How to thrive in the next normal of distributed work
September 17th, 2020
Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in WIRED.
Some companies are struggling to keep up with our new normal. Research from Asana reveals nearly half of employees surveyed globally said company-wide goals had been deprioritised since remote working began, with 47 per cent saying those goals have changed at least once during that time – and 60 per cent haven’t increased communication on such issues. “I think the current new normal is coping,” says Alex Hood, CPO of Asana. “The next normal is thriving.”
To shift from surviving in the current new normal to thriving in the next normal, knowledge workers will need clarity about company goals and their own day-to-day work — not an easy task amid the chaos of home offices. “Lack of clarity is why teams suffer, when you do a bunch of work and it ends up not mattering, when you don’t feel rewarded, when you sacrifice your work-life balance to do something that you thought was urgent and it turns out it wasn’t — those things are soul crushing,” says Hood.
That’s why a study from 451 Research revealed that improving productivity and collaboration was already a key priority for IT departments even before the pandemic hit, while a survey from IDC shows that has accelerated since lockdown, with 54 per cent of respondents saying they expected to increase spending on collaboration tools.
But it’s a mistake to see such tools as only necessary to enable remote working. Indeed, eight in ten of those surveyed by IDC said collaboration tools helped their companies recruit and retain talent.
What does collaboration have to do with staff engagement? “Everything”, says Hood. Asana’s own research revealed knowledge workers spend 60 per cent of their time on what he calls “work about work”. “It’s the cost of co-ordination — trawling through email, searching for the last plan, getting pinged, writing status reports,” he says. “And only 13 per cent of time is spent on skilled or deep work, and that’s the most satisfying to do.”
Being away from the office and each other makes that “work about work” more tiresome, Hood adds. “Now, getting everybody on the same page is awkward,” he says. “You’ve got to schedule time, get on a video conference, rather than just talking face to face. Lack of clarity is exasperating the burnout that we feel during COVID.”
And though digital technologies are often touted as the solution to such challenges, they can exacerbate the frustration — all those messages sent back and forth don’t lead to an uptick in productivity, Hood says. That’s down to a lack of clarity, he says, and unpacking confusion is much harder when teams aren’t physically together to talk points through.
These are the challenges Asana has long helped companies to tackle: providing clarity on who is doing what, how the pieces all fit together, and when it’ll all come together — making it easier for knowledge workers to focus and ensure their efforts align with company goals. “If you can take ten or 20 percentage points away from that work about work — the dysfunction that plays out in messaging apps and email, battling over who’s going to update that spreadsheet — then organisations will have more time to execute, to think more clearly on strategy, to pivot more quickly, or to retain the best people, as it will improve engagement,” Hood says.
That’s now. What’s next? The disruption caused by the pandemic has sparked discussion of the “new normal”, but for the “next normal”, Asana wants to help companies refocus on deep work, reducing the distractions and that “work about work”. “We’re working on a way to create harmony between your task list and your calendar,” he says. “Think about it as a virtual assistant for everyone.”
This is how the future Asana could look: you come into work — whether that’s shuffling into your spare bedroom or commuting into an office — and Asana will pull together a list of tasks from other apps with a suggested prioritisation based on what it understands of company goals, team timelines, and your own personal development. Make any necessary tweaks, and then that work is automatically applied to your calendar. “It helps you load-balance your day so that you’re getting the things done that you care about,” Hood says. “When it’s actually time for a meeting… Asana automatically generates an agenda, pulls in the right people, provides the context needed, and only makes the meeting as long as it needs to be — 17 minutes, or seven, it doesn’t need to be 30 all the time — and then capturing the transcript of the meeting, making it searchable. Action items are turned into follow up tasks so that meetings don’t end up being wasted time. It becomes something real and tangible.”
Another idea is instantly created and customisable workflows. Some tasks require bespoke software for specific tasks, such as sales or HR, but most don’t, says Hood. “We’re imagining a workflow store, like an app store, where you can go and find the best practices out there, and adapt them instantaneously for your own workflows,” he says.
These ideas on Asana’s future roadmap will be built using Asana’s Work Graph”, similar to the idea of Facebook’s social graph — perhaps no surprise as one of Asana’s co-founders and CEO is the social network’s co-creator Dustin Moskovitz. That Work Graph coalesces all the data and analytics and acts as the backbone to Asana today, and in the future will connect everything about your work — meeting agendas, teams, their tasks and so much more — analysing it to understand how everything interconnects and operates. “We started from the bottom, at task level, and we’ve been building our way up,” Hood says. “Most recently we released a goals and OKRs feature that actually connects strategy to execution inside the same piece of software, inside the Work Graph.”
That will help with setting goals, as well as plotting a route to reach those goals the fastest way possible, and if any challenges arise, route around them — Hood likens it to turn-by-turn navigation. “Our vision is to become the navigation system for organisations,” he says.
When we talk about future technologies, it’s often seemingly sexier ideas like virtual reality rather than automated action points and ready-to-go to-do lists — but exciting, immersive innovation doesn’t necessarily help get work done, Hood says.
“We want people to do great work and give clarity about how that work is coming along,” he says. However encouraging and fostering a culture of clarity isn’t reliant on technology alone. At Asana, there are no meetings on Wednesdays, to allow staff a day with fewer interruptions. “It’s so easy for anybody to go and plop a meeting on somebody else’s calendar — it ends up being enormously distracting,” he says. “So we put boundaries to protect the ability for everyone, from developers to designers to protect their ability to do creative work.” And it’s made Wednesdays not only popular but also productive.
However, technology is sometimes the problem. Take email, which Asana’s research shows that responding to a constant barrage of emails and notifications is the primary reason that nearly one-third of employees regularly stay late in the office or work from home after hours.
But Asana does not use internal emails inside the company. “Email is such an old fashioned tool, it’s so ill-fit for communicating about work,” Hood says. “It’s a replacement for fax machines, and we can do better with purpose built technology.” Instead of relying on email, Hood’s colleagues use Asana for goal tracking, Asana and Slack for communicating, and Dropbox for sharing files — all pulled within Asana via its more than 100 integrations.
Now that so many companies have had to quickly shift to collaboration tools because of lockdown, it’s time to shift from the new normal to the next, using these technologies to not only cope with remote working but empowering knowledge workers through purpose-built tools that give their work true clarity and engagement. “When we go back to work, whether in the office or at home, we’ll bring some of these tools back with us,” Hood says — and that could spark the beginning of the next normal: thriving.