September 27, 2023
Over the last 6 months we have run a long cycle of user discovery:
- interviewed over 400 knowledge workers in SaaS companies in the US and Europe
- 70% of the interviewees work in product management, with the rest being split across engineering, operations, marketing, sales and success.
- 90% of the interviewees worked in companies between 50 and 500 people, but we have also heard from people in much larger organizations such as Grubhub, Lyft, Facebook, Google, Microsoft etc
To all of them we asked “what blocks your productivity and what are your best practices?”
These are the main productivity blockers according to those we interviewed:
High volume of workplace communication
Spending too much time updating own colleagues is a heartfelt pain, and “More than 70% of workers say their communications volume is a challenge to getting work done”
In our interviews we have heard a lot of:
- “I need to communicate with too many people”
- “I need to send 5 slack message and 10 emails today just to inform other people of something I am doing”
- “I would love to prepare a status update that works everybody”
Dissecting the pain, the chores of communication can be traced back to meetings and asks & notifications from colleagues...
Too Many meetings
Meetings rank on top of people's complaints, especially as the pandemic brought the work online which led to an explosion of Zoom fatigue.
The University of North Carolina surveyed 182 senior managers in various industries: 65% said meetings keep them from completing their work. 71% said meetings are unproductive and inefficient. 64% said meetings come at the expense of deep thinking. (Harvard Business Review article).
To protect your company from too many meetings, a good practice is to ask these questions before organizing one:
- Is a meeting necessary? Or could the same be achieved async? Articulate in writing can help focus on problems and potential solutions, and is less disruptive to the org
- Is a meeting urgent? Deferring a meeting can allow to collect more info to support informed decisions
- Can this meeting be shorter and does it need so many participants? Quicker meetings can pressure participants to come to the point faster
But if a meeting needs to happen, preparation is key. Here are some tips to prepare and run successful meetings:
- Have a clear agenda, and send it upfront to all participants to set up expectations, including material to review. Include if possible question and to dos for participants
- Do your own readings/work to prepare
- Start the meeting by reiterating the focus. Keep track of timing
- Decide who is taking notes
- Followup with action items
👉 Here is how you can do prepare a meeting Mindmesh
Asks and notifications from colleagues
This voice pretty much summed it up for us:
“I start the day thinking that I will do something and then 400 different things come up during the day… It's just really hard to keep track of things that come up versus things that I originally wanted to do, and then also determine the priority level of all that. Just figuring out, okay, if this is something that I don't want to do right now, and that this is just a later me problem”
The problem with all the incoming notifications is the disruption they create to our workflow: a research from the University of California Irvine quoted by Lifehacker estimates that it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds to get back to the task.
In fact the level of noise has grown so much that Slack has released it own etiquette
1. Less messages means more efficient collaboration
2. Write longer messages that scan quickly
3. Use threads for effective team collaboration. Seriously.
4. Replace short follow-up messages with emoji reactions
5. Reduce off-hours pings with Do Not Disturb
6. Set response expectations at the channel level
7. Default to public channels for better workplace communication
Beyond the problems of workplace communication, a deeper set of problems came up around alignment, organization of knowledge and visibility of company activities and progress
Many of the participants denounced some level of misalignment with their colleagues. An authoritative source on strategy like the Harvard business review lists 4 key causes of misalignments:
- Many senior executives do not think of their enterprises as connected and coherent value chains
- Nobody “owns” enterprise alignment. Generally, no individual or group is functionally responsible for overseeing the arrangement of the enterprise from end to end.
- Org complexity (defined as number of employees, variety of business lines, variety and expectations of differing customer groups, and geographical dispersal)
- Often activity is mistaken for progress.
When an organization is not aligned a cohesive goal settings gets hard to achieve and tracking impossible. As one of our interviewees put it “I do think the biggest pain point really is agreeing on a definition of done in the first place. So it's not even about the planning. It's not even about what are we working on? It's what the definition of done is”
Not having one source of truth
Not having an authoritative knowledge base is also an extremely common complaint:
- “I don’t know where to start looking for that info… Drive or Notion… and does it even exist?
- “Is this document updated”
- “Which one is the latest”
- “Who can I talk to for this?”
What we have observed from companies at different stages, is that there is “circle of trust” of early stage employees who make the company grow without too much process, but that loosens up when the company grows beyond 30-40 employees, and that is when the need to establish one sources of truth becomes key to successfully scale.
We have also seen that a role started to appear in the ops departments of high growth companies - the knowledge manager who, as our friend Tom Morisse puts it, is “accountable for all the processes and tools to build, share and develop knowledge at Spendesk.
Lack of visibility on what my colleagues are doing
Transparency across organizations is an old issue, linked to human power dynamics as well as to the silos mentality.
Glassdoor, a company that made transparency its core business says “When an organization is more transparent with their employees, they tend to be more successful in several areas: they have increased employee engagement, stronger company culture, and transparency fosters a type of comfort that allows employees to freely communicate. A transparent work environment also helps employees feel valued and encourages creativity.