Originally published by Forbes.
While the world has changed dramatically in the last several months, one thing has not – the fact that many working professionals feel like they have too much work to do. Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen, professors at MIT and University of Minnesota, respectively, explore the ever-increasing volume of work in their book, aptly titled Overload. They define overload as “the sense that work demands are unrealistic, given limited resources.” This problem of having too much work to do in too little time existed before Coronavirus, but now has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Employees who survive layoffs are expected to take on more, and our individual capacity is now diminished by the additional fatigue people have been experiencing, among other factors. There’s much we can learn from Overload to help make work work for everyone — both now and in the future.
In their book, Kelly and Moen share their extensive research and the story of the work redesign experiment they led at a global IT firm over several years. They went in thinking that they were looking at a work-family challenge and how these two parts of our lives come together, but very early in their study, they realized this was not the issue. While work-family challenges are real, the dominant issue they discovered was the sheer volume of work that people faced. They were hearing from 29-year-old men who had no other responsibilities, from 60-year-old grandmothers and everyone in between, that there was just too much to do and that expectations weren’t realistic. “Something had to change” was a common phrase they heard in their interviews.
The change Kelly and Moen led and studied in the IT firm was called STAR, an acronym for “Support. Transform. Achieve Results.” It is an example of dual-agenda work redesign that supports both the organization’s goals and the employees’ goals – most notably, helping employees to work in a more sustainable way that supports their personal priorities, such as their families and health. It allows employees to decide when, where, and how they work. I recently had the opportunity to speak to Erin Kelly who described STAR as “an effort to change the culture and basic operating assumptions of a team by giving them space to talk together about how they’re working currently and how they’d like to work together going forward.”
Ideally, such a work-redesign initiative is something that senior leadership supports and implements organization-wide, but it can be done within a single intact team as well. In a series of facilitated discussions (ideally with an external facilitator), team members share their challenges of overload or other challenges they’re experiencing and try to conceive of a better way of working where the team considers, as Kelly described it, “What would it mean if everyone could choose how they put their day together, and then how would we coordinate our work and still get things done and feel connected?” Sounds like something mature adults do or just part of good management, right? The irony, Kelly points out is that creating this space and time to step back and reflect on how we might work differently often doesn’t happen, in part, because we are too overloaded.
In the IT firm where Kelly and Moen implemented and studied the impact of STAR, part of the facilitated discussions focused on challenging old practices, norms and beliefs that had, until then, gone unexamined. This included discussing things like expectations around being always available, expecting immediate responses, positioning work as urgent when it may not be, and being rewarded for long hours versus results. It also involved calling out “sludge” – a term coined by Jody Thompson and Cali Ressler as part of their Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) initiative, another example of work-redesign.
Sludge includes the comments and questions that get tossed around that serve to reinforce old ways of working. This might be a comment a colleague makes about how many hours he’s put in or a team member questioning why you were offline in the middle of the day. The assumption in the latter example is that if you are not online, you are not doing work, or that work needs to happen during predetermined hours. Kelly said, “A key assumption that people learn to question is that just because I haven’t seen you, I shouldn’t be making an assumption about how productive you’ve been.” Likewise, people learn to question the assumption that longer hours equate to higher productivity or a more valuable contribution. Calling out these unexamined assumptions helps team members see that the number of hours we work, when we work, or where we work are not measures of productivity, commitment, or the value of our contribution.
At the IT firm that Kelly and Moen studied, employees practiced addressing “sludge” through role plays. For example, if someone was to ask about where you were or why you weren’t online at a certain time, you would reply with, “Is there something you need?” As Kelly and Moen point out in their book, this reply refocuses the conversation on the relevant tasks or goals versus where or when the work is being done.
As new work norms and practices were adopted as part of STAR, there were noticeable benefits in the first six months. It was ok to be offline, whether that was to do grocery shopping or focused work. People weren’t judged by how quickly they responded to IM, Slack or email – nor were they judged by how much time they spent – or didn’t spend – in the office (pre-pandemic). Together, teams decided how to use (or not use) various technologies. These were important, clear agreements team members made together that caused STAR to succeed on multiple measures, including reduced burnout and increased productivity, morale, job satisfaction, and retention.
I asked Kelly how she thought the pandemic and everyone working from home has impacted the amount of overload people are experiencing. She expressed worry that people are feeling more overloaded and more stressed, as we try to figure out a way to deliver products and services in a new way on top of our regular jobs, not to mention the additional stress of health concerns, childcare needs and other work-family challenges. Work-from-home burnout is real. Mostly, it’s been that our sense of control and choice have been taken away.
On the positive side, Kelly shared that the pandemic has created a disruption of old patterns, and we’ve now seen it’s possible to do many different types of jobs remotely and that people are both seeing and supporting each other as whole people. She said, “This could set the stage for a more deliberate work design effort going forward, where a team or whole organization says, ‘Okay, we’ve learned a lot as we have more leeway in determining how we want to work together. So, after this first period of stay-at-home orders, what makes sense for us? How are we going to support people’s personal and professional goals? How are we going to build in maximum flexibility while still knowing we need to work together to get things done?’”
Kelly also shared that the general approach of STAR doesn’t change very much with everyone working from home during the pandemic. In-office face-time culture has easily become zoom-time culture or conference-call culture. STAR or any other type of work redesign, Kelly said, “is still important to do as a team conversation. It should be a collective endeavor.” She worries that if some people go back to the office and other people don’t, then working at home will get re-stigmatized, and with those who stay at home assumed not to be contributing fully, as these are likely to be parents, older workers and other employees who are higher-risk.
Now that we know that people can work from home if they choose to, Kelly states that any work redesign approach should “start from the presumption that people have maximum say in when, where, and how they do their work. That we’re explicitly supporting each other in terms of professional and personal goals. And that it’s appropriate and, indeed important, to push back if the demands are unrealistic.” With STAR, if a team member is asked to do something that is not reasonable, the team is counting on this person to raise the issue so it can be addressed, versus the team member just pushing themselves harder and keeping quiet out of fear. It’s a signal that something needs to be re-designed or adjusted.
Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen have shown us through their dual work-redesign experiment that it’s possible not only to reimagine how we work to make it work for everyone, but also to execute on this ideal together, so that everyone benefits — including the organization. It’s giving people a choice about how, when, and where they work and a greater sense of control. In the pandemic, we all have an opportunity to step back and examine what’s going well and what’s not and envision how work can change for the better.