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Knowledge work seems tailor-made for a remote work force. In many, if not most, cases it doesn’t need to be tied to a specific physical location. But Georgetown University computer-science professor Cal Newport, who has written several books on knowledge work, says there is a key aspect of remote working that can undermine productivity: Knowledge workers tend to treat the assignment of work tasks with great informality.

New obligations arise haphazardly. They can come, for example, in a hastily-composed e-mail or impromptu request during a virtual meeting.

“If you ask a manager to estimate the current load on each of their team members, they’d likely struggle. If you ask the average knowledge worker to enumerate every obligation currently on their own plate, they’d also likely struggle – the things they need to do exist as a loose assemblage of meeting invites and unread e-mails,” he writes in a series of blog posts.

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In some ways that’s a recipe for disaster. But Mr. Newport says it doesn’t spiral out of control when we work in the same physical location. “If I see you in the office acting out the role of someone who is busy, or flustered, or overwhelmed, I’m less likely to put more demands on you,” he notes. In a conference room meeting it’s easier for ambiguous decisions or tasks to be recognized and discussed.

But those visual signals, which help keep tasks manageable, disappear when an organization with little planning suddenly goes entirely remote. The result is task inflation – more and more tasks being handed out by e-mail – than colleagues can bear. If you’re wondering why you haven’t suddenly gained any free time when not commuting, that could be the reason.

“This inflation might even collapse into a dismal state I call inbox capture, in which essentially every moment of your workday becomes dedicated to keeping up with e-mail, Slack, and Zoom meetings, with very little work beyond the most logistical and superficial actually accomplished – an incredibly wasteful form of economic activity,” he writes.

The solution is to become more formal about how tasks are identified, assigned and tracked. “This will require inconvenient new rules and systems, but will also, in the long run, probably be a much smarter way to work, even when we can return to our offices,” he says.

As well, individuals need to spend less time in their inbox – today and when we return to our offices – and he says that means much more than not checking it too often. He recommends these three rules:

Never schedule a call or meeting using e-mail: These days, without chance hallway or other impromptu meetings, the temptation is to use e-mail. But that leads to slow back-and-forth messages and also, as he puts it, “is guaranteed to keep you in a state of constant, agitated inbox checking.” Use a scheduling service.

Immediately move obligations out of your inbox and into role-specific repositories: Divide your work into its parts, such as the roles you play – at this point he is writer, teacher, researcher and director of graduate studies for his department – and create a place where you can see the status of your obligations for that aspect of your life. “For example, when I’m spending time on my role as director of graduate studies, I’m only exposed to information about this role – preventing energy-sapping context shifts. I can see the whole picture of what’s on my plate, and make smart decisions about what I want to work on in the moment,” he says.

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Hold office hours: Professors do that normally but he suggests you should as well, setting up a recurring Zoom meeting for set times every week where you guarantee to be present. Then when people send ambiguous requests or want to arrange a meeting, they can join you and work it out virtually, face-to-face.

Individually and collectively, we need to rethink knowledge work for this remote moment and the future.

Quick hits

  • Often our productivity comes from what consultant Scott Eblin calls “forcing functions” – activities that pressure us to take action. He might have scheduled workshops to give or other events to attend. If your forcing functions went out the window with the pandemic and you feel you’re floundering, create some new ones that pressure you to accomplish more.
  • The present is a control freak’s paradise, says leadership trainer Dan Rockwell. The present is your point of control. You can’t control the past or the future.
  • Writer Steve Adcock suggests these tactics will impress your boss while you work remotely: Maintain consistent working hours; always answer your phone, especially during working hours; dress up a little for video calls; don’t procrastinate on assignments; and send updates – but don’t overwhelm with them.
  • Author Malcolm Gladwell shuffles on stage when giving a presentation and doesn’t start with a hearty joke or zinger. He edges into his talk slowly, arguing – counter to the prevailing advice on presentations – that the audience will give you 15 minutes to prove your case. “What an audience wants is to be taken seriously.”

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