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The daily bombardment of digital communications is maddening not just for stressed-out workers, but also for the managers tasked with maximizing their teams’ productivity.
For office workers, getting back from vacation once meant clearing voicemail, returning calls, and catching up with co-workers by the water cooler. Nowadays, it’s catching up on hundreds of emails and Slack messages, and then responding as necessary. The pileup can be immense, as digital communication are so cheap, fast, and easy, meaning there is little disincentive to clicking send. One estimate puts the number of emails sent and received in 2015 worldwide at around 200 billion, with businesspeople sending and receiving 122 emails per day. That figure is growing, making inbox zero an ever more elusive goal.
This takes a toll on workers, which naturally makes it a concern for managers too. “There are just a million distractions at work,” says Josh Bersin, the founder of Bersin by Deloitte, an HR-research arm of Deloitte. “The reality of work is if we don’t design these experience well, people get overwhelmed.”
In a new survey by Deloitte, which polled 7,000 human-resources professionals from over 100 countries, 65 percent of respondents said they were concerned that their organizations were too bureaucratic and complicated. And yet, only 18 percent of those professionals said they were actively helping employees to deal with information overload at work.
Bersin says that some of the companies interested in combating the problem have been turning to what’s called “design thinking”—a problem-solving method based on observing how workers go about their days, instead of how employers want them to go about their days. “Instead of just taking a bunch of content and trying to figure out how to train people,” Bersin explains, “they turned the problem around and said, ‘Let’s watch people at work and see what the issues are.’”
This approach has led companies to change their policies in small ways. Some executives and managers have been discouraged from sending emails on Friday afternoons, weekends, or after hours. And GE has tried to let employees simplify their workdays by giving them the power to skip meetings as they see fit. While these changes may seem small, Bersin says that they have the potential to make employees have better experiences at work and help them be happier, more engaged, and productive.
Bersin says that focusing on skilled employees’ experiences represents a shift in how companies manage their workforce. At many companies, the deal offered to such employees was simply “We pay you, and you do the job.” If something wasn’t working, employees were put through training programs to get them up to speed. But these days, Bersin says, that approach can result in high turnover rates, which are incredibly costly. “Employees behave more like volunteers now,” says Bersin. “You have to give them work experiences that are enjoyable in order for them to really stick.” And that’s why companies are starting to open up to the idea that a job might need to be tweaked to accommodate a skilled worker, rather than the other way around.