You can’t turn off the fire hose, but you can control the pressure

Overwhelmed employee

Posted by Tom Hodson on May 9, 2014

If I had to pick the one Global Human Capital Trends 2014 that generates the most head nods of understanding it would be the trend of the overwhelmed employee. People seem to universally understand and share the feeling that being “always on” is taking its toll, but often seem at a loss about what to do about it. To many, the problem seems unsolvable. Here’s a look at how we got here and what the future might hold for controlling the information overload that hampers productivity, performance, and ultimately happiness.

The first thing worth noting is that we got to “overwhelmed” very quickly when you consider the span of human history. It took 46 years for electricity to be adopted by 25% of the population. The telephone took 35 years. In contrast, the world wide web took just 13 years, and mobile phones nearly half that time — 7 years. The last 25 years has seen a breakneck pace of technology adoption.

First, laptop computers enabled us to start taking work home. Next, cell phones allowed contact from anywhere. Email programs soon let others schedule our time, while mobile devices delivered email even when we weren’t tethered to our computers. Social networking applications expanded networks and supported ongoing dialog, along with texting and instant messaging that added immediacy to the mix. Is it any wonder that we are feeling some side effects?

We have MORE of everything. More connections, more calls, more texts, more urgency. The result is more work, more interruptions, and more time reacting. Not surprisingly, we have LESS of things required to keep us from becoming overwhelmed.

  • Less predictable “off” time
  • Less focus
  • Less control

Sixty-five percent of executives responding to our Trends survey rated the overwhelmed employee an “urgent” or “important” trend, but only 9 percent are helping their employees deal with it. Here a few things leading companies are using to try to attack the problem.

  1. Policies. Mandating things like “no email on weekends,” setting tighter controls for distribution lists and corporate emails, and establishing meeting guidelines (whom to invite; why and how frequently to meet) are a few of the ways companies are attempting to rein in the overload. Predictability helps us feel in control, so adding predictable “off “ time helps combat overload.
  2. Systems. Companies are giving people more guidance and more tools to better manage the systems and tools that are contributing to their overload. These are things like leveraging built-in email rules functionality and using email add-ins or third-party apps to help filter, sort and prioritize emails. A few companies have rid themselves of email completely, putting in place alternative tools to enable communication.
  3. L&D. Organizations are also focusing Learning & Development resources to combat overload. Part of this is training around the technology itself — how to better use email or social media tools and the like — and part of it is aimed at personal development. Deloitte, for example, offers its leaders a personal productivity coaching course. There’s also an emerging focus on the notion of mindfulness and teaching people meditation and other tactics to turn off internal chatter, improve focus, and support more thoughtful, less emotional responses.

What might be ahead as we strive to gain more focus, sense of control, and predictability in our work lives?

One future tactic could involve the concept of paying for attention. Just as advertisers today pay to have their ads front-and-center on search engines and social media sites, internal business units or departments might have to “pay” for the time and attention of employees. Time is a limited resource, and something as routine as copying someone on an email or inviting them to a meeting has a real cost that adds up quickly. What if every meeting invitation subject line also contained the cost of holding that meeting, based on the time consumed? What if your budget was charged that amount? How might having to “pay for attention” change behavior?

One thing is certain: The fire hose won’t be turned off anytime soon. The underlying drivers (email, smartphones, texts, social media) aren’t going away. But a combination of policies, systems, and learning can help reduce the pressure. Our upcoming Dbriefs webcast (Information Overload and the Always-On Worker: Emerging Coping Mechanisms) will cover these topics in more detail. I hope you will join us (May 7/2:00 p.m.) — schedule permitting!

Tom Hodson Tom Hodson is the managing principal of Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Leadership Center for Clients and collaborates with our clients on leader and team effectiveness, strategic change, and innovation.

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