Post-covid employee engagement
Fiona Passantino, Early March 2022
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi first described what’s known as a state of “flow” in 1990, as a particular state of consciousness where we feel and perform our best; completely immersed in an activity. Ego, time and your being phone fade away[i]. Some people call this “the zone”.
Whether we’re playing music or sports, painting or writing, certain aspects of “flow” are shared by all. First, your goals are crystal clear; the “why” of what you’re doing is obvious, and your body and mind line up behind it. Second, you have elevated concentration and focus on the activity; you are undistractable even in a noisy café or with small kids running around asking for juice. Third, you exist in nearly an altered state, one without time or space. And your actions are guided expertly by instinct. You have nearly perfect control over the work and its direction[ii]. Your performance is at its best. Finally, and most importantly, you experience intense joy during the process.
Why does it matter?
Imagine six hours of an eight- or ten-hour work day spent in this state; working on the big presentation, that quarterly report or working out a new idea. The hours sail by, the result is your best work. Creating a flow-state at work has advantages for both employees and leadership. According to a 10-year McKinsey study, we are 500% more productive in a state of “flow”[iii].
We are also happier; “flow” contributes to increased job satisfaction and improvise our mental, physical and emotional well-being[iv]. This naturally translates to higher levels of engagement and lower churn rates[v].
All we do to sabotage ourselves
But find yourself in a (home) office on a typical day – that begins with back-to-back meetings, Adobe did some research on this and found that we spend an average of six hours per day reading and writing email, checking our inboxes 74 times and our smartphones 2,617 times a day[vi].
With all the multi-layered communication channels firing simultaneously, the schedule of meetings organizations and the expectation that we are always available, able to respond and plugged in to what’s going on, we end our working days drained, overstimulated and left with the awful feeling that we didn’t actually get anything done.
Six ways to set the stage for flow
A few small changes can make a big difference; it turns out “flow” doesn’t exist in. a vacuum but needs a bit of help from the culture and environment.
Tip 1: the Meeting Free Day
If there’s a problem to solve or an activity to plan our first instinct is to fire up Outlook, gather the essential people, and set up a meeting. But most planning can be handled virtually, in a non-synchronous shared creative space (such as a Miro board) a shared document, or with a bit of discipline, using a chat group. Each team can decide on one day a week where only essential meetings can be planned. If we are all doing focused work on the same day, we will not re-emerge at the end of it with overflowing inboxes, urgent texts we have ignored nor the feeling we have let our colleagues down.
If a team can’t manage the rule, it’s up to us the individual to block a few two-hour chunks of time in our agendas three times a week. Label it, make it public, let the world know that you’re having focus time to do complete a particular task and nothing is that urgent that it can’t wait until you’re done.
Tip 2: Build in Silence
Our workday is an ongoing symphony of constant noises that are meant to shake us awake and deal with something urgently. There are pings signaling incoming messages, dongs for emails, hums for meeting reminders and bongs for (work) social media. There are also our personal phones and emails that we have to be on top of once in a while in case we need to pick up a sick kid from school or get eggs on our way home. Put all this together and it’s clear that we exist in a constant state of distraction and hyper-responsiveness; the opposite of “flow”. it’s a wonder any deep focus work gets done at all.
Turn off the sound during the day; you’ll still see the banners pop up reminding you about that next meeting, and you’ll still see a filling inbox.
Reduce meeting times to 45 minutes, rather than the standard hour, automatically builds in 15 minutes of silence to batch-catch up on mails and messages, make a cup of tea and actually prepare your thoughts for the next meeting.
Tip 3: Reduce Unplanned interruptions
There is always an urgent matter that jumps to the top of your backlog and wipes out the rest of your day; that’s simply the nature of business. Your boss will ping you during a meeting, pull you away, and ask you to prepare a statement to address a public crisis and take a few media calls. Emergencies are always sitting in a corner somewhere, waiting to strike.
But habitually stopping one activity and fast-switching to an entirely new task on a constant basis gives rise to “cognitive switching penalty” which is the loss of as much as 40% of your cognitive ability[vii]. The brain simply needs time to rev up, get humming, and every time you switch from one activity to another, you are not playing with a full deck on arrival.
Tip 4: Reduce Email
More than half our emails generally are cc-group mail; you’re caught up in an ongoing communication chain, and all members automatically punch “reply-all” to say thanks! Or “I’m on it!” or “Hope you feel better soon.” Every outgoing response to a group adds to every member’s cumulative pile, and by definition, have to be read or at least dealt with.
This pile of unread emails adds to our stress levels, makes us log in after dinner so we can catch up, and even compels us to take our laptops with us on vacation so we “don’t miss anything”. But if the only communication we’re missing is the
There’s also an element of ass-covering involved here; adding a “cc” to an email is an easy way to solicit implicit consent and fake-make sure “everyone knows what’s going on”, when in reality, these mails are skimmed at best. There simply isn’t enough time to read everyone’s cc mail about the minutiae of every project running parallel in a large organization.
Much of this can be solved with a single shared document that everyone can comment on in their own time, respond to each other’s comments and counter-comment. Strict rules around cc policy also helps; most of the time, a simple “reply to sender” for non-essential information is the best policy; you’re doing your colleagues a favor.
Tip 5: Manage Urgency
Much of our time is spent in meetings seeking consensus within our tribe for trivial, reversible decisions. Give people more space and responsibility to have complete dominion over certain terrains, make sure they understand company values to guide their decisions, and don’t get upset because you didn’t get a say in whether we should open the feed to comments or not. Let the small stuff go, and focus on the lode-bearing work that pays the bills. And by not having that meeting, you just gained an hour of “flow” for yourself.
Having fewer consensus issues will also reduce the number of minutes we are attending meetings in body only, our hands, just out of range of the laptop camera, is busily answering an urgent message, just checking that last cc. We convince ourselves that we are plugged in and paying attention to both activities while we are in fact barely there in both.
In the end, a workday, chock with meetings, the incoming fire of communication, underlying expectations and deliverables, all need to be carefully choreographed to create that all-important, critical ingredient for achieving “flow”: silence. We will all be happier, less tense, and more productive because of it.
[ii] Kennedy (2016). “Flow State: What It Is and How to Achieve It”. The Pennsylvania State University. Accessed on February 13, 2022. https://sites.psu.edu/academy/2016/04/03/flow-state-what-it-is-and-how-to-achieve-it/
[iii] Glaveski (2018). “The Case for the 6-Hour Workday”. Harvard Business Review. Accessed on February 13, 2022. https://hbr.org/2018/12/the-case-for-the-6-hour-workday
[v] Weintraub, J., Cassell, D., & DePatie, T. P. (2021). Nudging flow through ‘SMART’goal setting to decrease stress, increase engagement, and increase performance at work. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 94(2), 230-258. https://bpspsychub.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/joop.12347?casa_token=a0B5KeuMs_QAAAAA%3AqHj4T2YYumo-_TUDE54DagV6QE-5UTqnaoGqzb8bRAfhjyFWx8cR65ChbCzZCtT0-yxByp_R4HA5J7Dc
[vi] Glaveski (2018). “The Case for the 6-Hour Workday”. Harvard Business Review. Accessed on February 13, 2022. https://hbr.org/2018/12/the-case-for-the-6-hour-workday
[vii] Weinschenk (2012) “The True Cost of Multi-Tasking”, Psychology Today, Accessed on March 5, 2022. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/brain-wise/201209/the-true-cost-multi-tasking
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