A productive work environment is in the job description

A leader’s guide to keeping teams focused on the right things with Slack’s VP of Customer Experience Ali Rayl

An illustration of a woman parting a body of water, a metaphor for how strong leadership can help teams power through the workweek unobstructed.
Image Credit: Ryan Garcia

Increasing productivity is often viewed as an individual quest, but Ali Rayl, our Vice President of Customer Experience, believes managers have more power to create a positive and productive work environment for their employees than they think.

Whether by eliminating distractions or proactively gathering groups of people to set and adjust priorities, here’s how Rayl ensures that everyone on the team is making the most of their time at work.

“If you’re distracted, then you’re the one who’s trying to catch all the stuff as it comes in, which means that everybody on your team actually has the space that they need to get their work done.”

– Ali Rayl, VP of Customer Experience at Slack
Ali Rayl, VP of Customer Experience at Slack

Minimizing distractions is the leader’s job

A decade ago, Rayl learned an important lesson from one of her managers that stays with her to this day: It’s a manager’s job to be distracted.

“If you’re distracted, then you’re the one who’s trying to catch all the stuff as it comes in, which means that everybody on your team actually has the space that they need to get their work done,” she says.

An unspoken but important piece of that advice is realizing that it’s the people you lead who are moving the company forward, not you. Rayl says that “ultimately, it’s their focus that’s important because they’re the ones doing the work.”

For that to happen, managers need to act as a filter for distractions and structure their time in a way that allows everyone else on the team to manage their own time better.

Mondays are for dreaming big

Regardless of how you feel about Mondays, the first day of the week is a critical time to set the stage for the next four.

For Rayl, that means kicking Mondays off with an hour-long meeting that includes the senior leadership team in her department. They sit down and review the metrics the team has agreed are most important and use that data to determine their agenda and priorities for the week.

“We talk through what challenges we’re facing, what we’re trying to move forward, and whether there’s anything blocking us,” Rayl says.

As she and her team discuss problems and potential solutions, it gives everyone a clear understanding of what the department should focus on tackling next.

And for Rayl, it’s essential to be optimistic during this time and dream big. Priorities can always be adjusted later on, but when it comes to making major progress, it’s critical to set the bar high.

Wednesdays are for gut checks

Whereas Monday is the day for setting up your hopes for the week, on Wednesday it’s time to run a simple but ruthless exercise to decide what needs to be cut or reprioritized.

“I see myself in a little hard, realistic moment,” Rayl says. “How much of those goals and my dreams can I realistically accomplish in the three days that I have remaining? The answer is always, you can’t.”

It’s essential to be honest with yourself because otherwise you could end up unnecessarily frazzled by the end of the week. Or worse, you could leave important or urgent tasks or projects unfinished.

On the other hand, if you find that you consistently have enough time to accomplish everything you set out to do at the beginning of the week, it’s possible that you didn’t dream big enough.

Only use time management tools that work for you

If you’re looking for a “best of” list of productivity apps and tools, Rayl is the wrong person to ask. “Every time I’ve tried to adopt one and think that I would be a better human if I operated in a way that’s more in line with these tools, they never stick,” she says.

So instead of forcing it, Rayl now channels her productivity in the way that works best for her. That is to make sure she always knows what’s important at a macro level, then set up all the tasks that will make those big-picture goals happen.

One tool Rayl does use regularly is Google Calendar. Each day is color-coded based on the types of activities she has planned, making it easy to see how she’ll be spending her time and what she might be able to accomplish that week.

“It’s all about, at a quick glance, understanding what is the structure of my days and how much time is my own,” Rayl says. “And for the time that isn’t my own, what am I expected to bring to the table?”

Take writing breaks

It’s important to always be open to self-improvement, and one area Rayl wants to grow in is taking the time to write.

“I don’t schedule a lot of just completely empty open fields or writing breaks for myself,” she says. “Honestly, I should do more of them.”

She points to a Twitter thread by tech investor Steven Sinofsky that he turned into the blog post “Writing Is Thinking” as her source of inspiration. Not only can writing help you deconstruct difficult issues you’re working on, it can also provide clarity for others.

“When we write, we’re actually engaging our brains in something,” Rayl says. “But it’s not just useful for structuring our own thoughts—it’s useful for the people around us who we share them with.”

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