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Becky Norman


Managing Editor

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How to cultivate a deep work culture

In part two of the ‘Deep Work’ content series, Becky Norman outlines four ways to enable a culture where highly productive, purposeful work can flourish.

As explored in part one of this content series, the concept of ‘deep work’, conjured up by Cal Newport, involves cognitively demanding, intently focused work that produces high-value outputs. The business and individual benefits of embracing this way of working are many, yet very few organisations are granting the space, permission and opportunity to go there. 

For organisations wanting to move away from lower value work and create a culture where more purposeful work can prosper, there are numerous factors to consider. Below we outline four of these to help set you up for deep work success.

You must give permission to say no

1. Employee trust is critical

If your workers feel that their managers or leaders do not fully trust them to get the work done, they may feel they need to prove their presence and productivity through more transparent forms of work. For example, by answering emails or instant messages quickly, attending all meetings without querying their relevancy or prioritising tasks requested by others over the work on their own list of to-dos. 

But this leaves your workers focusing on the easy, low-value tasks that aren’t making the most of their skillset that you employed them for. It will take a highly trusting and autonomous organisation for employees to feel they have the freedom to sign out of their emails and be unresponsive for lengthy periods of time to focus solely on the high-value stuff. Without trust, your employees will be splashing in the time-wasting shallows.

2. Permission to say no

Similarly to appearing available all the time, many employees will also feel the pressure to say yes to any task thrown their way to demonstrate high productivity levels. But if your workers have too much on their plate, they will not have the capacity to carve out time for deep work.

You must give permission to say no, and trust that your people know their limitations and when to push back. Lead by example, and show yourself to be doing the same to see real behaviour change on this.

3. Are your leaders shallow?

We know that a large part of the way a company culture is formed is through the behaviours and actions of leaders and managers. If they are sending out emails late at night, or responding instantly throughout the day to messages, then they are sending a signal to the wider workforce that this is what is expected of everyone (even if the leaders who behave that way don’t think this).

Of course, it’s important for most business leaders to be regularly communicating cross-functionally, which will naturally require a busier calendar of catch ups than most. But another vital role of the leadership team includes strategic planning to ensure ongoing success and growth.

And this, I would argue, requires uninterrupted periods of intense focus. Are your leaders blocking this time out in their calendar for all to see they are unavailable? Have they set up automated out of office notifications during these periods highlighting that they will not be responding to messages while they focus on this vital task?

Receiving regular communications from leaders encouraging employees to make space for deep work will not have the desired impact, if the leaders themselves are not exemplifying this behaviour themselves. 

Self-control might depend on a limited resource — a resource that, like a muscle, depletes during repeated, continuous use.

4. It takes more than permission and encouragement

All the above is important, but it is going to take more than giving permission and creating space for deep work for your employees to be successful with this transition.

We all know new habits are difficult to form and bad habits are difficult to break. And in a digital age, many of us have an unhealthy dependency on our digital devices. How many times have you picked up your phone and opened up an app, then stared at the screen wondering why you had arrived there?

Or found yourself unable to escape the endless scroll? Or, to put it in a work context, how often do you find yourself checking emails or social media during a period you’ve allotted to a difficult task that requires intent focus?

Trying to shift from completing easier tasks that we have formed strong habits around to focusing on mentally challenging tasks with no distraction is really difficult. Newport references psychologist Dr Roy Baumeister’s hypothesis that “self-control might depend on a limited resource — a resource that, like a muscle, depletes during repeated, continuous use.” 

To create a culture of more frequent deep work will therefore take more than just individual willpower. It will require leaders to provide guidance and ongoing encouragement. Here are some tips for helping your people form the new habit of going deep:

  • Encourage employees to prepare ‘deep work’ time in advance and block it out in their calendar. This may seem obvious, but Newport stresses that it takes much more will power to do deep work if you are flitting around in the trivial and in the spur of the moment decide to do something more arduous, than if you prepare for it. The former is setting yourself up for failure; the latter is less so.
  • Provide the physical space to support deep work. A busy open plan office will not enable your colleagues to properly go deep, so either consider creating quiet spaces in the office for focus work or allow employees the flexibility to work from home 
  • Alongside preparing the ‘when’ and ‘where’ of deep work, make sure employees are clear on the ‘what’ of deep work. To get the most value out of deep work, you want to ensure the work is aligned with the wider team and business goals. This doesn’t mean dictating what an employee should focus on, but an open discussion between the manager and employee to ensure clarity is important
  • Ask managers to discuss the topic regularly in their check-ins on both an individual and team level. Where are the pain points? Are any external factors, such as expectations from other colleagues hindering them? Or, on the contrary, have they made progress? Not only will these conversations encourage knowledge-sharing, but will also act as a reminder that this type of work is what is expected 

This really only scratches the surface of ways you can help employees break their ingrained habits and shift to more cognitively demanding, high-value work. If you wish to galvanise your team or workforce on this and see meaningful culture change, read Newport’s book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World.

Dig deep

Nurturing a culture of purposeful, productive work is no easy feat. There’s no point in trying to move in this direction without first tackling any issues around trust, autonomy and toxic leadership. 

But it’s worth the effort when the result is more fulfilled employees, better quality outputs, and a USP that will set you apart from your competitors.

Check out part one of this series: Is your organisation contributing to the ‘shallow work’ epidemic?

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Becky Norman

Managing Editor

Read more from Becky Norman
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