Long, uninterrupted days with scientists quietly and calmly working in a laboratory discovering the next block-buster are like faded scenes from a black and white photo. The current reality of today’s pharma organisations is rapid reorganisation, cross-functional teams, multiple projects and agile sprints. Pharma teams, from scientists to commercial, are being asked to do more with less time and resources. The danger of the new fast and responsive culture is that people have no time for focused, deep work.

Constant switching every six minutes
Agile, responsive, customer centric, flexible… All words that lead people to think that they must now respond within minutes of receiving every message. With multiple communication channels – emails, IM, WhatsApp groups, community sites and chat forums - people are being bombarded with requests and information constantly. Most organisations value quick responses leading to people switching from one task to another every six minutes.

In six minutes you can’t do deep thinking work, often leaving a task unfinished to switch to another task. This constant switching and multi-tasking leads to attention residue. Similar to multiple screens being open on your desktop, the attention residue of unfinished tasks creates a cognitive load and reduces ability to focus on the next task. In the end it means that less is achieved.
Conversely, people can feel they are being productive even when they are interrupted because they are busy and have responded quickly. People compensate for the interruption by working faster when they are back on task. But it comes at a cost of increased stress levels, frustration and feeling of being under time pressure.

Create space for deep thinking
It is obvious; the pharma industry employs people due to their scientific and medical knowledge. But is the environment allowing them to apply their knowledge? By jumping from task to task every six minutes there is no time for deep thinking. It’s just shallow work, answering an email here, setting up a meeting there, approving an automated request now before going to the next meeting.

The constant interruptions are leading to stress and frustration.
In a knowledge-intensive industry like pharma, having calm time and space for deep thinking is required for problem solving, planning a complex project or reviewing experimental results. For deep thinking and cognitive work, the brain needs at least 25 minutes of uninterrupted time, ideally up to just under an hour.

Encourage a personal habit and an organisational culture where people set aside two-three hour blocks of time to work completely uninterrupted. They can disconnect from all channels (by putting the phone into do not disturb or airplane mode) and turning off all the PC notifications. It’s not about finding more time but using the time smarter. Making sure you and your team have the time and space for deep work will get more value added work done and reduce stress and frustration.

Leaders give focus
How many different project teams or initiatives are you a part of? How many are your team members a part of? Most people are now working on at least five to six different initiatives or projects. These involve diverse teams from across different functions, different countries and partners from outside of the organisation. The diversity and complexity of working in such teams creates a maze to even schedule meetings and come to a common understanding the project goals and outcomes.

The challenge with multiple cross organisational projects is that every project leader thinks that their project is a priority. But for the person working on five to six projects, they can’t all be top priority. With self-managing teams, employees are left to juggle role conflicts and demands on their time and resources often leading to stress and frustration.

A key role for leaders is about creating a vision. A vision means clarity and focus. With limited resources and increased complexity, helping people to focus on one to three key projects at a time helps them to make progress on a daily basis. And when people see progress, and have felt they have achieved something, they are intrinsically motivated. It also reduces stress and conflict while trying to achieve a little spread over a lot. It’s all about focusing on less to achieve more.

Long hours don’t pay
Dedicated teams which are highly motivated can end up working longer and longer hours. With technology people can be connected all the time and with global meetings across multiple time zones, the work day can stretch over 16 hours. The only time they are not thinking about work is when they sleep (though they could be dreaming about it).

Working long hours doesn’t equal more productivity in a knowledge business. It’s not a factory where longer hours mean the machines will manufacture more. The human brain works better with a period of intense concentration followed by a break. For the average person that’s 20-50 minutes of concentrated work followed by a 5-10 minute break. When constantly on, the brain cells (and body) don’t have a chance to refresh and unwind. Due to the attention residue effect, even just a short check of emails in the evening means that work-related thoughts remain in the brain for much longer making it harder to switch off, relax and refresh.

Fast and responsive taken to the extreme leads to exhaustion, stress and burnout. With general levels of workplace stress and burnout increasing across all industries, it’s important to implement a wellbeing strategy that allows people to have a sensible work-life balance. While mindfulness classes and fruit bowls have some impact, the biggest impact on psychological wellbeing is the team leaderiii. Review how you can support your team to have sensible work-life practices, actively discourage long hours and role model it yourself. Long hours don’t pay!

Doing less to achieve more
The benefits of breaking down silos, drawing together diverse perspectives and collaborative working is leading to more agile and responsive companies. However, the pace of change coupled with resource reductions is putting pressure on people to be over-responsive, over-connected and working long hours. The end result is talented employees who are not applying their knowledge to add value to the business and burning out. It’s time to stop thinking about finding more time to do more. Instead focus on concentrated bursts of uninterrupted time to calmly achieve more.