Deep Work is a Team Effort


This is the third article in my series about deep work. The first article was about the value of deep work for peak performance. In my last article, I gave seven tips on how to get more deep work time as an individual.

While we can do certain things to increase the amount of deep work time for ourselves, there are limitations to that. Of course, we might be able to ignore requests for a certain amount of time, and this might make us feel more productive. But are our team and our organisation really more productive in total?

I might have a productive afternoon coding alone. But what is it worth, if three team members were stuck and I could have helped them? How frustrating is it for somebody to be stuck on a task where another person could quickly unstuck them? And what does this constellation mean for your teams’ performance?

People focus on individual performance too much, while the true power of teams lays in collaboration and complementing each other to become more effective and performant as a team, not just as a group of individuals.

Deep Work as a Team aka Collaboration

Getting deep work as a team and achieving peak performance is more than just not distracting each other. Teams can only achieve peak performance when they can go into states of focus and deep work together.

Here are three reasons, why collaboration is the true secret behind getting more deep work time and achieving better results.

Avoid getting stuck – collaborate more!

It is normal to get stuck at some point, to run out of ideas, to lose focus or motivation. However, this usually happens much faster when working alone.

When someone in a collaborating team gets stuck, the others still might have ideas. Thus, the team keeps going while automatically unstucking itself.

I found that difficult and almost unsolvable problems were much easier to resolve as a team. There was always somebody who had a different idea, a different approach or a different combination of search terms for another Google search.

Discussing different approaches and aligning on the best solution is so much faster and easier when you are already collaborating. — You don’t need to call another meeting or try your luck in expressing the full context in a lengthy Slack message.

Avoid procrastination – collaborate more!

When working alone on difficult topics, it is likely that you hit a wall at some point. It takes a huge amount of discipline to hit it again and again until you have a breakthrough when you work alone.

In such a situation, you might feel the desire to check if there isn’t something else that is also important. Essentially, you might try to avoid the difficult task at hand and trade it with a much easier task.

The consequence: That difficult task will stick around for weeks or months while you don’t make any significant progress.

Collaboration helps! As a team, it is much easier to keep each other accountable and disciplined for the task at hand when working on it together. We also don’t get frustrated as quickly because we are not alone. This helps to stay positive and to come up with new ideas to solve the problem.

The result: Problems are resolved much faster. Furthermore, the hole team understands the solution and is confident that it is the best solution possible.

Constantly working your way through different challenges as a team also gives you confidence in the capabilities of your coworkers, brings you closer as a team, and helps you to understand each other better and with fewer words. This positive effect will also prevail in times when you collaborate less and need to communicate asynchronously.

Avoid getting distracted – collaborate more!

Who is left to distract you, when all your team is working on the same problem together?

Sure, sometimes people outside your team also want your attention. Engineers on other teams, managers and friends across the organisation. However, usually, their requests are much less urgent than the ones inside your team.

Furthermore, if it turns out, that plenty of distractions come from outside the team, there might be an underlying issue in the team topologies of your organization or the ways how teams interact with each other. This is a topic for another article and I will partially explore mechanisms to improve the situation in my next article “Deep Work and Collaboration in Platform- and Enabling-Teams”.

However, as most distraction comes from team members, collaborating essentially eliminates this distraction. Furthermore, it forces us to focus more on the team-topic instead of slipping into Slack or some other topic at the side.

Thus, collaboration, among countless other benefits, also has a positive impact on the amount and quality of deep work your team gets throughout a week.

Collaboration is Deep Work

People who insist on needing time alone to be productive often miss the bigger picture: Collaboration done right can boost productivity, feeling of belonging, feeling of achieving things together and has a considerable benefit on culture, trust and shared ownership of topics, code, and solutions.

My observation from several discussions on this topic is, that people know that they require deep work to be productive but don’t see collaboration as deep work. Sporadically, they even refer to collaboration as meetings.

Nothing could be further from the truth. The huge difference between a classical meeting and collaboration is that meetings are usually scheduled for topics different from the one we are currently working on. Thus, they enforce a context switch. Collaboration, on the other hand, ensures that the team works together on the current priority. Even though a lot of conversation might and should happen while collaborating, the focus stays on the same topic.

Even if there is a break for coffee, lunch, or even an incident, teams typically get back into deep work faster because it is easier for them to reconnect to the state where they have left off together.

Therefore, collaboration not only improves the quality of deep work, but also increases the time of deep work.

Side note: In the developer experience team at BRYTER, we typically had two to three topics at the same time and worked in different constellations on each of them. We still got the benefits of collaboration as two or three people would work together on those topics throughout the week. Sometimes, of course, people did not have time to collaborate because of other responsibilities. In this case, the others would continue on it alone and reconnect once all had time again. Therefore, we made significant progress together while also being able to continue alone if needed.

Summary: More Deep Work through Collaboration

Even though many people seem to think that locking yourself away isolated is the secret to deep work and focus time, the opposite is true. If you have a team of people who can work on the same task and follow the same goals, it can be highly beneficial to lock yourself away together.

Deep work in a team can be much easier and much more effective than just going into deep work alone. You will find that your output often has a much higher quality when you work on something together.

This is an especially valuable productivity, efficiency, and team-building hack for software engineering teams. With some practice, you can collaborate on almost any topic, from conceptual over coding to documentation work.

Next week I will finish the series about deep work with an article about how to achieve focus time and deep work in platform- and enabling-teams, sharing a story of how we managed this topic as the developer experience team at BRYTER.

Are you really collaborating with your team? Let me know in the comments what experiences you made.

Curious to try it out? Share the article with your co-workers and let me know if you have any questions.


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