A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jul 2, 2016

So Busy At Work, No Time To Do the Job

'Collaborative overload,' from hyper-connected managers - or the logical result of 30 years worth of downsizings to boost bonus-driven ROI? JL

Rachel Feintzeig reports in the Wall Street Journal:

Managers and knowledge workers now spend 90% to 95% of their working hours in meetings. 35% to 40% of managers are so overloaded that it’s actually impossible for them to get work done effectively. “I’m sure there’s a solution, I just haven’t had a chance to think about it yet.”
The poster child for the overloaded modern manager looks a lot like Hugh Welsh.
The executive at the North American arm of conglomerate Royal DSM has more than 100 direct and indirect reports and several job titles, including general counsel. So jam-packed is his calendar that Saturday meetings aren’t unusual, and employees sometimes line up seven deep outside his office for a moment of face time. Even his assistant, weary of juggling his schedule, recently left him to work with a smaller group in the company.
Mr. Welsh, who is 50 years old and married, says he’s exhausted. “I just can’t be all these different places at the same time.”
Plenty of managers feel like Mr. Welsh these days. As companies flatten hierarchy and preach collaboration among their ranks, a growing share of bosses’ time is spent coordinating, directing traffic and overseeing employees who may or may not report directly to them. Managers and executives complain that the push for teamwork, innovation and speed has left them little time to do real work.
Researcher Rob Cross has a name for the phenomenon: collaborative overload. Often top performers, these overloaded workers are put on high-value projects and sought by co-workers, but they can become bottlenecks when too many projects run through them. Companies like General Motors Co. and health insurer Cigna Corp. are surveying employees to figure out who is at risk of burnout, and some are making changes in the way work gets done.
Managers and knowledge workers, such as consultants, now spend 90% to 95% of their working hours in meetings, on the phone and responding to email, according to Mr. Cross, a University of Virginia professor who’s studied network connections in about 300 organizations; 10 years ago, managers spent around 60% to 65% of their time on those tasks, he said. The sliver of time left for focused work just isn’t enough, said Mr. Cross, who added that a “huge crisis” awaits companies that don’t rethink managers’ workloads.
Research and advisory firm CEB Inc. has found that 35% to 40% of managers “are so overloaded that it’s actually impossible for them to get work done effectively,” said Brian Kropp, a CEB leader who works with chief HR officers.
Years ago, “people just kind of did their tasks in front of them. Work was much more about what I did to accomplish something,” Mr. Kropp said. “Now it’s much more about ‘who did I work with so we could accomplish things together?’ ”
GM and Cigna have begun collecting data on connections among employees to figure out who might be overloaded. Telltale signs of an overconnected manager, according to GM, include when 25% of individuals in a network say they want more access to that manager. Cigna found that trouble starts when more than 40% of the connections in a network run through one person.
When technology company Juniper Networks Inc. JNPR -0.62 % analyzed employee networks to untangle a client’s complaints about miscommunications with the firm, it found that the bulk of communication about the account was going through a small group of employees, according to Chris Ernst, a network analysis expert who helped Juniper. When that small group grew overloaded, service to the client suffered, he said. Rather than doing their work, the so-called superconnectors spent too much time sharing information with co-workers “trying to bring them up to speed, trying to manage this giant hairball,” Mr. Ernst said.
The trouble went beyond client matters. Juniper said overconnected employees were 16% less likely to report having time to develop new skills and scored 21% lower on a measure of vitality—how energized and focused they were at work.
Some GM executives complete an assessment to measure their level of overload, responding to questions like, “Are people waiting at your office when you arrive?” and “Is your schedule booked three weeks out for a 15-minute meeting?”
GM has restructured some groups, creating roles dedicated to dispersing information so that others can focus on getting work done. Also, it is training executives to manage their networks, advising them that “bigger is not always better,” said Michael Arena, the company’s chief talent and development officer.
Cigna is analyzing ties among thousands of its 37,000 employees to identify those who are “so central to the network that it’s almost dangerous,” said Karen Kocher, Cigna’s chief learning officer, especially as it plans to combine with Anthem Inc. ANTM 0.25 % in a proposed acquisition.
Overloaded managers “feel as if they’re just serving up information and answering questions,” which slows their own work, Ms. Kocher said.
When Steven Lambert, a learning manager with Cigna’s employee-education arm, got additional responsibilities piled onto his regular duties a few years ago, part of him liked being the go-to person on a host of projects. But he started feeling like he was always behind; working 12-hour days, he still couldn’t make time to get his own work done. He eventually told his reports he wouldn’t attend meetings unless absolutely necessary and began delegating more.
“You know what? The world didn’t crash,” he said.
Royal DSM’s Mr. Welsh said he still feels “like Sisyphus.” During a recent trip to DSM’s home base in the Netherlands—the company has operations in food and nutrition, energy, industrial manufacturing and other products around the world—he scrambled to make several closely scheduled leadership meetings, stopping only long enough to make an appearance before rushing to the next.
“I said to myself, ‘What the hell am I doing? This is crazy. I’m not making meaningful contributions to the business,’” he said. He raised the issues with bosses and colleagues after the trip, but the company’s flat structure isn’t changing, and new hires aren't imminent.
“I’m sure there’s a solution,” he added. “I just haven’t had a chance to think about it yet.”


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