen. We think there are better opportunities for this, and it’s something we’re working on specifically, rather than assuming it’s something that happens naturally during the working day.
How will this affect our clients?
It won’t, not really. Of our range of clients, some opt for weekly calls, while others don’t want any synchronous communication at all. But either way, those communications can easily be handled within office hours.
Ultimately what’s most important for clients isn’t accessibility. It’s clarity – knowing that an answer will arrive within a certain time frame.
In the rare instance that an emergency comes up and requires us to look at something outside of our office hours, we’ll of course attend to it. We’ll offer a way for our clients to reach us directly in the same way they can now reach us outside our Monday-Thursday work week.
What’s most important to remember is that this cultural and process shift is to encourage better work, which will ultimately serve to benefit our clients. We’re still here, we’re still engaged – and in fact, we’re more focused than ever before.
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