in productivity

Deep work in practice for remote teams

Nearly two years ago I wrote how I was doing Deep Work in practice as a remote worker. The post discussed the “Deep Work” idea that you should focus hard, on hard things, for a long time in order to yield the best results.

The idea comes from Cal Newport, a Computer Science Professor, and is something he expands on in his book of the same name. Here’s the idea in Cal’s words:

Deep work is cognitively demanding activities that leverage our training to generate rare and valuable results, and that push our abilities to continually improve… . Deep work results in improvement of the value of your work output… and an increase in the total quantity of valuable output you produce.

The post clearly struck a nerve, “going viral”: it hit the front page of Hacker News, had a thousand plus shares on Twitter and Facebook, and fifty thousand or so visitors.

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In the two years since writing this I’ve continued to heavily subscribe to the Deep Workthesis, and as I’ve transitioned first from freelancer to running my digital marketing agency Ellipsis I now run a small team and have been able to build a company culture that revolves around Deep Work, deep focus, and giving everyone the space to do their best work.

This post is about working deeply in a remote team: about the why, about the how, and about the benefits.

Why Deep Work?

I won’t spend too long on this as we’ve already touched on it, and I’ve also written a post on the same topic.

As mentioned, Deep Work is the idea your most valuable work comes from concentrating on just one thing at a time, for extensive periods of time.

The thesis argues that this is where you produce the vast majority of your valuable work, and that so-called “shallow work” – email, meetings, Slack, social media, etc – is the opposite of this valuable work.

You should thus, the argument goes, try and do as much Deep Work as possible and minimise your shallow work.

That’s the gist of it. There’s a ton more detail in Cal Newport’s book, or this is the kind of book where reading someone’s notes will give you 80% of the information.

There’s an obvious productivity benefit, but there’s also a “good life” benefit: you have to have downtime to recharge after producing at your top level, and you get the satisfaction from focusing on the things that really matter.

This is the why of Deep Work: it lets produce your best work, really push the boundaries of what you’re capable of, and just have a nice time.

Why Deep Work in a remote team?

Any remote team relies on being able to effectively communicate! Whilst remote teams are more flexible, they’re obviously not in the same place and thus all communication has to be online.

This often leads to remote teams trying to replicate the physical office, but online: a general “watercooler” group chat, various team and project-based chats, regular catch-up meetings, and of course also the email you’d have in the office anyway. Slack has become the tool of choice for this in recent years.

I disagree with this: remote teams aren’t like their physical counterparts, and don’t need to aspire to be like them! Remote teams can, instead, double-down on their competitive advantages.

In my opinion, a competitive advantage of remote teams is that you don’t need watercooler group chat, and you can get by perfectly fine without meeting more than you need to. Jason Fried from Basecamp has a great post on this: Is group chat making you sweat?. Jason argues:

Following group chat all day feels like being in an all-day meeting with random participants and no agenda.

Jason goes on to argue it creates an “ASAP culture”, FOMO, interruptions, and “manic context-shifting and continuous partial attention”. It also doesn’t really work across time zones.

Regular check-ins and standup meetings are typically less of a burden, but it’s still possible to default to “hop on a call” in the same way you’d interrupt someone at their desk. I’d also argue these are bad as a default mode of communication. There is, of course, a lot of value in actually talking and you can communicate a lot more nuance this way. Meetings are, however, very interruptive, and it’s unlikely they’re the best choice as a default.

You might not necessarily even need email; you just need a good way of communicating. Indeed, given how bad we all are in general at dealing with email, I’d argue that using an alternative tool is a better solution.

A final challenge for remote teams is separating out home and work. They might be the same spaces physically, but they can’t be the same spaces mentally. Physical and remote teams will check email and do shallow work

Thus, a remote team doesn’t need to look like its physical counterpart. It can cherry-pick the best bits, and leave out the worst bits. Indeed, it can even create the perfect space for everyone to do their best Deep Work. This is precisely what we’ll get on to next.

How do you do Deep Work in a remote team?

We’ve now covered what Deep Work is, why it’s right for remote teams, and now we can get on how to do it for remote teams.

This is in part culture, and in part tools: the team needs to be on board with this mentality, and use the tools which facilitate it.

We’ll focus mostly on the latter here, although I will note quickly: part of the reason knowledge workers chat and send email so much is these are a proxy for showing that you’re providing value and doing work. For this whole thing to work, there has to be an understanding by all parties involved that you don’t have to be communicating to show you’re working.

Alright, let’s get to the actual tools now. A key requirement here is that whatever communication tools you use empower doing good work, rather than get in the way. I’d argue tools like Slack and email can be used in this way, but are some typically notused in this way it’s best to avoid them completely.

My personal preference is Basecamp, a project management tool with communication and chat built-in. It’s the closest thing I’ve found to project management that embraces the Deep Work philosophy.

Basecamp works for this for a number of reasons:

  • Everything is in one place.
  • Nothing else can plug in: you can’t get random emails or messages from other accounts.
  • It facilitates non-urgent, task-based discussion that’s searchable and on-the-record.
  • The notification system is good and makes for an easy way for everyone to see what’s happening. But, it’s non-interruptive, letting you come to it when you need something rather than it interrupting you.
  • The notification system can be turned off outside work hours. This is key for doing Deep Work as it gives you that rest time. There’s also an obvious quality of life benefit here.
  • There is still chat for when you need it with the Ping and Campfire features. This can be for 1-to-1, company-wide, per-team, and per-project, so the “channels” are made for you and don’t end up with a thousand chats to follow.
  • Announcements and updates can use the Message Board feature (essentially blog posts), so everyone can see and respond in their own time – it’s not instantly buried in a group chat.
  • Clients can be added so they’re working with your way of working (but this can work for the client so that they get everything through email).

This can be platform agnostic, and indeed you could do this Slack and email, but as these are both more “open” tools you can set up with the best of intentions but have other channels creating the interruptions and shallow work you’re trying to get away from.

This also relies much more heavily on buy-in and putting-into-practice by team members, which is hard! I love my Deep Work, but the internet is distracting and it’s so much easier to use a tool which sets you up for success.

Now do the work

You’re then all set up to actually do your work. This was the subject of my Deep Work in practice post, so I’ll summarise the key points below but leave you to read the full thing for more:

  1. Pre-select a task!
  2. Focus deeply on that task for as long as you can manage.
  3. Minimise distractions.
  4. Build positive rituals to support the above.
  5. Take regular and energising breaks so that you can work at peak performance.

It’s a really good system. You can tie in other productivity “hacks” of choice, including distraction-blocking apps, the Pomodoro technique (personal preference is to do this, just at 60+ minutes, rather than 25 at a time), and whatever else you need.

Do good work, then have a nice break

I really like this way of working, and do think companies which adopt this will have a huge comparative advantage in the future.

I’ll wrap up with the obvious caveats: I don’t know best and I’m sure there are very good arguments for doing everything I’ve just critiqued. Maybe over time, and indeed as Ellipsis adds more team members, these kinds of communication will become essential. Right now, though – for small remote teams – I wouldn’t do anything else.

I’d love to hear thoughts: tweet me @AlexDenning. And, if you want to hire me and my Deep Working colleagues to solve marketing problems for your WordPress business, then get in touch.