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CultureSep 28, 2021

The Future of Work Part 2: Dismantling the Hyperactive Hivemind

James Alexander

It’s Monday, about 8:15 on a beautiful November morning. The crisp fall air combined with the golden sun shining through my kitchen windows hints at the beauty of the season. I’ve just finished a lively breakfast with my wife and two young kids, but it’s time for us to part ways: school for the kids, a run for my wife, and work for me. 

What used to be a 30-minute drive into the office is now just a few steps down the hall of my home. So I settle in for the commute. Coffee in hand, I enter my home office, take my seat, and fire up the laptop from its weekend respite.

As I go through this daily ritual, the feeling of angst begins to settle in as I wonder to myself, “What am I walking into this week?” 

Enter the Vortex

In an instant, the beguiling tales of my children over breakfast and the autumn beauty outside my window are gone from my consciousness. I’ve entered the vortex.

At this point, an explanation will be helpful. 

I’m currently supporting a large technology implementation that’s still a couple of months away from go live. Things are steady state. The client and project team are great, but as is common, unexpected issues emerge that cause the occasional fire drill. But mainly it’s a lot of coordination across stakeholder groups, a lot of meetings, a lot of status trackers, and even more instant messages. All that to say, a “normal” solution delivery project at this stage. 

In addition to the technology implementation, I’m also evaluating the same client’s project management office (PMO) function. The goal of this project is to identify the issues driving their poor performance and develop a series of recommendations that will enable them to improve. This type of work is cognitively demanding but it’s also a lot of fun. That report is due in a week, but I haven’t started pulling it together yet.

So I open MS Teams to see if any urgent messages have come across since yesterday afternoon, when I last checked from my iPhone. Nothing. “That’s good,” I think to myself. 

Next I open my Outlook inbox. Six new emails in the last 45 minutes. I perform a quick scan of each message to make sure nothing has blown up on either project.

Three of the emails I was copied on for awareness. I file those away in their respective folders. I’m sure there’s something important here to read, but I’m already feeling pushed for time. They can wait. 

The next two emails are meeting requests; although it’s not immediately clear why I’m being invited or what’s expected of me. I “accept” the invites. Making progress. 

The last email was sent directly to me, and it’s long. Too long. It’s apparent one of the work-stream leads on my technology project has an issue and needs guidance, but at first glance, I can’t really tell what specifically he needs. He can wait. We’ll both be on the same status meeting later this morning—which I still need to prepare for by the way—and we can talk through the issue live.

It’s 8:20 now. I’m feeling rushed, and behind.

Needing to get a plan in place, I toggle over to my calendar to see where I can squeeze in some time to prepare for my status meeting and work on my final report.

“Son of a …” 

“How is it that I have five-hours of back-to-back meetings today? It was only three-hours of meetings when I logged off last Friday. How about tomorrow?” As I toggle over to the next day, I see a notification banner slide across the top of my monitor.

An instant message.

So I flip over to Teams, which is already open and displayed on my second monitor. The message is from a peer. He’s responding to an RFP that’s due in three days and asks if I’ve got time to provide input into the approach he’s developing. 

Without giving it a second thought, I reply, “Yes.” 

Continuous Communication Compounds the Pressure

As I circle back to my calendar, I see two more emails came in. One meeting invite and one corporate communication about a policy change. I accept the meeting invite and file the other email away.  

“OK, where was I? Ah yes, I need to find time to work on my final report.” As I scan my calendar for the remainder of the week, I find a lot of 30-minute spaces of open time. A couple of hour-long spaces and one 90-minute space of open time. Not ideal, but it’ll have to do. 

Except, it won’t do. In my desire to be viewed as a contributing team member, I feel the pull to demonstrate visible productivity. So I’m hyper-responsive to emails, calendar invites, and instant messages while the truly valuable work I’m responsible for gets pushed to the margins. Eventually my 30-minute spaces get filled with busy work, the meeting invites continue to pour in, and my 90-minute window gets scheduled over.

What about that prep time I needed for my status meeting?

That didn’t happen either. Instead, I leaned hard into my experience and combined that with my cultivated ability to talk my way through a meeting. Now don’t get the wrong idea here. I didn’t mislead anyone. What I reported was accurate. But it was a lot of high-level observations and generalizations cloaked in confident delivery. To be clear, that’s not how I like to work. I like to be prepared, precise, succinct, and feel a sense of personal integrity. In an attempt to make myself feel better, I rationalize that most everyone was multitasking and only half listening anyways. I did what I had to. Though, deep down inside, I am bothered. 

But I don’t really have time to dwell on the discomfort, so I move on. I need to finish my final report. 

As the week unfolds, I continue to allow myself to get sidetracked by competing priorities, ad hoc requests, emails, and countless instant messages. Both inbound and outbound. With each passing day, the pressure builds. I know I’m running out of time.

Before I know it, it’s Thursday afternoon and I’ve made what resembles zero progress on my report. So the inevitable happens. I reluctantly skip bedtime with my kids and work late into the night and do it again on Friday. I take Saturday off and then choose to work a half day on Sunday. I end up producing something valuable, the client is pleased, and I feel a sense of relief. But I’ve lost something in the process. Maybe not in this exact moment. But if this were to happen enough times over the course of a year, I would begin to feel the onset of burnout. That feeling of I can’t keep working this way. 

The Hyperactive Hivemind Approach to Work

There’s a name for the experience I’ve just described. Cal Newport, associate professor of computer science at Georgetown University, and the author of Deep Work, calls this approach to workflow management the “hyperactive hivemind.” Here’s how he describes it:

“The hyperactive hivemind is based on this notion that we don’t want a lot of processes in place, we don’t want a lot of logistical overhead. Just give an inbox to every person, associated to their name, and message back-and-forth. We’ll have this ongoing conversation that happens throughout the day, and we can be flexible and figure things out on the fly. This is the dominant workflow that knowledge workers are doing today: work everything out in an ad hoc, ongoing conversation. Though this approach is convenient, it’s disastrously unproductive."

Or, as New York Times columnist Ezra Klein puts it: 

“The hyperactive hivemind is a constant stream of digital work-like chatter, that you feel the need to continuously keep up with. But, also, you sense it’s distracting you from doing your real work.”

I work with a variety of clients in all kinds of professions and industries. What I find interesting about the hyperactive hivemind is that this way of working wasn’t just true for me, and it isn’t simply a product of being in consulting. Unfortunately, this is happening everywhere, no matter what line of work you’re in.

I’ve seen that organizations, project teams, and individuals don’t intentionally set out to work this way. Credera leadership never intended me to work this way. In fact, they encourage the opposite and have always advocated for a healthy work-life integration and regular time off.  But ubiquitous emails, instant messengers, and other digital tools have a way of slowly pulling people into the hivemind approach because it’s easier than planning and defining efficient workflows. If I can ping anyone, anywhere, at any time, that’s a powerful incentive to not plan, and merely message people for information as I need it. 

It’s not an industry problem, it’s a style of working problem. 

With the onset of COVID-19 and full-time WFH, many of my colleagues saw the writing on the wall and began to put structures in place that pushed back against the “always on" approach to work. Meanwhile, others—myself included—unintentionally drifted into the hivemind approach to work. 

Not All Work Is Created Equal 

So why do I bring all of this up? As I’ve written earlier, I suffered a head injury while mountain biking in late 2020 and couldn’t work for nearly three months. During that time, I began to read about the nature of modern knowledge work. I learned that not all work is created equal. 

Authors Brent Peterson and Gaylon Nielson draw a distinction between “fake work” and “real work” in their book Fake Work: Why People Are Working Harder Than Ever But Accomplishing Less, and how to Fix the Problem. In this model, Peterson and Nielson define real work as the activities that are critical to and aligned with the key goals of an organization. Fake work, conversely, only has the illusion of value but nevertheless takes up hours of your day. 

Cal Newport views knowledge work through a different lens. What he sees as “deep work” and “shallow work.” In this model, “deep work is any cognitively demanding task that must be performed in a state of distraction-free concentration. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.” 

Shallow work on the other hand, “is any non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style task, often performed while distracted or multitasking. The result of shallow work tends to not create new value in the world and is easier to replicate.”

If shallow work sounds unappealing, it gets worse. Researchers in organizational psychology are learning that work done while distracted, or in a state of internal hurry, has a long-term corrosive mental effect that ultimately makes it harder and harder to focus on one thing. Author Nicholas Carr observed this in his book The Shallows: “If you spend enough time in a state of frenetic shallowness, you permanently reduce your capacity to concentrate.”  

So what are some examples of shallow work? 

  • Multitasking.

  • Meetings without clear objectives.

  • Skim reading emails and firing-off rapid responses.

  • Updating trackers and templates.

  • Organizing your folders and files.

  • Retraining (e.g., how do I run that Power BI report again?).

  • Flicking over to email, social media, or the internet for a “brain break.”

  • Constantly monitoring and responding to Teams or Slack messages.

It’s important to note that shallow work doesn’t necessarily mean “bad.” Some work is shallow by nature but still necessary. I cannot, for example, decide to stop submitting time and expense reports because it’s an administrative or shallow task. 

The important takeaway is that shallow work is a feature of the hyperactive hivemind. If you’re not careful, the unending stream of communications, ad hoc requests, and administrative activities can take up the bulk of your day and minimize your effectiveness. Before you know it, you’ve done lots of things but produced very little in the way of value.  

A Better Way Forward

So how do you escape the hyperactive hivemind? In classic consulting speak, it depends.

On one hand, we each have our own personal style of working that we have some control over. On the other hand, we’re each part of systems with their own norms and expectations. 

Whether personal or corporate, dismantling the hyperactive hivemind starts with an awareness that things can be better. It also requires a sense of humility. Am I willing to ask if my way of working and leading is adding to the problem? It may even require a bit of courage. Am I willing to suggest and try new things even if it goes counter to the modus operandi of my organization, my clients, my teams, and possibly even my boss?  

The list that follows is my attempt to share some strategies I’ve tried and seen good results with.

  1. Structure: Structure your day, communications, and workflows so you focus—without distraction—on the things that matter most. As management guru Stephen Covey famously said, “The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

    In a hyperactive hivemind, that approach is harder than you might think. If we don’t put the right structures in place, our priorities will be set for us. Usually by our calendar, an email, or the latest instant message. Some examples of those structures include:  

    • Prioritization: What are the top things I need to get done over the next month, week and day? Continuously revisit this list and confirm that your workflow and time commitments are in alignment with your priorities. 

    • Blocking: I’ve learned that creative, deep, and strategic work doesn’t happen unless I block time for it. These blocks should be planned, prioritized, and protected. That means no email, no instant messages, no surfing the web. The goal is to focus your cognitive efforts without distraction on a singular task until it’s done. Personally, I like to block the first 120 minutes of my day to knock out my high priority items, while leaving the rest of the day for meetings, administrative work, and possibly an additional block dedicated to focused work. Others, such as Harvard Business Review’s Neil Pasricha, argue for one “untouchable day” every week, where nothing can interrupt you. The goal isn’t to be rigid but to encourage you to experiment and find an approach that works for you and your team.  

    • Batching: Even with good prioritization and blocking, you cannot eliminate all shallow work. Rather, the goal is to put shallow work in its rightful place by batching it to specific times of the day so it doesn’t dominate your entire workday. I schedule time each morning and afternoon to respond to email and instant messages. Outside of that, Outlook and Teams are turned off so I don’t break my concentration or splinter my focus. Batching is simultaneously one of the easiest things you can do to boost productivity, but it also feels like one of the hardest things you can do. The “always on,” constant communication style of work is a primary feature of the hyperactive hivemind. Intentionally pulling back from that way of working can cultivate a sense of fear of missing out (FOMO) and be disruptive to others if they do not follow this approach. When batching, it’s important to work collaboratively with your team and client to make sure clear expectations are set for response times. 

2. Communication: If the majority of your work is done in a team dynamic, it’s important that you work closely with your leadership and colleagues to create structures that promote depth and focus. I cannot underscore the importance of this step enough. No matter how thoughtfully developed and executed your approach may be, it will fail quickly without buy-in from the team. 

3. Experiment: Cultivate a healthy sense of skepticism for the way work is done today and be open to trying new approaches. For example, in 2017 Lasse Rheingans acquired Digital Enabler, a small technology consulting firm and was surprised by how often he and his employees were distracted from their primary jobs. So he introduced a radical idea: reduce the standard workday to five-hours, while leaving pay and benefits the same. His experiment is premised on the idea that once you remove time-wasting distractions and constrain inefficient conversation about your work, five hours should be sufficient to accomplish most of the work th­­­at actually moves the needle. The five-hour workday experiment surfaced ­other issues, which drove additional experimentation that ultimately helped them develop an incredibly efficient way of working. 

At the writing of this post, Digital Enabler has maintained its five-hour workday for four years, while continuing to grow and launch new lines of service. To be clear, I’m not saying we need to push for a five-hour workday—nice as that might be. What I am trying to say is curiosity and experimentation could unlock all sorts of innovations that improve the way we work.

With the release of Credera’s Flexible Connection model, we’ve transitioned into an environment that invites us to challenge the status quo, and encourages us to think outside of the box to find new ways of working that lead to better outcomes for our people and our clients. The only thing left to do is start. 

As always, if any of this resonates with you, please feel free to reach out. I’d love to grab a virtual coffee and share more of what I’ve learned, and likewise hear about what strategies have helped you.

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