Getting out from under the information deluge

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Today’s workplace is filled with all manner of stress, from chemical or biological agents, environmental conditions, external stimuli, or events that cause stress to an organism. Another one of these is the explosion of information that is drowning workers because of mobile connectivity, email, and documents.

A recent Deloitte study shows that despite checking their mobile devices up to 150 times per day and being always on, 72 percent of employees can’t find the information they need in corporate information systems. More than half of HR executives surveyed believe their companies are not doing a good job helping the workforce with the information suffocation and the stresses of today’s workplace.

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Note that 57 percent rate their companies as weak in helping leaders manage demanding schedules and expectations.

The Deloitte team cited Julian Birkinshaw and Jordan Cohen, who researched how knowledge workers can deal with demanding schedules and they found, unsurprisingly, that the best course is to eliminate or delegate unimportant tasks and spend more time on important ones. Forty-one percent of an individual’s time is wasted on discretionary activities that could be handed over to others to make room for important, fulfilling activities or more down time.

The pair led “interventions” with 15 executives at different companies with this strategy, and it led to six hours less of desk work and two hours less of meetings. At one company, a sales exec chopped administrative tasks and meetings to focus on helping her staff. Sales increased 5 percent over a three-week trial period.

These are the costs of feeling entangled in a web of commitments that many company cultures engender. Instead of trying to decrease overcommitment and making the company fast-and-loose, there is a steady pressure to focus on nonessential, time-wasting activities: sitting in on weekly status meetings, reading reports from other groups, filling out expense reports. All those should be eliminated.

Leaders should move to strip out the red tape and administrative headaches currently tying up the workforce, and cut back on the amount of unnecessary information exchange — in email, documents, or meetings. A study uncovered that when an executive sends out just one email it cascades, creating an “email contagion.” So if executives cut 100 emails from 200 per day an 80 person company, then the group collectively drops from 1,920 emails to 783. This translates to 231 work weeks per year recovered.

This is why Jeff Bezos famously shouted, “No! Communication is terrible!” when someone suggested that various groups at Amazon needed to communicate more. He had a vision of a decentralized, fast-and-loose company, where small groups and individuals can decide what to do and how to do it without getting bogged down in a morass of communication. And this is a central tenet of “leanership:” just enough communication, administration, and management as necessary, and no more.