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Working Smarter – Shamsi Iqbal

Shamsi Iqbal

The way that I like thinking about microtasks in particular is that I would like to have a list of these available at my own disposal. Say that, well, I can access those at any time. And given my frame of mind, I would pick from one of those and say that, okay, I’m going to just do like five of these. 

Shamsi Iqbal – Principal Researcher, Microsoft

We were pleased to recently welcome Dr. Shamsi Iqbal to the Freedom Matters Podcast. A Principal Researcher in the Modern Work Transformation Org in Microsoft, Shamsi is on the frontline of research, investigating productivity, attention and the future of work.

Most recently her work has focused on redefining productivity in the new future of work, introducing novel ways of being productive through leveraging micromoments, and balancing productivity and well-being in interaction design to empower individuals and help organizations thrive.

In this episode we explore the future of work with Shamsi, through the eyes of a productivity research. We discuss:

  • Micromoments
  • The Triple Peaks of Productivity
  • Where AI does (and doesn’t belong)
  • Technology for Hybrid Work
  • The Role of Technology in the Future of Work

Shamsi’s research has been covered in the New York Times, MIT Tech Review among others, and also featured in the King 5 News (NBC affiliate in the Seattle area). Shamsi has served on many organizing and program committees for Human-Computer Interaction conferences, and is one of the co-authors of the document Microsoft released on the Future of Remote Work in 2021. Shamsi received her Ph.D. in Computer Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2008 and received a Bachelor’s in Computer Science and Engineering from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology in 2001.

Host and Producer: Georgie Powell Sentient Digital

Music and audio production: Toccare Philip Amalong


Shamsi: I think most companies want to really balance their employees’ productivity needs with their well-being needs. It’s just that we haven’t quite figured out what is the best way of doing this. And I think part of the challenge is because sometimes individual well-being needs might seem on the surface as being in conflict with organizational needs.

Georgie: Welcome to Freedom Matters, where we explore the intersection of technology, productivity, and digital well-being. I’m your host, Georgie Powell. And each episode, we’ll be talking to experts in productivity and digital wellness. We’ll be sharing their experiences on how to take back control of technology. We hope you leave feeling inspired, so let’s get to it.

This week, I’m chatting with Shamsi Iqbal. Shamsi is a Principal Researcher at the modern work transformation org at Microsoft, where she specializes in attention management. Most recently, her work has focused on redefining productivity in the new future of work. Her research has been covered in the New York Times and MIT Tech Review amongst others. 

And today in this Future of Work episode, we’ll be discussing micromoments, the productivity well-being balance, the three peaks of productivity, and new ways of working for a hybrid world. Shamsi, welcome to Freedom Matters Podcast today. We’re really grateful to have you on the show. Thank you for joining us. 

Shamsi: Yeah, thank you so much for having me. 

Georgie: So, before we talk about transformations and the new ways of working, which I know is your area of expertise. Can we just start by understanding what you currently see as productivity? How do you understand productivity? And then maybe your understanding of productivity is different from how companies today are also viewing productivity. So, it’d be interesting to understand those two dimensions. 

Shamsi: Well, isn’t that the million dollar question that everybody is asking? Yeah. I think it’s a great question and extremely timely. The original definition of productivity, I think it comes from industry and where productivity is about the number of things that you produce in a unit of time. But that doesn’t really apply to information workers. 

And I think at this point, we have been mostly looking at productivity in terms of what have I got done? Was my time well spent? And it is very subjective. There are some telemetry data that we can leverage, again, looking at the time people are spending, the time people are focusing, but I think it’s very much up in the air. And from an individual perspective, it comes back to the things that I set up to do. Am I getting them done? 

Georgie: Okay. So, we’re still living in the land of measuring productivity by getting numbers of things done. You’re talking about new ways of working. And so when you’re thinking about new ways of working, what are the macro trends that are impacting that and leading us into this new work environment that we will subsequently develop new ways of working within? 

Shamsi: Yeah. I think that there are a number of things that really came to the forefront in the past, I would say, year and a half or year and a half plus. I think one thing is that we have realized as we are working from home, our work environments are not the same as it was when we were back in the office. 

We have taken our work life and we have basically implanted it in our home life, which means that the time that is available to focus, it’s very limited. People are doing work in bursts, people tend to get interrupted a lot. 

That was an issue when people were at work, but at least your colleagues have the context they can look at you and figure out, well, you are actually deeply working. I should not interrupt you. So, there are all these visual cues that people use to leverage. 

Now when you’re at home and say, for example, you have young kids. I mean, they don’t leverage any cues. They probably misuse it as well as they can. And now you can hear the lawn mower going on in the back, so — maybe you can’t. But these things happen when you’re working from home. 

So, basically, I think that we have very little time to focus and we might need to figure out how can we get things done in short bursts of time in a way that they are resilient to interruptions. 

Georgie: That’s really interesting. So, your basic thesis is that you are more distractible at home than you are in the office. 

Shamsi: I would say that. And I think that you also are distractible in the office, but one thing that is important to keep in mind is that in the workplace, everyone basically shares the same context. So, you all have the same — similar goals, where at home there are different things that are grabbing your attention. 

Which means that I might be working but someone needs me to help with their school work or maybe there’s something cooking that I need to take care of. Or maybe there’s — the laundry needs my attention. 

So, there’s this constant context switching. And that is difficult because once you switch your context, when you return, you have to recreate the context that you were in before you got interrupted. 

Georgie: Yeah. I mean, I certainly agree with that. The observation I was just going to make is I felt like, for me, working in an office place distraction kind of was more excusable because we were all doing it together. It’s like, because we’re all playing up together. It’s okay to go for a coffee with a colleague or to waste time, I don’t know, tidying up your desk or something because it — I felt less guilty of those distractions when I was in a workplace.

Whereas now I’m at home, they’re much more apparent to me and I feel more guilty of the fact that I’ve been distracted because I feel even more responsibility to be working hard when I’m working. Do you see what I mean? 

Shamsi: Yeah. I think that we have seen that a lot, especially parents. We did some initial research in the beginning of the pandemic, and we wanted to, in particular, see how people who had this caregiving responsibilities, how they were dealing with the new ways of working. 

And I think that parents in particular or people who have caregiving responsibilities, they suffer from this a lot. And I think that when you’re at home, it is difficult to be completely in work mode and ignore everything around you because you are in that environment. 

And so if a kid needs you or a spouse needs you for some reason or if there’s anything else, you cannot just ignore and say that well, I’m going to ignore it and I’m going to keep on working. Whereas work because there is this physical distance between your home life and your work life, I think that it is much easier to be disconnected. 

Georgie: Yeah. Interesting. So, we’re at home and we’ve got less time when we’re not being distracted. These other contexts are pulling us away all the time. So, you talk a lot about micromoments and how to make the most of those. Can you perhaps talk about this new way of working that’s emerging as a consequence of that context? 

Shamsi: Yeah. I think that what was interesting is that we did this micro productivity research, I would say we started about six years ago and that was well before the pandemic. And so my colleague, Jaime Teevan and I were thinking about, well, I mean, we have all these little bits and pieces of moments throughout a day. 

And we really don’t make good use of them, especially with mobile devices. We end up playing games. We end up on social media. We end up on all these kinds of, like, distracting places. Some of it’s good. It’s good to take a break, but sometimes it’s just a rat hole that you go into. And can we actually help people make use of these micromoments? 

And so one example is that I’m standing in line to get coffee, I have something that is at the back of my mind eating away. Can I quickly take care of that thing so that it is done and I feel it made some progress? 

So, that’s where the idea of micro product really came through is that you take a big task, you break it into smaller subtasks, and you do those subtasks in these, like, short bursts of moments. So, that at the end, you’re getting the task done. It’s not — you just don’t need to have a big tank of time assigned for it. 

Now, that seems to be really suitable when you are working remotely because you don’t have these big chunks of time anymore. And if there’s a way that you could look at this big overwhelming task and say that, oh, I don’t have time to do this. And rather you take it, you break it down and say that, okay. I have, like, now 20 pieces of this task, and I just need 20 smaller chunks of time to get it done. It seems much more manageable. 

And we have done research that shows that when you break down tasks in a way they are much more resilient to interruption because you are able to finish it before you have to go and respond to something else. 

Georgie: I thought it was really interesting how you use examples of writing big pieces of literature or coding as tasks that can also be broken down in this way. Because to me, they feel monumental, it feels like something you really need to be in flow with, have big chunks of deep work time to do, and yet you’ve found ways that actually they too can be segmented. 

Shamsi: Yeah. Sometimes these big tasks are just overwhelming to get started with. So, what we found is that you can actually use microtasks to help you get context and get wrapped up into working on the document or recording task and then it doesn’t feel as overwhelming. So, when you’re leaving the task, maybe you go through these smaller subtasks that leaves that task in a more stable state. 

What was interesting is that we already do microtasks in our lives. I mean, we do emails on the go, we do communications, we do other kinds of little small tasks that don’t require a lot of time. But we really didn’t have a good handle on can we write a document or can we do coding? Can we do PowerPoint design? 

And we found that with a good workflow and way of tracking how far you have gone, you can actually get some of these things done. And I’m not saying that you need to do everything using micromoments because there are times where you do need to get into flow and do that deep work. 

What we’re saying is that there are certain — other things that you could do that are also related to that big task that can be done in micromoments and leave your precious focus time for the things that really need that focus time. 

The way that I like thinking about microtasks in particular is that I would like to have a list of these available at my own disposal. Say that, well, I can access those at any time. And given my frame of mind, I would pick from one of those and say that, okay, I’m going to just do like five of these. 

So, I think that that way you break that kind of mental barrier against starting — getting started on an overwhelming task, it seems slightly easier. And you’re also building up context. So, I’ll give you an example. We did a study where we looked at what happens if we start inserting these microtasks into people’s Facebook feeds and we found that people ignored them as long as they wanted to. 

And then they started just playfully interacting with one of them, two of them. And then sometimes they would return to the document from where the microtask originated. But one of the things that they did say is that I don’t want the microtasks coming from a document that I just left because I don’t want to go back to it now. I want to be away from it. 

But if you give me a microtask from a document that I haven’t been interacting with in awhile, that can be super useful because I can keep that context fresh without really engaging with it. So, we thought that that was a really neat way of helping people be in touch with the work that they’re doing without having to be completely immersed in it. 

Georgie: There’s a challenge I have here which is a lot of the people that we’ve spoken with have stressed the importance of things like having space for our own thoughts and to not always be filling every single moment of our day with something which is “productive”. 

And that boredom is really important for creativity. It’s important for memory. It’s important for so many things that actually lead to better work down the line. Where’s the balance? I mean, do you think it’s important that we still have those free times? Or is that actually — is this kind of just another way of managing boredom? 

Shamsi: I think this is a great question. And we ourselves have been grappling with this. I mean, as someone who also looks deeply into well-being, I fully endorse the need for just stepping away, being disconnected, and not filling all your waking moments with work. 

The way that we look at microtask is it just gives you another way of getting work done when you can’t get the focus time. It is by no means a replacement for your free moments where I should be just engaged with my family or I should be just engaged in nature, and I should not be looking at my phone trying to get more and more work done. 

As with any kind of new technology or new ways of working, I think that there are going to be challenges, especially how we manage the boundaries. But I think that’s something we’ll have to deal with and learn how to also use this technology in a responsible way. 

I mean, one example is that sometimes a microtask can actually help you disconnect. So, if there’s something that’s eating away at the back of my head, I can quickly get that thing done if there’s an appropriate microtask and then just get closure on it and be fully present in whatever else I was doing. 

So, we could definitely find ways of using this responsibility, but there is also, of course, the danger of getting too immersed and just letting it take over our lives as with everything else. 

Georgie: Shamsi has talked about how mic-tasking works well in an environment where we’re working from home and frequently interrupted and context switching. But what other new ways of working does she see emerging to support hybrid and remote work?

Shamsi: I think that there are a lot of things that are emerging. One thing is that people have realized, I would say, that it is possible to get work done at home albeit maybe in a different way. I think that we are fundamentally challenging the way that we collaborate, the way that we get our individual work done, even when we get our work done. 

A few years ago, Mary Czerwinski, Gloria Mark and myself, we looked at how people’s productivity patterns emerge, and we found that people had two main productivity peaks. One in the middle of the morning, that’s when they were really deeply engaged in their productivity related apps, and one was after lunch. And so we call them the two productivity peaks that happened during the day. 

During the pandemic, what we find is that there is this third little peak that is also emerging after hours. It’s not huge, it’s not big, but this is definitely where people are going back to work after hours. Maybe their days are no longer the 09:00 to 05:00 workday as before where they had this eight hours stretch of getting work done. 

Now it’s different because they’re inter-living their personal life with their work life because they’re at home. So, they’re finding ways to make up for that deficit at the end of the day, maybe after the family goes to bed, they go back and they get some focused work done. And it’s really more efficient in some cases because there’s no interruptions. They can fully focus and they can get things done in a far more efficient way than they would have during the day. 

So, I think that that’s one thing that we need to be careful about because I think there’s really a lot of talk about work days increasing and they shouldn’t and we should make sure that we are maintaining these clean boundaries between when work ends and personal life starts. I think that we need to think about the flexibility that people need. 

A mom with two young kids, maybe that’s when she gets her most done, and we need to be aware of that and supportive of that. I think that’s one thing. 

The other one is that remote workers are going to be a big part of the workforce. And so when we return to hybrid work or return to the workplace, I mean, there will be a big percentage of people who will be or who want to work from home. We need to make sure that we are inclusive of them. 

Our meetings do not forget them, so that in-person people do not have extra privileges that our remote workers can’t have. So, I think that there’s a real need of culture change as well. 

Georgie: And how is technology supporting that hybrid experience? 

Shamsi: Meeting software. I think that they are rethinking how to have meetings. Because right now, everyone is on Zoom or Teams or other meeting tools, and most of the people are remote. So, everyone is coming from the same common ground. 

Now when it becomes hybrid, it’s going to be an interesting challenge because the in-person people are going to be in the room. And whatever improvements we have made on our meeting platforms, those need to be rethought because now we have a mix of people. It’s a combination of technology and it’s a combination of culture change. So, I think that that’s going to be interesting to think about. 

Georgie: And then coming back to this blurring of life and work, lots of listeners or Freedom users are freelancers. I know you’ve been doing some interesting work on boundary setting and some ideas that’d be great to hear some of those suggestions. 

Shamsi: Well, I think that boundary settings is both, there’s the physical boundary setting, and then there’s the mental boundary setting. I think when you’re working from home, sometimes the physical boundary comes in terms of where you are working. Do you have a space that can be isolated from everyone else? 

Now some people are privileged to have that, some people are not. Let’s assume that well, you have solved the physical problem. I think that then the next big problem is that well, how do you put this mental space between your work life and personal life? And that is a bit challenged. Back in the time when we were actually commuting and most of us probably hated commuting long distances, that had unforeseen benefits. It puts this distance between your personal life and your work life. 

Now when you’re working from home, there’s no commute, and hence there’s no temporal boundaries or mental boundaries between your home and personal life. So, we brought back some research that we had done pre-pandemic where we were thinking about how we could help people disconnect from work and re-engage from work as they were moving between their work and personal lives. 

Can we do the same kind of mental exercises that help people disconnect at the end of the day and reconnect with the beginning of the day? What are some rituals that people can go through? How can we help people through planning or recollecting what they had planned to do? 

And so that’s where the virtual commute feature in Viva came through is that it basically walks you through at the end of the day, reminds you what you have done, helps you set the plan for the next day. And this is based on cognitive behavior, therapy, and organization behavior that says that, well, if you’re able to disconnect at the end of the day, you’re actually more productive in the long run. 

Georgie: Yeah. Really interesting. 

Shamsi: It is interesting because I get this reminder at the end of the day that it’s now time to start your virtual commute. And it basically sends a signal to me is that I need to ramp down from working. I don’t need to shut down my laptop right away, but I need to start disconnecting, make plans for the next day so that when I leave, I know that I have recorded what I need to do when I come back. And then it makes it easier for me to resume when I return the next day. 

Georgie: Actually, it’s sort of even better than what a commute used to be like because I’m sure lots of us had good intentions to write those notes on the commute, but didn’t. Probably not only creating that separation, but also helping people to be a lot more organized. 

Shamsi: Yeah. I think that — I mean, just listening to the news or listening to the music on my 25, 35-minute drives back, I think that was actually pretty relaxing. And now that doesn’t necessarily happen during virtual commute when I’m basically — my commute means that I leave my chair in my study and I walk out of the door. But I think that even that change of mindset, I think that’s important. 

Georgie: And then with these new ways of working, I know that a lot of Microsoft’s technology is moving towards this idea that it can understand when you’re in your deepest work and help to keep you there. But also that if you then get to a point where you’re no longer focused or making progress, it will encourage you to move on or to move to something else. I found that really interesting. Can you explain to me a little bit more about that? 

Shamsi: As humans, we have certain qualities and capabilities, but intelligent systems can understand patterns in our working and maybe help us break out of unproductive states. So, for example, flow and focus are oftentimes not necessarily the same thing. I could be in flow where I’m making a lot of progress. I could be focused and making no progress and also be frustrated. 

And so being in a frustrated state is unproductive, and sometimes you just basically need a way to break out of it. And do something else and then come back and oftentimes that has shown that if you walk away, you are more creative, you come up with better ideas. But humans are not good at disconnecting in that way. 

Some research that we did a number of years ago, is that can we, through people’s activity patterns, detect these unproductive states. And then recommend that, well, you could take a break or maybe you switch to something else. So, that you are not getting bogged down into something where you’re really not making progress and you’re increasing your stress levels. 

The idea was if we can provide people that kind of support, would people take it? In some cases, yes, being in that unproductive state or maybe something that seems visibly unproductive. Sometimes I might be reading something and the progress is not apparent, but I’m actually gaining knowledge. But in many other cases, that maybe I’m looking for a solution or I’m looking for something that doesn’t exist, or I’m trying to fix something and I’m missing the main point. And it’s good to break away in those situations. 

And so we wanted to see how open people were to those kinds of suggestions. And I think that the key here is that the suggestions need to come at the right moment. I think they need to take into account alternative activities. So, are you recommending a break? Are you recommending something that is closely related to what you’re doing? Or are you recommending another task that the user also wants to do for maximum benefit? 

Shipping this out at scale, we’re not there yet. But I think that these kinds of intelligent systems have the potential to help people, support people, and identify places where they could actually be better. 

Georgie: I become cautious when I think about the fact that AI is almost interfering before we work out ourselves that something’s not going right. And the reason I have a concern about that is because I feel like only by going wrong, can we work out how to do better another time. And I also think there can be a lot of value in kind of in sitting with something that isn’t productive for a long time because sometimes that then leads to a very quick breakthrough the next day. 

Sometimes these moments are actually foundational days. So, I can see in theory how this tech will be useful. But I guess it comes back to how do we make sure that it doesn’t intervene so much that we remove the ability to learn ourselves as well as the AI is learning us, because learning ourselves is really something we have to be able to protect. 

Shamsi: I think that’s a great point. And I personally look at AI as a way of helping people, not replacing people. And an AI assistant or an intelligent assistant should be designed in a way it is there to help you when you need it. And so each person is different. I totally agree with the fact that people learn by making mistakes, by explorations. 

And sometimes you don’t want to break into those explorations because then you are impeding their learning process. I think that the goal here maybe, and this is why it’s still research and not product yet. 

Georgie: Yes. Yes. 

Shamsi: What does this mean? When are good times to actually intervene? Many years ago, my PhD thesis was around timing notifications. So, notifications come at inopportune moments. Can we time them better so that they don’t interrupt people when they’re in the middle of something? 

And in some sense, it’s about an AI assistant also has to be extremely aware of what the person is doing. Imagine a real assistant, they won’t come and tap you on the shoulder if they see that you are really deeply engaged in something. They use these cues to understand where would you best benefit. 

So, in the ideal world and maybe in the future world, the assistant would know when you would benefit from that help and then offer it. And we’re not there yet. So, I would refrain from saying anything beyond that. 

Georgie: Yeah. Sure. Okay. And so then moving more on to your kind of your current focus looking at and the relationship between well-being and productivity with technical tools to help us as were working. I’d love to hear more about your thinking on that. 

Shamsi: Yeah. Well-being is something that has really come to the forefront in, again, in the past 18 months or so. But I think that it was always implicitly embedded in the research that I did. 

People are getting burned out because they just are not able to balance their productivity needs and work needs and their well-being needs. People are not taking care of themselves. And there is this shift from thinking about well-being as just about physical health or mental health. Well-being is also about, am I able to do my work in a way that I am happy at the end of the day, I am satisfied. 

Well-being at the workplace is slightly different than well-being in general. It is a subset, but there are other considerations. Am I engaged with my job? Is my job giving me satisfaction? Am I growing with my job? And all of those things, I think they’re embedded in well-being. 

Well-being is not about just giving your employees five extra well-being dates in a year. It is not about that. It is about supporting your employees in a way that they can get their work done in a way that is most supportive of their unique needs. And I think that that’s where well-being is really intertwined with productivity and that’s how we should be thinking about it. 

Because at the end of the day, you really want your workforce to be energized, resilient, you want them to come to work wanting to work, and being excited about work; both from the individual perspective and from the organizational perspective. 

Georgie: How do you truly link your employees with value and purpose in a way that improves their well-being because of their motivation levels? 

Shamsi: I think most companies want to really balance their employees’ productivity needs with their well-being needs. It’s just that we haven’t quite figured out what is the best way of doing this. And I think part of the challenge is because sometimes individual well-being needs might seem on the surface as being in conflict with organizational needs.If you think about an organization, they want to maximize their profit, increase their revenue. And if your employees are not being productive, then that is jeopardized. 

I think that, again, we need to take a step back and look at the big picture. What does employee productivity mean? You have happy employees, you have satisfied the employees, they will turn out good work. And I think that’s why you see a lot of organizations talking about that, well, we are going to embrace hybrid work. We are going to make sure that people can be remote and get their work done. 

And I think that that’s where the technology needs to really support this is that, well, you need to have good bandwidth, good network, obviously. But you also need to have the technology tools that allows people to separate, for example, what work needs to be done together and what work needs to be done on your own. So, the sync work and the async work, those need to be separated. 

How can we have better meetings where remote people are able to participate better and be heard and contribute? How can we make sure that we are not keeping the knowledge only for the in-person people, but we are actually making sure that we are taking good notes, taking advantage of the technology that is available. 

So, I think that as organizations, I think that there will be a big need to change the culture and it needs to come from the top. But there will be some initial challenges. And we should not just move away from something that is really going to change the future for the better just because it’s difficult at the beginning. It will be difficult at the beginning. 

And I think that that’s something that we all need to take into account that it will be challenging. But that’s no excuse for us to move away from it. And so I would totally expect that there will be some organizations and some companies who would want to go back to where they were before because that’s how their industry is. 

Whereas others who are able to get work done, remain productive during the pandemic. I think that they can see opportunities to actually make big changes. But eventually, I think that we will reach some form of equilibrium and people will find a happy medium of where they can be their best. I’m just excited to see what the future holds.

Georgie: Shamsi, you’ve been a fantastic guest on the Freedom Matters podcast today. Thank you so much for joining us. We’re really, really grateful for your time. 

Shamsi: Yeah. Thanks for a great conversation. I had a lot of fun. 
Georgie: Thank you for joining us on Freedom Matters. If you like what you hear, then subscribe on your favorite platform. And until next time, we wish you happy, healthy, and productive days.