Employees increase their workload by 2 hours receiving emails outside of work (and other things we learned with Bruce Daisley)

At our first breakfast briefing with Bruce Daisley, Twitter VP Europe, Bruce began by explaining he had worked at both Google and Twitter and noticed that friends and colleagues were in a near constant state of exhaustion. It was in his spare time he began working on his now-hugely popular podcast ‘Eat Sleep Work Repeat’, to find out the reasons behind this. Inspired by the research of Professor Adam Grant an expert on making work life better at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, he decided to move away from opinions and into academic research that investigated the relationship between business, work practice and employee wellbeing.  

The mega-trend over the last 15 years has been the arrival of emails on everyone’s phones, leading to what on average has come to represent a workload increase of 2 hours, from 9 hours to 11 hours every day. Modern work has encroached further and further into our daily lives, he says, but the critical issue that has fuelled the work behind his most recent book The Joy of Work is ‘the discovery that stress kills creativity. As soon as you realise this, the question then becomes: “how important is creativity?”’

Research by Professor Jaak Panksepp has shown how many of us are positively motivated by the tone of the workplace. In a famous experiment, he placed two rats in a cage together and within five minutes they demonstrated fifty instances of ‘play’. Rats are by nature incredibly curious and creative creatures. But as his experiment shows, when a cat hair is put into the cage with them the playing stops and does not return to its previous level even if the hair is removed and the cage is cleaned. Why? Because of the stress induced by fear.  

In his book Bruce highlights 30 ways it is possible to re-energise our workplace and ourselves, and offered four of these to indicate the kind of measures you can begin to implement right away:

  1. Turn off email notifications for a day. A study by the  Future Work Centre encompassing 2,000 people across various UK industries, found a strong link between “perceived” email stress and the widespread use of the push notification feature.   
  2. Reclaim your lunch break. Research by Tony Schwartz, author of “The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working” found that taking back your lunch hour makes you more energetic in the afternoon and improves your weekend.
  3. Adapt the Swedish system of ‘Fika’(or, mini-team socials on work time)Fika, often translated as “a coffee and cake break”, is more about socialising and catching up on office news in an informal way (than necessarily with coffee). Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that introducing 15-minute breaks for all staff simultaneously in a call centre led to reductions in stress (by 15%), and an increase in productivity (up 23%). And change just doesn’t have to come from the top. Bruce cited the example of a receptionist who invited all her colleagues to what became known as ‘Crisp Thursday’, an informal gathering for employees to catch up around a few bowls of nuts and crisps. Twitter also has a gathering at tea time which has replaced going to the pub, as it felt the pub was a far less inclusive environment that excluded non-drinkers, parents, and those with other commitments. The bottom line Bruce says is that chat is correlated to productivity, so people together at the end of the week is good for your company. Pick three people to share stories about the week that they have had and the things they are working on, build a stronger team dynamic and get more out of what they do
  4. Stop weekend emails. Research by John Pencavel of Stanford University found that people who did not have a clear weekend without work were significantly less productive. If a boss emails late at night or at weekends, most employees will think they have to respond and their stress levels will increase.

Try to persuade bosses with evidence on how disruptive emails are to getting back to the flow.  It takes between 7 & 20 mins (after being interrupted, often by email) to get back to fully concentrated mind space. Modern work is beset by these constant interruptions because of open plan offices as well as emails. We need to block out time for pure concentration (even 45 min blocks make a big difference).

Call Newport in his Deep Work suggests the Monk mode morning. In essence: 90 minutes in the morning where you try and get big blocks of uninterrupted work done, usually on a specific project or task. Deep work and concentration will lead to a greater sense of achievement and productivity. For example Professors Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov put an hour aside every Friday to carry out experiments and found graphene, a form of carbon that exists as a sheet that is one atom thick, and went on to be awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physics.   

Questions & answers (Bruce tips)

I am a boss and send emails at the weekend

Instead of sending emails at the weekends, draft them and send out on Monday morning.  Bosses don’t realise the toxic effect a constant workstream has on their employees. People burnout. In the banking industry, 120/130 hours a week is tradition, which has increased even more to 16/17 hours a day (including emails outside work), which in turn has led to an increasing number of breakdowns.

What’s your view or philosophy on meetings?

We spend an average of 63 hours (2-3 days) every week in meetings. The challenge is that most people say meetings are preventing them from getting on with their job. Not always easy. Be aware; ask a couple of questions when invited to or planning a meeting about what specifically is being achieved. Is a meeting the best forum to achieve that goal? Productivity in the UK has not gone up in the last ten years despite the increase in hours worked.

My job is reactive so turning off notifications would be difficult

Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow, author of Sleeping with your Smartphone: How to break the 24/7 Habit and Change the Way You Work, carried out research on the impact on the working life on private lives at the Boston Consultancy Group. She asked for one team and asked that they share the collective goal of turning off their emails one night a week from 6 p.m. The team ran it as a roster and felt refreshed by doing it, and started sharing more with colleagues so it resulted in more teamwork. There is an expectation that people will be responsive to emails, however, we don’t always use the other tools available to us i.e. telephones.

What companies had good form on this topic, in his view?

  • Slack: Slack’s motto is “Do a good day’s work and go home”. They want employees to work hard but leave the office on time to have more interests which will result in increased creativity at the office. The Smoothie Delusion – a common trope in Silicon Valley, offering up perks or benefits to staying in the office, doesn’t make any difference to their happiness (oftentimes, the opposite)
  • Buffer: Buffer does not have an office as their staff are based all around the world, and therefore work at different times. Such a set up requires a more thoughtful response.

Have you done anything on the benefits of diversity?

A diversity strategy leads to better decision-making as shown by a study by Sommers found that a mock jury of diverse people was better at reaching decisions i.e. they did a more thorough job. There is evidence that the more diversity you have on your team, the more uncomfortable it can become, but you’ll end up with better decisions and outputs in the long-run.

Bruce’s is the author of the forthcoming title The Joy of Work: 30 Ways to Fix Your Work Culture and Fall in Love with Your Job Again. The book will be published on Blue Monday (24 January 2019).