Are Anchor Days Sinking Your Productivity?

We’re all trying to get more done faster right now. And many executives have decided that the best way to accelerate productivity is to bring teams back into the office.

But the research on deep work suggests that individual productivity may slow during the months immediately following a return-to-office. Collaboration spikes when everyone’s back together again, but that can lead to a burst of new meetings & messages that make it harder to find time for focused, individual work.

During this RTO acclimation period, managers need to set realistic expectations with Project Leads and Individual Contributors to help the team strike a balance between collaboration & execution time.

The Anchor Day Paradox

In their recent “Flex Report,” the team at Scoop found that 30% of companies are embracing a Structured Hybrid work environment. In a Structured Hybrid setting, leaders set specific expectations for when employees are in the office. Often, they’ll define Anchor Days – for example, we’re all onsite on Tuesday & Wednesday.

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Credit: the aforementioned Scoop Flex Report.

Anchor Days – and Structured Hybrid more broadly – offer some serious upside. If you like your coworkers, you’re probably excited to reconnect with colleagues. You may be energized by in-person brainstorming sessions with your team. You may be looking forward to being more visible to senior management.

But, when it comes to productivity, Anchor Days implicitly assume that being together will help us do more, faster. And that’s not true for all roles.

When it comes to productivity, Anchor Days implicitly assume that being together will help us do more, faster. And that’s not true for all roles.

3 Flavors of Uninterrupted Time

Here at Worklytics, I work with a team of Data Scientists to analyze organizational work patterns using metadata from ~25 different work tools like calendar, Slack, Zoom, and Salesforce.

When we look at how work is actually getting done, we see 3 primary flavors of uninterrupted time, which is a period of individual concentration during which you’re focused on executing against a core job responsibility – and not responding to incoming emails, Slack DMs, or the like.

We observe 3 types of uninterrupted time:

  1. Deep Work: In departments like Engineering or Data Analytics, employees need long blocks of uninterrupted time (2+ hrs) to concentrate on detail-heavy tasks like writing new code or crunching numbers in spreadsheets.
  2. Focus Time: People and Project Managers tend to spend the bulk of their time in internal meetings, but report feeling more effective when they have blocks of uninterrupted time (1+ hr) to gather thoughts and make plans.
  3. Prep Time: Your Sales and Customer Success Reps want to add value on every customer call. To do that, they need prep time (30+ min) to anticipate customer questions and prepare follow-ups.
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These 3 flavors of uninterrupted time aren’t mutually exclusive; we can all benefit from a mix of styles. What’s important is that each of us needs time to do the work that our role demands – time that’s free from meetings, emails, or Slack messages.

For knowledge workers, uninterrupted time is closely correlated to self-assessed employee productivity. Office workers need to spend just under half of their working day focused & in control of their time in order to report feeling productive at work.

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Anchor Days Sink Your Deep Work

When a company implements onsite Anchor Days, we see meeting volume rise. Employees make more serendipitous connections, but have less uninterrupted time for individual work. And many extend their workday to find distraction-free time to focus.

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Anchor Days Drive Meeting Sprawl

Executives correctly believe that being onsite will lead to more connections within the company. But building those connections comes at a cost.

Specifically, we see the number of meetings explode as companies make the transition from remote to Structured Hybrid.

When companies first went remote during the pandemic, they implemented new meeting cadences and upped 1:1 frequency to ensure there was sufficient communication.

Now, as organizations begin to return to the office, those legacy meetings are still in place – and you’re adding more face-to-face trainings, catch-up coffees, and brownbag lunches to facilitate serendipitous collaboration.

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Anchor Days Extend the Workday

With Anchor Days, everyone’s back onsite at the same time. That high Onsite Density is great for collaboration and inclusion. But it also means you’re (a) more likely to get distracted and (b) more likely to struggle to find a quiet place to get Deep Work done.

As a result, we see Workday Duration increase as people log back on after the commute home in order to get their Deep Work done.

Jury’s still out on how this double-peak workday will impact the quality of Deep Work output. But setting quality aside, the data is clear on the impact to employee wellbeing: People who work more than 9 hours a day are at significantly higher risk of quitting.

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The Way Forward: Resetting Expectations

If your goal is to speed up execution, your alarm bells are ringing. People have less time to get their core jobs done. And they’re rushing to do their core jobs after-hours when their brains are exhausted from already putting in a full day at the office.

In the immediate term, speed is likely to slow and quality may suffer if we don’t reset expectations. In the mid-to-long term, attrition among top-performers is likely to spike as they get burnt out on unsustainable hours; remaining employees will be running on fumes.

So what’s a team to do? We advise managers to explicitly talk with Project Leads and Individual Contributors about managing their calendar to make room for uninterrupted time.

What Project Leads Can Do

Project Leaders are often some of the most enthusiastic proponents of returning to the office. While physical proximity can make coordination and collaboration easier, it’s important that Leads create a work environment that allows for focused execution as well.

We like Etsy’s “Prime Time” hours that encourage Project Leads to schedule meetings between 11-2pm to minimize commuting & childcare conflicts, while offering defined hours for focused individual work.

And we strongly encourage Project Leads to audit their existing meetings with a skeptical eye on those recurring calendar invites. Do you still need a Monday morning standing Zoom if the team’s all together in-person on Wednesday? Are all those calendared cross-functional 1:1s really necessary if you can grab a coffee together in the afternoon?

What ICs Can Do

As a Manager, it’s up to you to ensure that Individual Contributors on your team feel empowered to own their calendars. That starts by making it the norm to block the time you need to get your deep work done.

We’ve seen teams like Atlassian use Working Agreements to define and communicate team norms & SLAs that honor focus time. If your team doesn’t already have defined norms in place, ask your Manager if you can come together to agree on a common set of expectations for working hours, response times by channel, and how to handle urgent issues.

One size doesn’t fit all. As you think through your return-to-office approach, we strongly encourage leaders to consider a mix of factors – including who’s working together and what type of work they do – to make hybrid work work.

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