Dropbox: redefining workplace productivity
Before the Corona-virus pandemic spread across the world, many business leaders and workers were already discussing the growing need to change the way we work. Working life has been in transition for a long time, and the pandemic has put this shift into overdrive. The way we interact with work has always been shaped by social, economic and political influences - and, of course, by technology.
The demographics of work have fundamentally shifted. Millennials are now the largest generation in the US workforce; in England, there are over a million more mothers in the workplace than there were 20 years ago; and freelancers are now the fastest-growing group in the European labour market.
Yet, even though we have seen wide-ranging changes, the way we measure our work has largely stayed the same. Leaders still find themselves focused on the hours we spend at work or online, and many of us are used to joining back-to-back meetings and sharing status updates or internal notes, as it creates the sense that everyone is ‘getting things done’. But are we actually making progress? Not according to a recent Dropbox survey, which found that workers waste 29% of their time on tasks that provide no critical value to the business.
Leaders need to acknowledge employees’ reduced bandwidth, and ensure that their precious time is spent on the most important tasks. For too long, we have been bound to an hours-based model of work that puts too much focus on how we get things done, rather than what is ultimately accomplished.
How to measure what actually matters
More so than ever, managers need to be really supportive of their teams as they work in a fully distributed environment. We have the opportunity to up-end traditional ideas about productivity and embrace an output-based way of working that is better for businesses and workers alike.
There’s no point in mandating or expecting employees to be “logged on” for fixed office hours anymore; the reality of distributed work has made this senseless and, likely, impossible.
Why ask them to burn through tasks that don’t have a discernible impact on business objectives, just to ensure they are logged on for a traditional 9-5? This model wastes precious time that also needs to be spent looking after ourselves and others.
Instead, the next step is to turn to what truly matters when it comes to our business goals: output. What have they achieved? How does a task take us closer to our goals? What should we do next? These should be the key questions that measure our progress and help us choose how to spend our time.
So we can make this shift, we’ll have to help our teams prioritise and jettison any unnecessary “work about work,” allowing them to focus on the key goals and work that have the biggest impact. Then we need to trust our teams enough to set them free to work towards those goals via their own methods, tools and (reasonable) timelines.
Ruthless prioritisation and the freedom to focus
Effective prioritisation can only be achieved if leaders ensure that everybody is aligned to one set of goals, building in touch points that enable team members to stay on the same page. Leaders also need to be strict and honest when interrogating team to-do lists and OKRs, and ask themselves, ‘what can we not do?’, rather than, “what do we want to do?”, to drill down into what’s really necessary.
Once everyone is aligned on their goals, managers need to prioritise the requests they are making of team members’ time, so they have the space for meaningful work. Back in April, at Dropbox, we saw more than a 2,000% increase in usage of our Zoom integration compared with February. Organisations rushed to find solutions to facilitate the synchronous communications we need in this new world of work, but it’s imperative to strike a careful balance of virtual collaboration to allow for real focus.
One of the most important questions right now is, ‘can this meeting be an email?’. We all need to ensure we schedule meetings only when absolutely necessary.
I find the “inform, discuss or decide” model a useful guide. If you are ‘informing’ - giving an update or providing information - this should be an email. If you are ‘discussing’ - multiple parties sharing feedback or perspectives - this can be done via collaboration tools like Dropbox Paper or Slack. If you are ‘deciding’ - making a key decision with a number of stakeholders - a meeting may be warranted. But use this time wisely and ensure everyone has the information they need in advance.
Trust in our teams
Once teams are aligned on the key goals and tasks, and we’ve prioritised the demands we’ve made of their time, we need to allow our team members to work in the ways that work for them. This means trusting them to manage their own schedules, knowing that the expectations are clear and check-ins are in place to drive strong results.
And if we’re allowing employees to manage their schedules, we should also allow them to use the tools that work best for them. The average employee nowadays is more aware of the tools that are available to them in the world outside of work; as demonstrated by a recent survey that found that 41% of UK workers have used WhatsApp for work purposes.
Once employees feel they are trusted to manage their own time and tools in order to reach their business goals, the results they’ll likely achieve will lead to further trust from managers - thus creating a virtuous circle of effective, dispersed work.
By adopting an output-based approach, these difficult times could well cultivate a more positive workplace in the long term. Employers are already seeing that not everyone has to be physically present to make their professional and personal presence felt, and no matter where we are, we can all move the dial on a company’s goals.
This change should be embraced as it signals an end to an outdated stigma around remote workers’ contributions. A third of remote and flexible workers surveyed by Deloitte in 2018 felt that they were regarded as being less important than their in-office counterparts, while a quarter felt they were given access to fewer opportunities and missed out on progression and promotion opportunities.
More distributed work could mean an increase in the opportunities that parents, freelancers and anyone who wants flexibility will see in their roles. We’ll also likely see more varied and remote teams, where everyone works towards the same goals, beyond the restrictions of a traditional office environment.
The way we measure our work lives in terms of hours spent at a desk and boxes ticked is an outdated concept that is no longer fit for purpose.
We now have an opportunity to go back to the drawing board on the way we look at work. Let’s seize this opportunity, to make the world of work more tailored, enjoyable and productive for everyone.
For more information on business topics in Europe, Middle East and Africa please take a look at the latest edition of Business Chief EMEA.