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Perspectives

The Secret Core Value That Makes WillowTree Different

Tobias Dengel
CEO

As our reliance on technology grows in modern work environments, so do the distractions. Incoming email notifications, the constant conveyor belt of Slack messages, endless meetings: all of this instant communication can demand our attention and unfocus us on the tasks we need to accomplish. Researchers over the past decade have estimated these distractions can eat up hours of productive time every workday: according to Fast Company, the average person is interrupted at work every 3.5 minutes and takes over 20 minutes to get back to task, which averages to less than 10 minutes of being “on task” per hour.

The pandemic has just made things worse. When your work and home life overlap in the same physical space, there are even more distractions: the kids, the dog, the dishes, the doorbell. Non-work intrusions not only sap productivity, they also increase stress and take a toll on morale. Andrew Franklin, an assistant professor of cyberpsychology at Norfolk State University, explained the psychological side effects of working from home in a recent National Geographic article. “We’re engaged in numerous activities, but never fully devoting ourselves to focus on anything in particular.” This condition, called “continuous partial attention” by psychologists, “applies to virtual environments as much as it does to real ones.” This is a major concern for leaders who are trying to manage teams and projects through the challenges of the pandemic while maintaining high levels of client satisfaction.

At WillowTree, we take this issue seriously. Being able to connect on a project across higher planes of concentration and commitment is what allows us to collaboratively design, build and ship high-quality products at incredible velocity. This is why one of our seven core values is Flow. It’s an approach to work where people engage in a state of deep focus and immersion, either on an individual task or a group activity. Flow isn’t usually something companies adopt as a core value; perhaps it’s used as a model for successful work habits, but rarely is it something central to the very fabric of how a company defines itself. Yet it has been one of ours from the beginning. Flow has helped us successfully grow our company, and it has really proven its value over the past year when our entire staff has been working from home.

To be clear, we did not invent the concept of Flow. It was identified as early as the 1970s by Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi, a Hungarian psychologist and one of the first pioneers of the scientific study of happiness. He describes Flow as “the mental state where a person is fully immersed in an activity, performing at their best, and feeling energized throughout the process.” Flow is thus a singular force that not only contributes to individual happiness, but also leads to improved performance, increased productivity, and a work culture of innovation, complex thinking, empowerment, and creativity.

At WillowTree, we’ve elaborated the concept into a goal we call Sustainable Flow to address the natural limitations of human productivity. In his book Rest: Why You Get More Done When You Work Less, scholar Alex Pang argues that four hours per day is the ideal maximum amount of creative work that human brains can accomplish in order to maintain high-quality output. His research, as outlined in The Guardian, points to the successful 3-5 hour work habits of everyone from Nobel Prize winners like Ann Munro to historical luminaries like Charles Darwin to our ancestral hunter-gathers. When we support WillowTree team members in experiencing four hours of Flow per day, we achieve the right formula of sustainable effort and fulfilling productivity—which results in more innovative products built more efficiently than others in our space.

The Value of Focus for People and Teams

Staying focused at work sounds like an obvious goal, but the benefits of uninterrupted concentration have been researched and proven. In his book Deep Work, author Cal Newport points out the enormous value in developing the ability to focus despite distractions, especially in knowledge work, and that “those individuals and organizations who put in the hard work to cultivate this skill will thrive.”

Why?

First, because it doesn’t just help people be more productive, it helps them see and feel progress on their key tasks every day. That’s a huge contributor to morale, something that Harvard professor Teresa M. Amabile and her research colleague Steven J. Kramer describe as The Progress Principle. They explain this concept as such: “Of all the things that can boost emotions, motivation, and perceptions during a workday, the single most important is making progress in meaningful work.”

Second, when your team works in an environment that helps make them happier and increases job satisfaction, the team and company win through higher retention rates and increased client happiness. It’s important to note that, at WillowTree, we don’t see Flow as only an individual achievement. Sustainable Flow is also a team activity, and integral to a team’s process and success. Being able to regularly connect in a protected, immersive zone for creative exploration, idea sharing, and problem-solving is what propels our people to do their best work, and what allows us to ship products that exceed expectations for both velocity and performance. Our belief in team Flow is one of the reasons why we champion co-located teams, and why we will be adopting a hybrid remote/in-office model once the pandemic allows us to do so safely.

Sustainable Flow doesn’t happen simply by trying to ignore distractions. It takes a proactive effort by both individuals and leaders to create and maintain the environment. Here’s what has worked for us at WillowTree:

Three Key Ways Team Members Can Find Sustainable Flow:

  1. Norming: Make Sustainable Flow the norm each day, not the exception. Work with your team and manager to set aside a period of time each day for Flow, and ask that your colleagues agree to preserve and respect that time.
  2. Practice Single-tasking: Whether you’re at your desk or in a meeting, avoid multitasking. It’s tempting to try to answer an email or Slack message while in a meeting—especially now that the vast majority of our meetings take place directly on our devices vs. in-person—but all it really does is reduce your focus on the meeting (which can in turn make the meeting longer). Sustainable Flow = one screen at a time.
  3. No Real-Time Interruptions: To avoid getting sidetracked, enable “do not disturb” functions instead of allowing instant notifications, and choose set times when you’ll circle back to check email and other communications. Request that your team avoids emailing or texting you during Flow time.

Three Key Way Leaders Can Promote Sustainable Flow:

  1. Support Norming: As a leader, you can help team members observe their focus time not just by establishing norms for Sustainable Flow, but also by helping the team be disciplined about keeping them—and keeping them consistent throughout the duration of a project.
  2. When you schedule meetings, ensure they’re valuable for everyone in attendance. Don’t be afraid to change the duration, format, or invitation list of a meeting if it becomes less valuable.
  3. Establish and promote a culture of open communication, so that team members are able to share when they’re not getting time for Sustainable Flow. As noted in this story from Inc., it’s important to remember that Sustainable Flow happens when you’re “in the zone,” which can take a few minutes. Team members need to be given the time to achieve Flow as well as work within it.

Being committed to the practice of Sustainable Flow takes work, especially now. Even though Sustainable Flow has been baked into our culture since well before the pandemic, the upheaval that comes from an entire company suddenly working from home has brought no shortage of challenges. It takes time and effort to master the discipline of removing distractions, minimizing meetings, managing calendars, and prioritizing time and space for deep concentration. To be successful, both individuals and teams have to take responsibility. But the practice and effort for Sustainable Flow are worth it, and will only continue to pay off when we’re able to safely return to the office.

Tobias Dengel
CEO

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