2014 global human capital trends

The overwhelmed employee

Simplify the work environment

March 7, 2014

Too much access to information has turned us into “overwhelmed” employees. Nearly every company sees this phenomenon as a challenge to productivity and overall performance, but struggles to handle it.

An explosion of information is overwhelming workers, while smartphones, tablets, and other devices keep employees tethered to their jobs 24/7/365. The Atlantic recently termed this trend “hyper-employment,” noting that even the unemployed can suffer from it.1

Studies show that people check their mobile devices up to 150 times every day.2 Yet despite employees being always on and constantly connected, most companies have not figured out how to make information easy to find. In fact, nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of employees have told us they still cannot find the information they need within their company’s information systems.3

This constant and frenetic level of activity also costs money, perhaps $10 million a year for mid-size companies.4 According to one study, 57 percent of interruptions at work resulted from either social media tools or switching among disparate stand-alone applications.5

The true downside of this information overload is harder to measure. With everyone hyper-connected, the reality may be that employees have few opportunities to get away from their devices and spend time thinking and solving problems. And the problem is getting worse. The sun never sets on a global company, so someone is always working, awaiting a response to an email or phone call. The weekend as a time away from work is also becoming a thing of the past.

More than half of the respondents to our Human Capital Trends survey believe that their organizations are not doing a good job helping workers address information overload and today’s demanding work environment. Nearly six in ten respondents (57 percent) say their organizations are “weak” when it comes to helping leaders manage difficult schedules and helping employees manage information flow (figure 1).

Figure 1

According to our global survey, executives around the world are sounding the alarm, with respondents in most countries recognizing the urgent need to address this challenge. But, with the exception of Spain and Kenya, executives in few countries report their capabilities are equal to the sense of urgency (figure 2).

Figure 2

Creating more time to think and produce

How serious is the problem? Julian Birkenshaw and Jordan Cohen studies the productivity of knowledge workers and found that people waste as much as 41 percent of their time on things that offer little personal satisfaction and do not help them get work done.6

One reason employees are so busy is they may be afraid to delegate tasks, while more and more employees, particularly men, view “being busy” as a badge of honor. In fact, new research shows that 29 percent of men with children work more than 50 hours per week—a “workaholic” lifestyle that increases with income and seniority.7

Many have suggested that, as organizational leaders and as individuals, we need to learn new skills to manage time. While Yahoo’s CEO Marissa Mayer made headlines when she asked employees to stop working at home, what she was really saying was that “we want to know what you’re working on so we can make sure you prioritize well.”8

The value of smaller, agile teams

Organizations are beginning to acknowledge their share of responsibility for the problem of the overwhelmed employee and take steps to help solve it.

Historically, managing time and information was viewed as an employee’s personal concern. If employees were overwhelmed, the thinking went, they were expected to fix it themselves—by taking a course in time management, for instance. Now, some employers are treating overload as a shared problem requiring a company response. In short, the overwhelmed employee is being viewed as a business and productivity challenge, as well as a personal one.

One strategy companies are following to help employees become more productive with their time is creating smaller, more agile teams.

The software industry, which is widely known for experimenting with innovative management practices, has been revolutionized by the “agile” model.9 Under this system, teams are broken up into small groups that regularly hold short, face-to-face meetings. Each day, these teams have daily “scrums” and “stand up meetings.” These events last no longer than 15 minutes, forcing people to rapidly discuss issues, resolve problems, and get back to work.

This practice is backed up by research from Richard Hackman, a former professor at Harvard University and Yale University, which found that small teams outperform big ones.10 Hackman also demonstrated that teams where members know each other well communicate more quickly, with far fewer words and emails.

To make meetings shorter and more efficient, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, hit on a novel approach he calls the “two pizza” rule. Every meeting at Amazon should be small enough to feed everyone with two pizzas—limiting attendance to around five to seven employees.

Simplifying HR practices and employee systems

It’s likely that many organizations will look to their HR leaders to help figure out how to address worker overload. Some HR organizations are already stepping up to the challenge.

Best Buy, for example, adjusted its “flexible working” policies to encourage employees to take time off and recharge. Adobe eliminated steps in its performance appraisal process, helping managers and employees save several weeks each year.

Simplifying business and HR systems and making them easier to use can also make employees more productive. People no longer want more features in their enterprise software; they want “one click” or “one swipe” transactions. We call this the “consumerization” of corporate systems—which really amounts to valuing the time of a company’s employees as much as it respects the time of its customers.

In our most recent research on HR systems adoption, ease of use and user interface integration were rated as the most important factors in driving user adoption.11

This finding raises many important questions: How many steps does it take at your company to appraise an employee? To fill in an expense report? To register for a corporate course? How easy is it to find information, people, and resources in your company? If the HR and IT departments are not working together to make things easier, they are taking away valuable employee time.

Outsourcing or insourcing non-core tasks

Companies are also looking at ways to outsource or insource repetitive, non-core tasks to free up employee time and energy.

Pfizer developed a program called PfizerWorks that allows employees to off-load technical and administrative non-core tasks, such as statistical analysis, writing, and publishing. Scientists claim it saves months of time per year, allowing them to dedicate more time to strategic work and their scientific skills.12

Changing work expectations

Does everyone need to be online all day and night? Some executives now deliberately avoid sending emails at night or on weekends, sending a signal to the team that it is OK to disconnect and unwind.

Professional services organizations are increasingly asking teams to travel less and offering the option to work at home, enabling them to save time and energy on commuting and travel.

More and more companies are experimenting with “email free” times and the use of collaborative web tools that slow down massive email distribution and focus communications directly to the smaller working team.

Lessons from the front lines


A global health care company initiated a major program to address the issues of information overload, meeting ineffectiveness, and unnecessary travel. The project produced four recommendations:

  • Enforceable guidelines on sending emails, holding meetings, and traveling—and educating staff in these areas. Meetings were limited to 30 minutes, while the use of “cc” and “reply all” in emails was curtailed.
  • Empowering leaders to replace some travel by making greater use of virtual technology—including Live Meeting, WebEx, Skype, and MS Lync—and improving the overall virtual technology experience in the company.
  • Dedicating half a day per week to focus on company’s leadership initiatives, with an emphasis on connecting with customers.
  • Promoting accountability in decision making in these areas by working with HR.

Where companies can start

The point of these and similar efforts is not merely to save employees’ time, reduce stress, and foster employee engagement, important as those aims are. Rather, it is also to free up unproductive time to permit more-engaged employees to focus deeply on business imperatives. Here are a few starting points:

  • Lead through example: Change is often most powerful when it comes from the top. Leaders should have—and should grant themselves—permission to take these steps, setting an example to help their employees deal with being overwhelmed.
  • Get input: Assess employees’ current workloads and what issues trouble them most. Rather than ask high-level engagement questions, survey them on their most “frustrating” work practices or systems.
  • Simplify HR and talent programs: Reduce the number of steps and make it possible to complete an entire process in a few minutes.
  • Simplify information and HR systems: Consolidate HR and employee systems in favor of what we call a “learning architecture”—one integrated place to find information, people, and content.
  • Publicize and celebrate flexible work policies: Employees need to understand that it is OK to work at home, take time off during the day, and miss meetings. Clear policies help make it possible for people to disengage from less important tasks when they are busy with other projects or personal needs.
  • Make meetings productive: Post guiding principles in every meeting location to encourage effective meetings. Help people reduce the size of meetings, number of emails, and frequency of communication. Schedule meetings for 20 or 50 minutes rather than 30 or 60. “Stand up” meetings are a powerful way to keep people from wasting time.
  • Delegate decision making: Is it clear who makes decisions in your workgroup? Can people make their own decisions without involving many others or asking others for help? Push decisions down, and people’s lives become easier.

Originally published at Deloitte Insights

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