Distractions Kill Startup Productivity

distractions at work

There’s a common frustration with startup offices:

They are too loud.

Anyone who creates things — whether it be coding, designing, or writing — recognizes the benefit of deep work. The term was popularized in a book by Cal Newport, and the premise is straight-forward: in order to complete a cognitively demanding task, you need to focus without distraction. While this concept has been called many things, such as “hitting flow” or “being in the zone” it basically means that if you want to get shit done, you have to focus on it.

Your professional future usually depends on your ability to get shit done, and that’s a problem, because many startups are inflicted by a plague that has crept up among the ping pong tables, open floor layouts and endless chat conversations. That plague is noise and distraction, and it can kill productivity. When I say noise, I don’t just mean physical noise of people talking loudly in the office (though that is certainly part of the problem), but I also mean digital noise, from Slack channels and email threads that suck away our attention into conversations that we often have no need to participate in.

My team at Crystal experienced this problem first hand. Our office was loud, we involved the whole team in every conversation and we had more Slack channels than we knew what to do with. After some introspection and frustration with our progress as a company, we recognized that our culture had grown to accept distraction as part of our way of life, and our ability to be productive was taking a serious hit. We took a few concrete steps that made a world of difference. Here’s the playbook:

1. Delete your Slack channels

Slack has changed the way people communicate at work. It’s made it easier to quickly interact with colleagues, rather than wait a long time for email replies. It has also made remote work more accessible by enabling offsite team members to more easily participate in conversations. This is all the bright side of Slack.

The dark side; however, is that Slack has made it a bit too easy to communicate. Channels, or large group chats focused on a topic, can number in the dozens and for many companies, these are public. There is a #product channel, an #ideas channel, and a plethora of other custom channels, each hosting a conversation. The problem is that these conversations are often never ending, and to participate in them is a constant suck of time and attention. Employees fear if they don’t constantly check these channels, they may miss out on important information.

For example, if your Product Manager poses a question about a feature in the #product channel, soliciting feedback from the entire company, and suddenly a few people jump in with their suggestions, that original question may get buried high in the thread before a more focused employee dedicates the time to dig through the pile of messages. Those who don’t get to the messages quick may lose the opportunity to learn about that feature and give input.

At Crystal, we found this to be particularly problematic. On our small team of about a dozen, everyone was being included in every conversation about every product idea, because it was happening in the public #product channel. Every engineer that was supposed to be responsible for Project X was constantly bombarded with messages about Project Y in the #product channel, which was completely outside of their area of focus and responsibility.

While transparency is valuable and welcome in many parts of a company’s culture, allowing Slack channels to run wild with public, never-ending digital meetings is a perfect recipe for a distracted, unfocused and unproductive team. Once our team realized this, here’s what we did:

  • We deleted every public Slack channel except #general for company-wide announcements, and #random for fun jokes
  • We encouraged employees to start direct message threads with only the relevant stakeholders for a conversation
  • We found other ways to gather feedback about product ideas, such as through a Trello board that doesn’t need to be checked constantly
  • We added documentation to our culture deck about how we value direct conversation, and loath unnecessary, never-ending digital meetings

slack channels

2. Create meeting space that isn’t people’s desks

Part of my role in leading product is to frequently interact with our designers, engineers and marketers to give feedback on features and guide the team in the right direction. As a small team with an open office, the fastest way to do this is to just wheel my chair over to someone’s desk. Easy enough, right?

The problem is that with our open, shared desks, I was basically starting a meeting with Person A, sitting just a few feet from Person B, who had nothing to do with the meeting and instead was focusing on their own project. We don’t typically have conference rooms without walls — so why would we turn every desk in our open office into a conference room? I realized that by doing this, I was a constant rolling distraction, creating chaos in every corner of the office.

To address this, we came up with a simple solution: when you want to meet with someone, step into the common area where we have couches, stand-up desks and some private meeting rooms. This designated meeting space is tucked away from where others are working. This enables us to still easily collaborate, but not turn it into an office-wide discussion. We do the same thing for video calls with remote team members: always in the common space or call booths, never at our desks.

The results of this have been impactful. Some visitors have noticed that our office is now particularly quiet. Call me crazy, but if we’re a company filled with “creators” (engineers, designers, writers, etc), giving them space to create seems pretty reasonable. For those that like the sound of coffee shop buzz, we have plenty of space to work in our office’s common area.

3. Skip the office-wide music

Especially in the early startup days with just a few people in a small office, it can be fun to play music and get the energy flowing. However, if your team is charged with creating, that music can be a painful distraction. Everyone likes to work differently and has their own preferences for type of music, or lack thereof. Having one person (either the CEO or a team member) decide what background music the entire office will listen to while working doesn’t make much sense. Instead, let everyone pick the type of background that works for them: their own music with headphones, silence, or light buzz of a common area.

4. Create rules on how to get people’s attention

If you’re “in the zone,” one of the worst things that could happen is for someone to tap you on the shoulder, rip you out of your focus only to ask an unimportant, non-urgent question. We avoid this by setting team rules on how to get someone’s attention. It’s an easy guide to follow:

  • Do send them a message on Slack first.
  • Do NOT walk over and tear them away from what they are working on.

If they have their Slack notifications off, it means they are trying to focus on their own project, and it’s best to let them do so unless it’s an emergency. This seems to me like common courtesy: why should I have the right to determine what you are focusing on? You should decide when to divert your attention to my question.

To be sure, we’re not perfect. If it’s an urgent matter that is turning into a blocker for multiple people, we’ll occasionally break the rule and burst into someone’s focus to get an important answer. But we recognize this can be problematic, and avoid it when possible.

5. Have quick calls rather than long chats

The convenience of text messages and chat is alluring: you can have a conversation without the full effort of stopping what you’re doing, talking to a person and making decisions in real life. You can take your time considering each response, a luxury unavailable on phone calls. The downside to this is that conversations on chat can be far more drawn out than conversations with voice. Chat lacks context. It lacks verbal queues and the ability to think through a concept out loud. As a result, while chat is exceptionally effective for getting quick answers, it is remarkably terrible for discussing complex issues.

Our team also stumbled here: we’d often find ourselves going back and forth with long, detailed messages in chat on Slack. Inevitably, one side wouldn’t fully understand the other, and confusion would ensue.

To avoid this, we now have a culture with a bias towards voice. If there is something complex to discuss (like clarifying how a new feature should be built by engineering), we should have that discussion verbally, either in person or through a call. Anytime we see a conversation on Slack start to get too complex, we’ve trained ourselves to respond with “let’s switch to a call.”

Importantly, when the group reaches a conclusion on a call, it’s important to document that in writing to ensure there wasn’t any miscommunication. For that phase of the discussion, Slack is perfectly effective.

Bottom line

Eliminating distractions and prioritizing your team’s ability to focus can be among the most impactful steps a leader can take to improve performance. Teams that “create” need deep work, and eliminating noise — both in real-life and digitally — is the best way to enable that to happen.

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