When we talk about the future of work we also talk about some necessary paradigm shifts, sometimes about things that seem so obvious that we never think to question them.
One of them is the workload.
A topic that we will, as usual, explore in terms of the major forces shaping the future of work in 2022.
As in many areas, the pandemic has not really created new problems but has forced us to open our eyes to existing ones.
Many managers used to be satisfied with a simple equation where the delivered result was a function of the available work time, and it was up to them to verify that 100% of this time was used to work.
This equation is known to be false for most professions, especially for “white collar” jobs with non-linear productivity, for which it is well known that even if the time worked is equal to the time available, it does not correspond to the value created. One can spend hours on a subject without finding the solution and find it in two minutes during a break or the next day with a clear head. In short, the time worked does not determine the value created, but it doesn’t matter, we are satisfied to believe that it does.
In this case, other factors had to be taken into account: the impact of confinement, isolation, the personal or family context, morale… which had a negative impact on the capacity to provide the expected work regardless of the time available.
But that’s always been the case, right? Confined to your home or office? Yes, but because of popular pressure and a worldwide event, it was no longer possible to close one’s eyes or else one would be considered an executioner.
As a result, employee mental health and mental workload, which are anything but new concepts, have become more firmly established in the landscape.
The subject has a limited but not zero impact.
While books, applications, coaching and more or less miraculous methods to manage oneself and one’s mental health are numerous, and we keep hearing how essential it is to have a balanced life and reach our goals, it is surprising that the subject is so low on the corporate agenda.
I mean by treating the causes of the problem, not by trying to cure the effects and making the employee believe that the problem is on his side.
It is at the heart of the matter, not because it is part of the solution but because it is at the heart of the problem. And this in two ways.
First of all, because it is omnipresent, making work “ATAWAD” (Any Time, AnyWhere, Any Device), it contributes to increase the mental load of employees who receive more information, injunctions, orders, tasks than they can handle, even outside their working hours.
Secondly, because it contributes to amplifying one of the problems of the knowledge economy, or rather its inadequacy with current operational and managerial models.
It is a fact that we are talking about jobs where flow and production are now intangible and we won’t change that. On the other hand, if we don’t know how to measure and make tangible the quantity of work in progress and to be done, it becomes easy to say “since it’s invisible, let’s pretend it doesn’t exist” and end up with employees who are overwhelmed by tasks and follow processes that are not adapted to their job.
The problem with technology? It does what it is supposed to do: it makes it possible to operate faster and on a larger scale. But since it ignores the capacity of individuals to receive and process information and is most often used to accelerate dysfunctional processes, it creates large-scale dysfunction and an unbearable burden for many individuals.
Technology is neutral and blind. But when humans misuse it….
The good news is that it can also be part of the solution…
The evolution of Society and the Economy
There is nothing noteworthy to say except that while the above-mentioned activities now represent the bulk of modern economies and their value creation, it would be good to finally try to manage them according to their specificities.
The transformation of service activities and knowledge work
Here we are at the heart of the matter. We are managing intangible and non-replicable activities with a model that was once designed for physical production flows and repetitive tasks.
But since we can only manage well what we can measure properly, we need to adopt relevant measures to make things change.
The issue of mental workload is nothing new and already existed a century ago for people working in factories but its impact was less because everything was designed so that people did not have to think, assuming that design and operation tasks had to be separated.
This is no longer the case today with, on the contrary, employees whose role is no longer to replicate perfection ad infinitum without thinking but to solve problems and deal with unique cases.
Add to that the impact of technology and we have a major issue to address.
Workload and mental workload have always coexisted in the enterprise but in different places. Workload is the business of those who organize production, mental load is the business of those who take care of people and HR.
Today, it must be admitted that mental workload must also be taken into account at the production level because it is more relevant than the time available to estimate the work capacity of an individual but, above all, the capacity for this work to have value.
It remains to find relevant indicators to get a pertinent idea, even if imperfect. This will not be easy, but by acting as if nothing had happened, we risk breaking the most essential and fragile production tool: people.