To offset solitude of remote working and hike productivity, firms turn to virtual accountability groups chaired by professional facilitators
It’s 11 a.m. and entrepreneur Dan Murray-Serter has joined a daily video call with most of his team at health supplements business Heights — but this isn’t your average Zoom meeting.
Placed into smaller breakout groups, each team member shares their goal for what they want to achieve over the next two hours, then, cameras still on, they get to work. Before logging off at 1 p.m., they report back to each other what they’ve accomplished.
What makes this call even more unusual is that on top of Heights’ 17-strong team, there are around 30 other people on the call, who don’t work at Heights. Under the guidance of a professional facilitator, they’ve been brought together by Flown, a remote work startup whose members can log onto a morning intention-setting session, a two-hour mid-morning deep dive and an afternoon power hour.
Working in online accountability groups like this is intended to heighten focus and minimize distraction, based on the idea that people perform better when being watched, whether it’s working out in a gym class rather than alone, or athletes playing to a crowd rather than behind closed doors. It’s known academically as the Hawthorne Effect.
“There’s something creative about co-working with people who aren’t your colleagues — there’s a certain accountability in not wanting to let a stranger down compared with someone in your team,” said Murray-Serter.
Some Heights team members prefer to work on their own, which Murray-Serter supports, but he personally finds online co-working makes him more productive. He has used Flown to crack important tasks, like Heights’ podcast plan, and his investment fundraising deck, as well as to generally bring his hybrid team together on a regular basis.
“With remote working, time gets away from you quickly, weirdly more so than when you’re around people. Online co-working helps elongate your day,” he added.
Flown’s client roster ranges from freelancers and sole traders to students, yet it’s steadily growing its corporate following, especially among companies with distributed teams, according to Flown CEO and founder Alicia Navarro.
Inspired by the book ‘Deep Work’ by academic Cal Newport, Navarro launched Flown earlier this year. The mission was to scale the concept of eroding distractions for the pandemic-fuelled influx of remote workers. The workplace rituals and accountability Flown’s business model is built around, are needed more than ever, she argues.
“Every six minutes on average, an office worker is interrupted by emails and instant messages [when working remotely], yet it takes 25 minutes to get back into a deep work state. We spend our day skimming along the surface doing shallow work, and often we end up feeling like shit because nothing’s off your to do list,” said Navarro.
“We teach the importance of prioritizing deep work time, and then let the shallow work go around it. And in our Flocks [the working groups], because you formed that human connection, it’s an extra incentive to not disappoint them or yourself. It gives you that extra measure of accountability.”
At its most basic level, it’s a form of working that encourages human connections, which can be harder to attain in a remote-working setup. And Flown isn’t the only player in town. Focusmate, for example, pairs a business’ employees with accountability partners for online sessions of up to 50 minutes. Meanwhile, companies that provide business development services like Flourish Unlimited, Courageous Content and The Six Figure Bookkeeper — run sessions for small and medium business owners.
Motivational fasting coach Harriet Morris uses both Flown and Focusmate, claiming they’ve “revolutionized” how she works.
“It stops me feeling lonely. People are friendly and seem to genuinely care that you got your work done. They share their self doubt sometimes and it helps everyone have less harsh expectations of themselves. You start seeing the same faces, which makes you feel part of a community,” said Morris.
Togetherness can, in fact, increase our cognitive functions, and online co-working with strangers offers another layer, according to Lee Chambers, psychologist and workplace well-being expert.
“There is lots to be said about co-working with strangers, from the novelty of being surrounded by people outside of your organization, the opportunities to bond being looser but more flexible, and strangers being less likely to distract you than familiar colleagues,” said Chambers.
“With interaction not being a necessity, there is the ability with strangers to often find a harmony between closeness and distance that is harder to achieve with teammates.”
The power of the group facilitator should also not be underestimated, and is indeed what will set Flown on its path to become “the Peloton of deep work”, added Navarro. She plans to build the skillsets and profiles of these facilitators to make them deep-work authorities and influencers in their own right.
By the end of the year, members will be able to subscribe to sessions run by their favourite facilitators, whether it’s someone who leads with yoga and meditation, or another who takes a more high energy approach.
Navarro has her pitch down pat, confident in the role Flown and its brand of online co-working has to play in helping fix workers’ productivity problems.
“We’re building a media company for deep work that has live and on-demand content experiences, led by amazing facilitators and on-screen talent, that deliver focus and productivity, alongside a sense of connectedness.”