We all could use more micro breaks.
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December 28, 2021 11:16 AM EST

Each week over the past year, we’ve sifted through the latest research and management writing to bring you insights and tips for managing yourself and your team.

The selections are informed by our belief that we can—and need to—build workplaces that are fairer and more dynamic. (You can read our charter for more background on that.) Many of the tips we’ve highlighted relate to finding our way in this new world of remote and hybrid work—and using this moment to transform our own practices and organizations to be more inclusive and humanly and environmentally sustainable.

We’ve compiled the best of that advice from this past year, and present it here as a cheat sheet as we head into 2022.

On managing your time:

  • Take control of the start of your day. Start your morning by reviewing your emails and addressing any urgent ones for 10 minutes. Then give your focused attention to a priority task that you teed up at the end of the previous workday. Ideally it will be something that feels good to complete, and then you can move on to more stressful tasks after that.
  • Use your past self as a resource. It’s easy to engage in magical thinking about how much you can get done in a given day or week—but the result often is you wind up behind and strung out. Research has shown that when we look back on how long a task took us in the past, we can more accurately gauge how long it will take us in the future and plan accordingly.
  • Schedule your scrolling. To gain control of your phone use, try a counterintuitive strategy: Block off time to focus on nothing but your phone. Replacing distractedness with mindfulness as you scroll will make it easier to break the habit.
  • Take micro breaks. Researchers found that roughly five-minute breaks—to make coffee, stretch, or chat with family—boosted engagement and performance, especially when workers started the day more tired.
  • Embrace the inconvenience of a paper to-do list. Having to constantly re-write all the things you didn’t get to yet is more time-consuming than keeping digital track. That’s the point: The more times you have to hand-copy a task to a new list, the more likely you are to stop and consider you’re better off letting go of it.
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On giving and receiving feedback:

  • Ask people to give you feedback on a scale of 1 to 10. Then ask them what it would take for you to raise the score by a point. This invites them to give you candid advice on what you could improve in whatever you’re asking feedback on, such as a presentation or facilitating a meeting. And it focuses on a micro change you might be able to easily implement.
  • Not everyone prefers the compliment sandwich. Some people may appreciate having criticism wrapped in cushioning praise, but others can see it as disingenuous. A better approach: Just ask your coworkers how they want to hear feedback, and tailor your approach to each conversation so the feedback is really heard.
  • Craft a more holistic performance review. Carve out space to cover more than, well, performance. The review can, and should, be a space to discuss how well an employee’s needs are being met: Do they have opportunities to learn? Time for deep thinking? Does the work they’re doing reflect their values or long-term goals?
  • Treat feedback as the start of a conversation. For women, who are more likely to receive feedback that’s unhelpfully vague, asking follow-up questions can push ambiguous critiques into clearer, more actionable advice.

On having better meetings:

  • Shift your mindset before you dive into a meeting. What happens just before—like seeing discouraging data or having a tough conversation—can spill over negative emotions when a meeting starts. Pause to think about a moment in the past when things were going well or about something that you’re proud of before diving into the next meeting.
  • Awkward pauses can be a force for good. Instead of rushing to fill the silence, allow it to linger. Those moments may be the push that quieter colleagues need to feel comfortable speaking up.
  • Take a cue from the Supreme Court. Nobody speaks twice until everyone speaks once, which ensures all voices—even the quieter ones—have a chance to be heard.
  • Adopt a 6-3-5 approach to brainstorming. Six participants each write out three approaches to the given problem on separate sheets (or virtual pages). They then each pass their sheets to a fellow participant, who writes notes building on each idea. Each sheet is passed five times, and then the group reviews all of the built-upon ideas. This reduces groupthink in the brainstorming stage and builds consensus.
  • Publicly endorse colleagues’ contributions. Researchers found that when a worker amplified what a coworker said during a meeting, giving them credit, it enhanced both of their statuses in the group. “Amplifying others requires no new ideas nor complicated decision making, and proves to be a very low-risk, easy strategy that can be used by anyone to help themselves and others,” said Nathan Meikle of the University of Notre Dame, a co-author of the study.

On navigating remote and hybrid work:

  • Designate co-captains for hybrid meetings. Having one leader who’s remote and one who’s physically present makes it easier to run the session in a way that keeps both virtual and in-office attendees engaged.
  • Use “punctuated collaboration” to optimize your hybrid weeks. As much as you can, jam-pack all your meetings into the time when you’ll be in the office, and use your remote days for uninterrupted stretches of solo deep work.
  • Increase the number of cameras and screens for hybrid meetings. Meetings with some people present and others remote can be terrible for all involved. But one company makes it work for offsites by mounting multiple cameras on tripods to show different views of the room and close-ups or flip charts. It also uses multiple monitors with life-size views of the remote participants.
  • Coordinate your hybrid work schedule with your friends and family. Before you discuss with your manager what days you’ll need to be in the office, confer with people close to you about when it’s better for you to be working from home, for example, to look after a pet.
  • Don’t shove your desk against a windowless wall. It’s a rookie interior design mistake, and makes your home office look like a dorm room (no matter how nice the scene behind you appears on Zoom.) “Nothing looks more sad and depressing,” one architect told The Wall Street Journal. He advises positioning it so you sit facing out into the room or at a window.

On recruiting better:

  • Write job postings as a team. The skills required for most jobs are evolving quickly, and the team that will work with a new employee can have a more accurate sense of what the job entails. So rather than just the hiring manager writing the job posting, or recycling one that’s been used before, it’s a good idea to get input from others.
  • Make a longer shortlist. Researchers found that when they asked people to come up with six names of candidates to consider for a CEO job, the lists had a greater percentage of women than when they asked for three names. Spending more time on the longer list appeared to free the research subjects to consider alternatives to the traditional gender prototype.
  • Use “returnships” to recruit people who’ve taken a break from paid work. Such programs generally provide several months of paid training to people who’d dropped out of the workforce—often mothers who left jobs to look after their children—with the goal of hiring them by the end. Returnships are especially well suited to this moment when there are labor shortages and caregivers were disproportionately forced out of the workforce during the pandemic.
  • Reach out to people you wish you had hired. Make a list of three to five people you would have wanted to recruit in the past five years and who could make a difference to your organization today. Then contact them to see if they’d consider joining you. With people looking around for other jobs, now is a good time to check in.
  • Disclose salaries at your company. Some companies now publish salary bands on their company sites, in an effort to reduce any race or gender compensation gaps. Without pay transparency, underrepresented groups tend to make less money because of bias and other structural disadvantages.

On interviewing better:

  • Send job candidates interviewing guides. One employer emails ​​a “how to prepare for a virtual interview” sheet that includes tips for using Zoom, as well as detailed schedules and interviewer bios. This helps create a more equitable process and win favor with recruits.
  • Ask job candidates “How do you learn?” The point is to try to understand what their system is for updating their knowledge and skills, arguably one of the most important activities for high performance over time.
  • Ask identical questions of every job candidate. Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel-Prize-winning economist and psychologist, says the best practice for hiring is to come up with a handful of questions to determine whether an applicant has the desired traits for a job. Then ask every candidate the same questions in the same order and score their answers to minimize bias in the process.
  • Rethink what you ask in job reference calls. Good questions include “Have they ever changed your mind?” and “What’s something that would surprise us about them?”

On connecting with colleagues:

  • Skip team-building activities and instead pair up colleagues. Since some people dislike compulsory team-building exercises, University of Sydney researchers recommend the voluntary pairing of co-workers to get to know each other.
  • Do a teaching exchange. Take turns with your colleagues instructing each other over Zoom on skills that one of you has mastered and the others want to learn. It’s a way to ease isolation as remote work stretches on.
  • Share personal stories with colleagues. Leaders might write down three stories of failure and then share them at appropriate moments, as a way to normalize risk taking and demonstrate resilience.
  • Do walk-and-talk phone calls with colleagues. Researchers found that people so strongly associate their home office setups with work that they need to step away to enter a different mindset for really connecting with other people. They also recommend that companies boost feelings of belonging by offering employees who live near each other money to get a meal or drink together.

On improving your team’s experience:

  • Set a minimum time off. People whose employers offer unlimited vacation tend to take less than those with set amounts. One fix is to institute minimum time off, where staff, for example, are required to take three weeks vacation annually, with unlimited extra time on top of that.
  • Practice “load management” of your team’s work. To ease overwork and burnout, use remote freelancers to pitch in during especially intense projects or to give your colleagues a break. Alternatively, consider allowing two people to share a single role, each working part-time. This practice can open new talent pools for employers and has been shown to make for happier, more productive employees.
  • Use your organization’s procurement to promote diversity. Seek out diverse suppliers, and set specific goals for sourcing goods and services from them.
  • Ensure new hires make key connections upon joining the organization. Researchers found that employees of color who quickly established ties with other colleagues, had broad networks in the company, and had strong mentoring were more likely to be promoted and stay longer. Focus on helping workers connect across functional and geographic lines, and not just to senior people or similar peers.
  • Avoid framing questions in terms of “why,” which can come across as judgmental and make people feel defensive about their choices. Instead, lead with “what” or “how”—as in, “How did you come to that decision?”
  • Make every job a climate job. Company accountants, for example, can align financial resources with climate goals, and human resources staff can integrate climate work into job descriptions. This enables all employees to direct their energy and skills to being part of the climate movement.

And finally, on helping yourself thrive for the long-run:

  • Give up on “inbox zero.” Obsessive focus on processing every email you receive means you’re likely delaying more-important projects. “I try to allot a certain amount of time to going through email,” says author Oliver Burkeman. “Then at the end of that time, I say, Okay, I labored for an appropriate amount and then move on.”
  • Take vocal naps. Mask-wearing and video calls are contributing to vocal strain, causing swelling or stiffness of vocal cords. One doctor recommends 10 minutes of vocal rest for every hour of talking.
  • Rethink your Fridays. Start early and front-load your day to protect your Friday afternoons so that you can end your work week early. Consider banning internal meetings on Fridays. And take your work outdoors or somewhere scenic.
  • Figure out how to have fun every day with people you love. It’s one way to combat the languishing that many people have experienced during the pandemic. For psychologist Adam Grant, the answer was playing Mario Kart with his family.
  • Set up an auto-reply for emails to protect your time off. “Out of office” might not not make sense, but new alternatives are welcome, such as: “Because of home-schooling I am working flexibly and may send emails at all hours. Please don’t feel you need to reply at once.”

Did we miss your top tip for managing yourself and others? Email us and let us know if you’re open to our publishing it in a future post. Similarly, if you found any of these tips particularly helpful (or not), let us know.

Check out Charter’s Reset Work package of tools, resources, and services to help your team navigate this next phase.

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