Can teams do deep work?

Last updated on 
August 10, 2020

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It’s no secret that here at Memory we’re big fans of deep work. Deep work is all about unlocking your peak cognitive performance by regularly working in prolonged, distraction-free flow states on important tasks. Compared to “shallower” ways of working it’s infinitely more productive and enjoyable, and far less stressful.

But successful deep work largely hinges on making yourself unavailable – cutting yourself off from people, tasks and interruption to practise “rich solitude”. So what does this mean for team work? If deep work benefits from isolation, can it ever be done collaboratively? Are teams able leverage the productive benefits of deep work, or is deep work purely a work philosophy for individuals?

The problem with team deep work

When we think of deep work, more often than not we’ll picture someone working intently by themselves, shut off from other people and unwanted distractions. Deep work is undoubtedly easier as an individual than as a team, and there are several reasons for this.

In his book Deep Work, Cal Newport defined four different strategies for accessing deep work, depending on our particular job and lifestyle. These are:

  1. Monastic – where you go away for days, weeks or months at a time, often in near-total seclusion, like a monk in a monastery.
  2. Rhythmic – where you perform deep work on a repeated schedule, making it a habit until it becomes second nature.
  3. Bimodal – where you switch between deep work and shallow work, keeping up with the normal demands of daily life.
  4. Journalistic – where you do deep work whenever you get the opportunity (even though it can be hard to quickly change cognitive gears).
👉 Learn more about how to do deep work

The issue with these four approaches is that while useful for individuals, they’re generally hugely impractical for teams. If you work in a team, you just can’t announce to your coworkers that you’re going AWOL for a few weeks to do some deep work. Being uncontactable for just a few days, or more often than not, a few hours is often just not an option. Even the journalistic approach, where you try to seize any chance to do deep work, can become impossible when other people are continually relying on your feedback and support.

And then there’s the issue of distraction. Deep work hinges on being able to limit distractions – and in the modern workplace, that can seem near-impossible. Whether we’re working remotely or not, most of us use instant communication tools like Slack and email that are constantly pinging away. We also have to factor in meetings, that often seem to arise at the most inopportune times – and whether they’re virtual meetings or not, they still interrupt deep work and steal away our focus.

Plus, when you’re in a team, you’re usually working towards shared goals and deadlines even when you’re working independently. While it would be nice if each employee could block out a few hours a day to do deep work without being disrupted, the reality of teamwork isn’t quite so simple. Teams need to keep the workflow going. Deadlines are delayed, obstacles get in the way, and so effective communication is crucial to hitting targets and achieving goals. So what’s the solution?

How to do deep work as a team

Of the four approaches to deep work outlined by Cal Newport, only one really works for teams: the rhythmic approach. To ensure everyone gets the chance to enjoy uninterrupted deep work, schedules would have to be harmonized – e.g. where with one half of the day being protected for deep work, with synchronous collaboration like meetings scheduled for the other half of the day. Individual deep work schedules and almost all communication should also become asynchronous to enable this way of working, so colleagues know when someone is available and aren’t pulled out of their own deep thinking space by low-value pings and questions.

Each employee should publicly schedule their deep work sessions

When planning team deep work, lots of different things have to be factored in – not least responsibilities to clients. If your response time is going to be delayed, this can understandably put some clients out – which is why communicating the benefits of deep work to them is so important. Context switching is one of the biggest wastes of time going. If clients are paying a daily or hourly rate, and you’re switching between tasks and getting distracted, they’re wasting money. It might take time to set up a communication process you’re both happy with, but in the long run it’ll be worth it. You’ll get better work done, faster, plus the client will save money. Everyone wins.

Another aspect to think about is what constitutes deep work – because in teams, everyone has different responsibilities. The first step into rolling out synchronized deep work is identifying what it looks like for each individual. Take some time to think about the complex, high-value components of your work that require deep, unbroken focus. Once you’ve identified which of your tasks are best suited to deep work, you can then figure out how much time you can dedicate to that, while still leaving space for shallow work, ad hoc tasks and collaboration. Performing a quick time audit can help you identify deep work tasks, as well as understand how you currently spend effort.

An automatic time audit helps employees qualify their “deep” and “shallow” tasks

Once all team members know how much time they need for deep work, you can start synchronizing this. If multiple employees need to do at least three hours of deep work a day, you could implement team-wide rules, like no meetings til after lunch, or letting colleagues and clients know not to expect feedback between certain times (AKA setting availability hours). It’s crucial to establish communication protocols so everyone’s on the same page: figure out which communication tools you’re going to use, facilitate planning and monitoring using deep work tools, and set up a company-wide knowledge base where all key info is stored, removing the need to send querying emails.

💡 12 tips for getting started with deep work

So it’s certainly possible to integrate deep work into your team’s workflow, but it takes time and effort, and it may be a case of trial and error. Just know that if you stick at it, the personal rewards and professional return of deep work are well worth the investment – for clients, for individual employees, and for teams themselves.

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