Simplification of work: We have work to do

Simplification of work: We have work to do

Posted by Burt Rea and Ina Gantcheva on December 09, 2015.

We knew we had struck a collective workplace nerve when our 2014 Human Capital trend on The Overwhelmed Employee proved to be one of the most popular articles Deloitte has ever published. Widespread interest in the topic was further confirmed in our 2015 trends research, in which more than 7 out of 10 surveyed organizations rated the need to simplify work as an “important problem,” with more than 25 percent citing it as “very important.”

The drivers of workplace complexity are many and varied—to name a few:

  • Globalization coupled with technologies that enable 24/7 access across time zones and geographies.
  • The “jobless recovery,” which has many people doubling up to cover unfilled positions.
  • Increasing regulatory compliance requirements that add to the workload and administrative burden.
  • Growth, such as from M&A activity, expansion into new markets, or new product and service offerings. Complexity can quickly become overwhelming when organizations fail to take active steps to manage change and restructure as they grow.
  • Business processes that are not aligned with the current needs and business reality.

Some companies are already taking steps to simplify the workplace, reduce administrative burdens, and streamline complex processes. Here are five ways they’re thinking and acting differently.

1. Design the organization for agility and small teams.1
Organizations are recognizing that knowledge workers generally need less supervision than other types of workers and more flexibility in their work. They come to their jobs with an array of skills and talents and tend to perform better if given broad objectives and the freedom to figure out how to accomplish them, within reasonable constraints. Along those lines, organizations are working to design nimble teams that can be responsive to markets and customers. Rather than dictating team structure, they’re striving to make it easier for teams to coordinate their activities and communicate openly.

This increase in autonomy has the added advantage of reducing organizational layers. Organizations are also analyzing what Geoffrey Moore calls “core” and “context” activities2 to better focus on what truly differentiates them, a practice that is further supported by consolidating common services to gain efficiencies and free resources for more strategic pursuits.

2. Do regular portfolio analysis.
Organizations are striving to rationalize their portfolio of programs and content to concentrate on what’s most important for the business and what differentiates them in the market, as pictured in the following model.3

Do regular portfolio analysis

The left column “Run the business” activities should be routine, without requiring a lot of resources, time, or dedication. The same holds true for those off-the-shelf items in the lower right quadrant, taking advantage of what’s already been invented to be successful at things like project management, customer service, and sales techniques. This really allows organizations to focus more time and effort on custom, market-differentiating skills, competencies, and processes—the top right quadrant.

3. Apply design thinking to processes.
It’s common to hear the phrase, “We have a process for that.” But when is the last time that process was evaluated with a critical eye? Is the process necessary? Is it efficient? Or has it evolved into a cumbersome maze of activities that should be reconfigured or divided into separate processes? Process proliferation and complexity is a major contributor to overall work complexity. Design thinking is a way to keep processes fresh, customer-oriented, user-friendly, and relevant to the users and markets they’re meant to serve. A basic design thinking approach evaluates processes by thinking like a user or customer, including the following steps.

Apply design thinking to processes

4. Centralize functions and rationalize service delivery.
Organizations are thinking about how they can transform services and activities used throughout the organization to make them more efficient and easy to access—akin to a standardized utility. They’re often looking to stop the proliferation of local tools, vendors, and program designs and strive for global consistency whenever possible through the use of shared services and outsourcing for transactional activities (payroll, accounts receivable, analytics services) and Centers of Excellence (COEs) for consultative activities (M&A, training, change management). The goal is to move toward centralized functions for those functions that are easily replicated in order to reserve time and talent for those things that differentiate in the market.

5. Make work easier to manage.
Even small steps can have a big impact to reduce workplace complexity and help employees cope, with the added benefit of helping to drive employee engagement and productivity. Some examples:

  • Well thought-out workspace design that offers a blend of open and private spaces to support both collaborative and individual efforts.
  • Flexibility in when and where to work through flex scheduling and the opportunity to work remotely.
  • Policies to respect downtime, actively modeled and supported by leaders and managers, such as email curfews to limit emails on nights and weekends and “holiday etiquette” that prohibits emails on vacations.
  • Meeting management/discipline as part of the culture, such as setting time limits, following agendas, and standardizing practices for note taking and action items.

The need to simplify work is an evolving trend and so are the solutions. Organizations—Deloitte included—are still learning and experimenting. Simplification isn’t simple, and we have work to do in the quest to make work better, not harder. Our recent Dbriefs webinar “Simplification of Work: The Coming Revolution?” explores the topic in more detail. You can view the archived (60-minute) session here.

Burt Rea is a director in Deloitte Consulting LLP’s Human Capital service area. He brings extensive knowledge in advising leadership teams on managing transition and change to implement new strategies, processes, structures, and systems.
Ina Gantcheva is a senior manager with the Human Capital Talent practice of Deloitte Consulting LLP with broad experience in talent strategy and organizational transformation solutions.

1 Source: Ron Ashkenas, “Simply Effective: How to Cut Through Complexity in Your Organization and Get Things Done.” Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation, 2010.
2 See more at
3 Source: Josh Bersin, Training Investment Model®, The Blended Learning Book, Bersin by Deloitte.

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