How to create a ‘deep work’ culture in your organisation

I’ve spent more than 10 years helping companies build effective talent functions.

I know how much time and money goes into talent strategies: shaping company values, finding and attracting talent, retaining talent, building performance management frameworks, designing benefits and compensation packages, offering learning and development, implementing team engagement activities, coaching managers, coaching staff…

It’s exhausting, right?

You’d be forgiven for asking yourself if these strategies are actually making a difference. Is doing what everyone else is doing (and maybe even not as well) making your company a unicorn?

The answer is probably no.

I believe this is because many companies are focusing on the means and not the end.

Ask yourself, what will make my business succeed?

The honest answer is that unless you’re a factory that relies on machines, the only way your business will succeed is if your talent can produce exceptionally difficult, creative, or novel work, quickly, and well. That is every company’s competitive advantage.

Honestly, that’s it.

You need your leadership team to come up with a vision no one else has, and a plan for how to get there. You need your finance team to build models that protect your cash runway. Then, your product team has to think through customer feedback and design innovative features. You get the picture.

In short, the success of your business relies entirely on your knowledge workers – the people you pay to use their skills and brains.

Which is why the most important investment executives and talent leaders can make is on enhancing their team’s ability to focus, learn, and create. In short, to do ‘deep work’.

What is ‘deep work’?

‘Deep work’ is a term coined by Cal Newport in his book on the topic (a must-read – our company FLOWN is based on the science in this book).

Newport defines deep work as: “Professional activity performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.”

It’s closely related to the concept of ‘flow‘. But significantly, deep work isn’t JUST about work. The philosophy of deep work is a holistic one: it recognises that to do your best thinking and working, you also need restorative breaks – rest, play, and exploration. It knows that time spent in nature boosts creativity.

And, it encourages removing yourself from your day-to-day environment on occasion – the “grand gesture of getting away”, as Newport calls it.

Another key aspect of deep work is ritual. Specifically, rituals of accountability. These serve to boost willpower, add meaning to our daily routines, and connect us with ourselves, each other, and the space around us.

The book is well worth a read.

What does a ‘deep work culture’ look like?

Creating a cultural norm in an organisation is only possible if the leaders openly demonstrate cultural values, and reward, prioritise and promote those who also show that they share these values.

So, a deep work culture needs to come from the top. There needs to be an acknowledgement throughout the company that success comes from focusing on the small number of tasks that really move the needle.

A deep work culture is one where the entire organisation appreciates that true greatness comes from creating the space to work on tasks that matter, and everything else – emails, meetings, calls – should fit in around deep work, and not vice versa.

If you prioritise shallow work, that is all your company will ever really achieve.

So, how can executives and talent leaders bring in a deep work culture? Here are 5 actionable tips for achieving this.

1. Structure that allows individuals to self-optimise

The late novelist Ursula Le Guin shared her daily work routine in an interview in 1988:

Highly effective people know how to get the best from themselves. The right structure is personal to the individual, and needs to have the appropriate balance of focused periods of work, inspiring rests, shallow tasks, and personal admin.

Your team needs to know that you encourage them to devise their optimal work structure, based on when it makes sense for them to schedule deep work alongside shallow work. Demonstrate your support for this by publishing how you work, and publicly celebrate when someone in your team shares a vastly different structure.

This will suggest to your team that leaders really do support various forms of structure, optimised for the ways that individuals work best.

2. Ring fence time for deep work

Research from Adobe found that the average office worker spends more than three hours a day on email. No great company was ever built on efficient email answering.

Most companies prioritise shallow work. You have your weekly cadence of meetings scheduled in your calendar, and then ad-hoc meetings take over until you’re “back-to-back all day”. Or worse, some days have meetings with 30-minute breaks in between. No deep work can be achieved in a rushed half-hour between meetings.

To create a deep work culture in your organisation, you need to tell the team deep work is a priority, and shallow work fits in around it. You do this by doing the following:

  1. Allocate a day a week that is dedicated to deep work. Do not allow any internal meetings to happen on that day. If you are seen to break this rule, you nullify your own cultural initiatives, so stick to it.
  2. Celebrate this day, make it a day people look forward to, plan for, and feel joyous about. Your team will rave to their friends about the fact they have a day a week they can actually get stuff done.
  3. Encourage your team to use services like FLOWN. Yes, obligatory pitch here, but this is literally what we do. We offer online deep work sessions (called Flocks), guided by a trained facilitator. By adding Flocks to your calendar (we do it automatically for you if you wish) your shallow work has to fit in around your scheduled deep work. One or two hours a day in intentional deep work can make a huge difference. Surely it’s worth spending a couple of hours a day just focused on getting meaningful work achieved?

3. Encourage play, exploration and learning

When you play, when you explore, when you’re exposed to diverse thinkers, your brain creates new neural pathways. This means when you encounter a problem or a creative challenge, your brain is better equipped to make connections and find solutions. That’s how creativity works. Even the most procedural jobs benefit from talent that solves problems effectively.

So, your organisation’s leaders need to be seen to encourage and partake in play, exploration and learning. Reward and promote people who show a commitment to weaving play and exploration into their work day.

This is why we offer Quests as part of our deep work toolkit. Quests are 10-minute active meditations, designed to give your cerebral side a break, so you can play, explore, connect with nature… and then return to work refreshed and revitalised.

This is the kind of thing that, with regular usage, boosts the asset value of your organisation. An organisation that can solve problems more creatively than others is always going to beat those who do the same reactive thing, time and time again.

4. Get away now and then

The world has changed a lot lately.

Most of us used to work in an office. Offices weren’t always great places for doing creative, exploratory work. Which is why we sometimes had company off-sites.

Post-Covid, most of us have been working from home. But the problem remains: working from the same place all the time is not conducive to creative, exploratory work.

Companies often invest budget in team drinking and occasional off-sites. But they rarely think about giving staff access to different and inspiring places to get away and concentrate.

Bill Gates led Microsoft to launch Internet Explorer after one of his ‘Think Weeks’ in the Oregon woods. The “grand gesture” (as Cal Newport calls it) of getting away to get things done has resulted in some of the world’s greatest innovations. Yet few companies have thought to offer anything more than the choice between the home office and the office.

At FLOWN, our Away product features a collection of spaces suitable for individual or team deep work. For a culture to really embrace deep work, they should not only encourage their teams to connect by going away quarterly, but also have a budget for their individuals to work in spaces that are supportive of the type of work they want to do.

Got a developer who can’t focus while her family is around? Pay for her to work in a FLOWN space for a few days to get through an important project. Or maybe your product leader needs some focused time to write a detailed specification document. Encourage him to work somewhere creative for a few days.

You’ll be amazed how much changing environments with the intention to get a big piece of work done can do for productivity and creativity… not to mention team engagement, loyalty and contentment.

5. The power of secular rituals

Rituals are what give habits meaning. They connect us with ourselves, our team and community. We crave them as humans. Yet we have so few opportunities to embed them in our increasingly busy, serious lives.

But as leaders, rituals are what actually builds culture. Rituals create connections, minimise the drain on our finite stores of willpower, and add meaning to our work day.

Rituals can be as simple as daily stand-ups, or end-of-week team updates and celebrations. Rituals need to be deliberately sculpted by leaders with the goal of reinforcing culture.

For example, at FLOWN, because we are a deep work company, we start our week with a team meditation and intention setting. We end the week with ‘Jolly Trolly’, where we reflect on our intentions, and play an online team game. We do daily stand-ups where we weave together serious work intentions and playful games. These are FLOWN’s rituals. No matter our varying work structures, these anchor us to something deeper, and reinforce the deep work values we live by.

Our Flocks product has a daily session we call Take-Off. It is 20-minutes each morning where our members meditate together, journal together, and set goals for the day together. We offer this for individuals or companies who don’t have their own morning rituals. Anyone can join who wants to weave more healthy habits into their daily life.

Getting started

Setting new cultural norms is a daunting task! But at its core, a behaviour becomes part of the culture when it happens when no one else is looking. Culture is established when the team observe their leaders behaving this way.

So to create a deep work culture in your organisation – and become a more valuable, competitive company – you need to be seen to do deep work, and publicly encourage and reward your team for doing the same.

This means:

  • Embracing asynchronous ways of working to help individuals optimise themselves
  • Creating time for everybody to do deep work (in part by removing the need to constantly talk about the work)
  • Facilitating high-functioning brains by enabling play, creativity, and exploration
  • Embedding company-wide rituals that help deep work happen

Companies invest extraordinary amounts of time and money on talent strategies, but what Cal Newport so succinctly tells us is: “If you don’t produce, you won’t thrive—no matter how skilled or talented you are.”

Or, of course, you could encourage your team to use FLOWN (we are free for now), and watch their output, creativity and contentment soar.

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