Optimizing workload has always been a key concern for businesses and managers. A too heavy workload regarding to the capacity leads to explosion, a too low workload means resources are wasted. I don’t even mention last minute assignments to face imponderables. In brief, bad adjustments have an heavy price.
In a manufacturing economy things are more or less easy to manage. The capacity of a machine or the impact of bottlenecks on an assembly line are known facts. As for people accomplishing standardized tasks in such a context, the time needed to execute a precise task at a given level of quality is known too. When imponderables come, it’s easy to identify if an added production capacity is available since the maximal and actual workload are known facts too for machines. As for people, a glance at their work-in-progress is sometimes enough to evaluate the sitation. In short, in a tangible production system, it’s easy to know the sitation at a given moment and what’s the safety margin (if any). More, the situation can even sometimes be assessed by having a look around.
The move toward an intangible economy makes things more complicated. First because things are less and less linear and setting an optimized production planning that matches reality is a very difficult task, if not impossible. Tasks become problems to solve, solutions to find and if average durations can be calculated afterwards, making it a priori as a forecast looks like accomplishing a miracle. More, talking about knowledge work, notions like quantity and quality are closer than ever. That’s for what’s foreseeable (or looks like) and it’s even worse for unforseeable things.
This is a problem that’s both about production performance and management. In this problematic, our modern tools, even if they are a part of the solution are also the cause of new issues that are far from being trivial.A performance issue first : no need for long explainations to understand that, if aligning workload with production capacity is impossible, big problems can be expected.
A management issue then : loading someone without paying any consideration to the fact this person is already snowed under with work causes, when it becomes systematic, an increased fatigue, then demotivation, then revolt and, at the end, burnout. A good way to disengage and lose employees in an efficient way.
What’s the role of communication tools in all that ? I said above than a glance was sometimes enough to assess the situation. Today, the systematization of email makes it easy for anyone to get it of any problem by forwarding it to a colleague or a subordinate without paying any attention to the situation of this person. More, if anyone could understand that loading someone who had a huge pile of work in progress in front of him was useless, talking to him face to face, clicking a on button without taking care of the recipient removes all sense of responsibility. The bad use of email, both on the content (becomes a to-do and assignment tool without giving any information on the capacity of execution) and the form (brusque words, sufering feeling….) sides makes the situation even more touchy.
As we work more in more on and in information flows that become more intense everyday, this problem will come back everyday with an increased strenght. Fist under the performance angle, then under the human angle if managers want to prevent the “hiring – burnout – sick leave – resignation” cycle to become a costly norm.
Any solution ? Unfortunately, at this time, I can’t see any that would solve the whole problem. In the meanwhile, maybe it’s possible to make things easier.
1°) Better rules for email rules. Replace “please to this” by “do you have time to….” and wait for the reply before assigning the task.
2°) Use internal social networks to build a kind of marketplace that would put work capacity and competence on a given subject in relation with needs and allow those who can apply for an assignment instead of blind assignments to those who can’t. When unforeseeable nature and complexity become the norm, flexibility and on demand become the right answer.
3°) Invent relevant workload indicators. We’re starting from scratch and I have to admit that I don’t have any idea of what it may look like. I don’t even know if it’s possible. Such a context implies not only projected indicators but also – and above all – instant and short term indicators. Statuses that people would update ? Not reliable and too compelling. Real time indicators drawn from the use of work tools ? Why not. If the question seems to have no answer and looks like the challenge of the century, this may be because it’s supposed to answer to what may become the disease of the century if we don’t find how to deal with it.