It might seem like the glorious era of remote work is upon us, driven by a pandemic push. Zoom! Slack! Who needs the office? The promise of uncompromised productivity paired with freedom is alluring.
- “I just can’t muster up the energy to get my presentation done for tomorrow’s meeting.”
- “I’m supposed to send this weekly update and I keep forgetting. I think I’ll skip it.”
- “I told my team I’d deliver this project, but I think I’ll ghost.”
These are just not things we typically say.
Why are we productive machines in some domains – like work – but fall flat on our faces in other domains like diet or meditation?
We tend to take this incredibly salient productivity gap for granted. We assume it’s all related to money. My work pays me to do work, so I do work. We assume it’s the money that makes us highly productive, reliable, and consistent worker bees.
But let’s take a look at what work actually is – basically, a giant group accountability system.
- We sit next to our team members every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. – we work on different tasks–right next to each other.
- We have daily or weekly meetings that ask team members to report everything they did yesterday and will do today.
- We have team meetings with key stakeholders that require presentations to be prepped weeks in advance.
- We have progress trackers that send out status reports on the project timelines.
- We have shared deadlines that make us look bad if they’re missed.
- We are part of quarterly and annual goals that are published to the company.
- We have performance reviews to ensure we hit these goals. But if we don’t hit the goal? We debrief after it to change our strategy next time.
The craziest thing? At almost every corporation worldwide, work looks like this – regardless of culture or domain, most companies have agreed on this structure.
Most people call it accountability. Work helps solve our self-control problems with incredibly effective accountability systems.
What’s at the root of this?
At work, our behaviour is public. Work makes our behaviour visible to other people to help get us to get things done. Want to launch an incredibly complex product that requires building new innovations? Create a small team and commit to a public launch with aggressive timelines. This is what every tech startup in San Francisco does. Just look at Google’s Developer Day or Apple’s Keynote launches. Apple committed to launch iOS 13 on June 3, 2019, and, by golly, they did it. These are really just massive accountability systems that help employees to do something they said they would do.
Personal goals are in the private sphere. In the private sphere, we struggle.
In the public sphere, we understand there is an underlying norm about what should happen (“I should show up to this meeting prepared”). We self-regulate on the basis of anticipated consequences of going against that norm.
Accountability is really just expecting you might have to justify your actions to others in relation to a preexisting norm. And it works.
Accountability systems (making behaviour public) have been shown to work within voting, school attendance, handwashing, charity donation, and many other domains.
- In Ely, Iowa, voters were told that if they didn’t vote, their names would be published in the newspaper. This drove voting rates up by 6.9%.
- A YMCA told their members how much their peers were going to the gym. They then told these members that their attendance would be publicized next month. This increased attendance by 17% to 23%.
When we know our behaviour is in the public sphere, we anticipate what others will think, and we end up modifying our behaviour.
As office work moves to remote work while the coronavirus continues to spread, work habits that were previously public will become more private. Is this a good thing? How will our productivity change?
It’s a nice idea to say that it won’t. This is the popular opinion. But the reality is that the nature of work shifts as it moves from public to private.
The very thing that allows us to be productive is changing.
Meetings that once were in person will be on Zoom or online. People often keep their video on for the first five minutes and then they turn it off. This reduces accountability and may lead to more distraction.
Workdays that were once coordinated and public (we all get in around 9 a.m. and say hello) will now become uncoordinated and private. This freedom may be glorious, but it reduces accountability and may lead to fewer hours worked.
Deadlines like conferences and public PR launches have been cancelled. This relieves the public pressure and delays a key motivator for getting stuff done. This reduces accountability and may increase procrastination.
Here are five ways to stay on track.
KEEP VIDEO ON–FOR THE WHOLE MEETING
If you’re in person, you’d likely avoid checking email or surfing the web. Keep the same norms alive for remote meetings. This will also prevent the inevitable downfall of conference calls.
ARTICULATE AND COORDINATE START AND END TIMES OF THE WORKDAY
This creates a norm for when people should be on. While ‘working hours’ may feel implicit to your team, it should be re-articulated to ensure people are aligned in the new coronavirus quarantine era. As a bonus, this also helps people set boundaries on their work and not work late nights.
POST PUBLIC UPDATES ABOUT DAILY OR WEEKLY PROGRESS
Engineers have operationalised this for years. It’s called a daily standup–a 15-minute check-in to discuss blockers and the day’s priorities. It may be time for non-engineers to jump on the bandwagon. An easy way to start is with a Slack (or other messaging) channel devoted to updates.
ADD MORE DEADLINES AND DECISION POINTS
We’re all really good at procrastination–like, really good. But there is a solution. Deadlines help drive action. They help us focus and avoid getting distracted by nonessential tasks. One easy hack: Ensure meetings focus on making a decision. The meeting will become the deadline for teams to prepare their input.
GROUP YOUR MEETINGS INTO BLOCKS
Put meetings back to back instead of scattered throughout the day. Research says it will make you more productive because your blocks of time feel less scarce. This applies when in the office or not, but is especially important for work-from-home life since distractions may be higher.
As the nature of work changes in the coming months, we should understand how to optimise work conditions. Work is something that ties us to other people in such an intricate way that we have no choice (or think we have no choice) but to achieve our goals. Work is just an elaborate accountability system. It’s a proven system that has been shown to motivate us across domains and across cultures.
In times of coronavirus quarantine (but also for your personal goals in life), there is very simple advice one should consider: Don’t go it alone.
Or, if that’s too hard, just act like someone is always watching you.
Kristen Berman cofounded Irrational Labs, a behavioural economics design company, with Dan Ariely and was on the founding team for the behavioural economics group at Google.