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Is your organisation contributing to the ‘shallow work’ epidemic?

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Organisations today are trying to find fresh new ways of attracting and retaining talent, but are failing to address a make-or-break factor for many employees – the quality of work available to them.

In the first part of this two-part content series on ‘Deep work’, Becky Norman explores this issue and offers a business case for transitioning to a culture of more purposeful work.

20th Apr 2022
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The events of the past few years have led people to place greater importance on their wellbeing, autonomy, skills development and sense of purpose – both in their personal lives and at work. Workers expect so much more from their employers today – and if those needs aren’t being met, it’s easy to jump ship.

In response, businesses are striving to keep their people engaged, fulfilled and healthy by adding more to their employee value proposition – new perks, technologies, wellbeing support, greater flexibility and more L&D opportunities. And rightly so.

But are we overlooking a key consideration when it comes to retaining and investing in employees? The work itself.

Deep work is cognitively demanding – where complex problem solving, creative writing, innovative thinking and effective decision making can prosper.

Shallow work versus deep work

In Cal Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he highlights that knowledge workers today are spending most of their time completing ‘shallow work’ rather than ‘deep work’.

For Newport, shallow work equates to low-value, fragmented and often reactive tasks, such as answering emails and instant messages, attending unnecessary meetings and social media ‘duties’. This kind of work requires little brainpower. It leaves the individual flitting distractedly between multiple tasks and is, for most people, unfulfilling. 

Deep work, on the other hand, is cognitively demanding – it is the realm where complex problem solving, creative writing, innovative thinking and effective decision making can prosper. To step into this space requires us to switch off from all distractions for lengthy periods of time to get into the flow of going ‘deep’. The work is hard but the payoff is huge, with an increase in both quality and quantity of outputs and a far more fulfilled individual.

The shallow work epidemic

With the rise of technology, social media and virtual interconnectedness, we are living in an age of information overload and digital dependency. There is so much out there, vying for our attention, that it feels near impossible to switch off from the digital world and focus intently on our most important tasks.

Against this backdrop, Newport stresses that most businesses are cultivating a shallow work environment: “Deep work is like a superpower in our increasingly competitive twenty-first-century economy,” he writes.

The pandemic has undoubtedly acted as a catalyst for this. A key priority for HR leaders over the past few years has been to ensure employees feel socially connected to colleagues despite being physically apart. But the expectation of virtual hyperconnectivity (in particular the overuse of video chat platforms) has taken a mental toll on employees.

Social wellbeing is important, but redressing the balance between connection and focus could help mitigate the stress and anxiety caused by an ‘always-available’ culture.

The business case for deep work

In an era where shallow work dominates, employers have an opportunity to stand out in a competitive market by enabling a culture of purposeful work.

Businesses need to use all the tools at their disposal to keep employees fulfilled, attract new talent and ensure sustained financial success – and this is one such solution that provides many benefits to both employees and the business.

1. Learning to learn

Honing the skill of deep work is a vital component of successful learning and development. Learning any new skill requires intent focus, the ability to stand strong against distraction and repeated practice. If you encourage employees to learn how to delve into Newport’s deep work, they are simultaneously learning how to learn any new skill more effectively.

With building critical skills and competencies reported by Gartner as the top priority for HR leaders for the fourth consecutive year, deep work is a great strategy for developing your people.

Allowing people the freedom to spend time on more fulfilling work is an important component.

2. Fulfilling work

It’s clear too that deep work and the cognitive demands it requires can contribute to an employee’s sense of purpose in their work. With the Great Resignation still a big concern for organisations at the time of writing, employers need to find new ways to keep their people happy and engaged. Allowing people the freedom to spend time on more fulfilling work is an important component of this. Plus, it’s possibly one of the few talent retention strategies that don’t require financial investment. 

3. The wellbeing crisis

Having time to switch off from the virtual world and the anxieties and stress it can cause is likely to have a positive impact on people’s wellbeing. As mentioned earlier, poor digital health is an increasing issue in today’s hyperconnected virtual world, and employers have a responsibility to protect their employees from the harmful effects of technology.

Encouraging employees to, for example, take regular screen breaks, walk and talk meetings, and practise mindfulness is helpful. But enabling a culture of deep work goes beyond these bite-sized moments of decompression by relieving employees of their digital communication duties through core working hours.

4. Exceptional outputs

If you create a culture where deep work is encouraged the shift in quality outputs will be noticeable. This is the realm where the best work happens efficiently and is, therefore, a viable route to increased productivity.

Time to dig deep

While most knowledge-based businesses are splashing in the shallows of work, there lies an opportunity to spearhead Newport’s deep work approach and make it a distinct part of the organisation’s employee value proposition.

This transition feels all the more valuable for those companies currently struggling to attract and retain talented people and needing to offer something that stands out above the influx of employee benefits, without the high price tag.

Interested in this topic? Read From purpose to problem-solving: the next big shift to help ‘save the world’

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