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Don’t let the overloaded work drive away employees

Although people are increasingly aware that long-term overtime will cause various adverse consequences, the company still requires employees and managers to remain “online” outside of traditional working hours-meetings at night, weekends and holidays are responsive, as long as you are awake, You have to answer calls, answer text messages, and write emails. Many people try their best to meet the above work requirements and eventually become exhausted. If things go on like this, the employees’ hearts are filled with an irresistible sense of frustration, and they feel that they cannot complete the tasks assigned by their superiors.

Employees who have been overworked for a long time may finally choose to vote with their feet and leave. Even if they do not leave, they are not likely to be exhausted to propose particularly efficient, creative and innovative solutions to business and technical challenges.

Whenever employees feel that the workload is too large to bear, the company always thinks that the problem lies in the imbalance between work and family, and seeks solutions from the flexible working system. But the root of the problem is that the workload is unreasonable and employees need to be on standby at any time. The flexible working system cannot solve these problems.

The author believes that to solve the problem of overloaded work, the company should focus on cultivating the following three conditions.

First, when employees have better control over working hours, locations and specific methods, they are less stressed, better health, more focused on work, and more responsible for their positions. Second, if managers show sufficient care and support for the personal lives and priorities of their subordinates, employees will work more at ease, so that they can go all out and do their best. Third, if the task is demanding and difficult, managers need to give clear requirements for employees’ working methods, goals, and priorities. Otherwise, the evaluation criteria of employee performance will easily deviate. The working hours are not long, whether they show their faces in front of the leader, whether they react quickly enough in a chaotic state, etc., become the criteria for judging, and the size of the contribution is underestimated.

The author carried out an experiment on job redesign in the IT department of a Fortune 500 company, reconsidering and revising the requirements for employees and assignment of tasks, and changing the way work is done. This experiment is called STAR for short, and the corresponding four words are Support, Transform, Achieve Results (support, change, and achieve results).

The working group determines which practices and processes can help employees better control their personal time and reduce “low-value” tasks, and trains managers to teach them how to support employees, take care of employees’ personal lives, and help them improve work efficiency.

In the process of job redesign, the team determines the flexibility of working hours and the allocation of home office opportunities according to the characteristics of different positions. Managers no longer require employees to take time off for a certain day to work from home, and employees do not have to tell colleagues where they work. Employees participating in the STAR experiment are less worried about working overtime, answering calls and responding to emails as soon as possible, and they are more focused on completing tasks. What the manager has to do is to determine the task requirements, clearly tell the employees and the team the requirements, and then evaluate everyone’s performance based on these requirements.

The STAR team can also decide how to communicate and how to ensure effective coordination while reducing the number of meetings, so that team members have longer time to focus on tasks during the working day. Some teams will use task progress tracking tables to replace briefing sessions; some teams will start by reforming the organization of the meeting, soliciting group members’ opinions on agenda items in advance, and only arranging directly related group members to participate in the discussion and decision-making of the meeting. Meetings have become streamlined and efficient; some teams have made arrangements for contact in emergency situations, so team members can ignore irrelevant chats and emails for several hours.

After one year of the STAR experiment, compared with the reference group, the fatigue of the STAR group decreased and job satisfaction increased. Participants in the STAR experiment also felt that they had more autonomy in working hours and locations, and their direct supervisors also gave more support to their personal needs and family life. In the following three years, the turnover ratio of managers and employees participating in the STAR experiment was 40% lower than that of the reference group.

Obviously, whether it is for the sake of employees or employers, our working methods should be improved.

Erin Kelly, Phyllis Moen

The company’s approach to employees is no longer feasible. Although people are increasingly aware that long-term and widespread overtime work will cause various undesirable consequences, companies still require professionals and managers to remain “online” outside of traditional working hours-meetings at night, weekends and holidays as long as When you are awake, you have to answer calls, reply text messages, and write emails. Many people try their best to meet the above work requirements and eventually become exhausted. If things go on like this, employees’ hearts will be filled with an irresistible sense of frustration. They will think that they can’t complete the tasks assigned by their superiors simply by relying on existing resources.

Of course, it is not just white-collar workers who are overworked, but we have found that white-collar workers are particularly sensitive to the negative effects of overwork. We surveyed more than 1,000 employees in the information technology (IT) department of a Fortune 500 company (let’s call it TOMO). Although in the eyes of the public, this company is a good employer and has a positive image, but for the description of the status of “not enough time to finish work”, 41% of professionals and 61% of managers in the interviewed departments are Means “agree” or “very agree.”

From 2010 to 2014, we conducted 400 employee interviews at TOMO, and complaints about “increasing job requirements” and “increasing fatigue” often appeared. Vanessa is a person in charge of the company. She said in the interview that she hopes her direct subordinates can be contacted “every day, every day, every moment.” She requested that if subordinates are inconvenient to contact outside of normal working hours, they must “let her know in advance.”

Jonathan is Vanessa’s subordinate. He shared a few things with us, from which we can see the impact of work on his family life and volunteer activities. He said that he often receives work calls late at night and sometimes wakes his wife. Despite his success at work, he is trying to guide his children not to engage in a career that is prone to overwork like him in the future. He believes that making a living like this is harmful to health and difficult to sustain.

Judging from the evidence collected by companies such as TOMO (including consulting companies, medical institutions, etc.), Jonathan’s concerns are correct. We heard that many IT professionals and managers of TOMO have caused health problems due to excessive work. They suffered from illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, insomnia, forgetfulness, and unknown rubella. They also complained to us about lack of energy, inability to exercise, and inability to prepare a healthy diet, which caused them to smoke and drink excessively. In fact, in our research, we found that fatigue, stress, upset (feeling sad, nervous, uneasy, hopeless, worthless, feeling inadequate for everything) and other bad feelings are more serious in people who work longer hours.

Another reason that causes employees to be overloaded is that the time is unpredictable and they are on standby at any time, which in turn makes the health of employees worse. If employees feel that their work schedules are changing and uncontrolled, they are prone to subjective feelings such as fatigue, stress, upset, and low job satisfaction. In contrast, employees who have a relatively fixed time and have more initiative in their work feel better. Studies conducted for different industries have shown that working hours for long hours and incomplete control of working hours can adversely affect employee health.

Companies that squeeze employees like TOMO are eating their own evil. Talented employees may not be able to bear it because of the heavy workload, or because the work requirements are unreasonable, they feel resentful, and if they work for a long time beyond their personal capacity, they will choose to vote with their feet and leave. At the same time, it takes away professional knowledge and sometimes valuable customer relationships, and the employer’s loss is obvious.

Even if knowledge workers and managers do not leave, they are unlikely to provide particularly efficient, creative and innovative solutions to business and technical challenges under overloaded conditions. If employees are required to do work beyond the feasible range in a fast and streamlined state, the quality of work will definitely be compromised. During the interview, TOMO’s program developers complained that the quality of the programs they wrote was not up to the required standard due to unreasonable deadlines. They worried that the lack of related steps and the delay in necessary maintenance would cause problems. One of the interviewees said: “We are under pressure to cut corners as much as possible.”

In order to better understand the causes and consequences of overloaded work, and to test targeted solutions, we have carried out a five-year cooperation with TOMO. As a member of Work, Family & Health Network (Work, Family & Health Network), we collect data from different sources, including companies, employees, and employee families. After that, we did a random field experiment involving the entire IT department, a total of 56 teams, to test the actual effect of the redesign. This experiment is referred to as STAR, and the corresponding four words are Support, Transform, Achieve Results (support, change, and achieve results).

We basically decided which groups would participate in the STAR experiment by flipping a coin, and which groups would continue in the current way as the reference group. Then we evaluated the work tasks and employee performance of each group and made comparisons. This article is a summary of the experimental results. Our conclusion is that overloading work is harmful. Usually its roots are organizational needs, but employers can solve this problem by making reasonable and feasible changes to the work style.

This matter has nothing to do with “balance”
Whenever an employee feels that the workload is too large to bear, the company always thinks that the problem lies in the imbalance between work and family, and the problem is handled along this line of thinking. However, there are risks in thinking about problems in this way for the following reasons.

There is a profound cultural connection between the family and women, and managers and employees have psychological presuppositions that consider family problems to be women’s problems. As a result, overwork has been transformed into a female problem. Female office workers bear the brunt of the impact. Some fathers and employees who need to take care of older relatives are also affected.

This framework of thinking has also strengthened the prejudice against working mothers, believing that they are not engaged enough in work and their abilities are insufficient, while fathers generally appear to be more focused on careers. In fact, part of the reason is that men undertake relatively less housework (but their superiors and Colleagues ask them to do nothing). This prejudice is deep-rooted, and it is well known that job applicants who become mothers face “fertility punishment.” But work overload affects both men and women, and people will encounter it at every age and at different life stages. At TOMO, young people, single people, and people with little family responsibilities feel that the work is too much and too heavy to bear.

If the phenomenon of overloaded work is explained by the imbalance between “work and family” and “work and life”, then various research scholars, various rights advocates, and managers who are willing to provide support will seek solutions from the flexible working system Solutions, such as flexible commuting schedules or fixed-day telecommuting. But the company only regards this type of arrangement as a “care” for its employees. Employees can apply for flexible work, but whether they are approved depends on the mood of their superiors. This leads to bargaining between superiors and superiors, which is like asking the mother for consent before the child does something: “Mom, is this okay?” In such a negotiation process, the employees’ personal needs are treated as an exception.

In fact, many employees, even those who are not restricted by time and office location, find it difficult to apply for flexible office benefits. The reason is simple, their immediate superiors need them to “sit at the desk.” At the same time, employees who can enjoy flexible work are easily stigmatized. More and more studies have shown that people who want to work flexibly are generally considered to be less dedicated and not suitable for promotion. Once this happens, they are equivalent to giving up opportunities for promotion and salary increase in exchange for flexible work arrangements.

The flexible working system, on the contrary, brings occupational risks, which in turn makes gender inequality more serious. This is really ironic (the irony is because in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, a large number of middle-class working mothers entered the professional work field or In management positions, the company adopts a flexible work system with consideration for professional women). According to a study of high-level management consultants, women are more likely to seek formal flexible work arrangements than men, and they are more likely to feel excluded and punished for this, and eventually leave their jobs sadly. In this study, one-third of the men did not use the company’s formal flexible working system. They met their work requirements with limited office hours and business trips. In contrast, their colleagues need to work long hours. But in the end, the scores of these so-called ideal employees in performance evaluations are much higher than those of colleagues who look “outrageous” because they seek formal or informal flexible work arrangements. In many people’s eyes, these flexible working arrangements are set for working mothers, although there are no explicit regulations in the system.

Finally, although the flexible working system allows employees to flexibly arrange their working hours and working locations, their perception of going to work has not changed as a result. As long as there is a need for work, an office worker must deal with it, answer the phone, or board an airplane for business trips. . The root of the problem is that the workload is unreasonable and employees need to be on standby at any time. The flexible working system is not set up to address these problems. It can only overload employees with work and cannot solve these problems.

Create a new normal at work
How can companies solve the problem of overloaded work while avoiding loopholes in the flexible work system? According to existing research, our team believes that the company should focus on cultivating the following three conditions.

First, when employees have better control over working hours, locations and specific methods, they are less stressed, better health, more focused on work, and more responsible for their positions. Second, if managers show sufficient care and support for the personal lives and priorities of their subordinates, employees will work more at ease, so that they can go all out and do their best. Third, if the task is demanding and difficult, managers need to give clear requirements for employees’ working methods, goals, and priorities. Otherwise, the evaluation criteria of employee performance will easily deviate. The working hours are not long, whether they show their faces in front of the leader, whether they react quickly enough in a chaotic state, etc., become the criteria for judging, and the size of the contribution is underestimated.

Our STAR experiment (work redesign with dual goals) is to meet the above three conditions. The so-called dual goal is to take into account the health of employees and their personal and family needs while ensuring work results. Work redesign refers to reconsidering and revising the requirements and task assignments for employees to build a “new normal”. The previous flexible working system did not challenge the status quo, and the dual-purpose work redesign involves the participation of the entire team and department, providing necessary time, space and cultural support, and jointly changing the way work is done.

In order to meet the above requirements, the STAR experiment combines the bottom-up changes planned by the employees with systematic training. After several extensive discussions with everyone, the working group has determined which practices and processes can help employees better control their personal time and reduce “low-value” tasks. At the same time, we have trained management staff to teach them how to support employees, take care of their personal lives, and help them improve work efficiency. At TOMO, we have arranged several brainstorming sessions within 3 months, with a total duration of about 8 hours. The time between the two seminars is for groups to communicate and practice the new concepts taught. The training for managers is 4 hours in total and completed in two parts. We also provide managers with a special mobile application to encourage them to regard supportive interaction as their core responsibility, and encourage them to give more explicit support to their subordinates, so as to develop new habits.

In the process of job redesign, the team determines the flexibility of working hours and the allocation of home office opportunities according to the characteristics of different positions. It is worth pointing out that this arrangement is not an exception, but the norm. In TOMO’s STAR team, members working in the same place can choose to work together in the office one or two days a week, or they can decide which things need everyone to sit down and discuss together according to the type of decision-making and the needs of the meeting. They will not put pressure on any team members to work from home or adjust working hours. All employees will make choices after comprehensive consideration of the team’s discussion.

TOMO’s STAR team can also decide how to communicate and how to ensure effective coordination while reducing the number of meetings, so that team members have longer time to focus on tasks during the working day. Some teams will use task progress tracking tables to replace briefing sessions; some teams will start by reforming the organization of the meeting, soliciting group members’ opinions on agenda items in advance, and only arranging directly related group members to participate in the discussion and decision-making of the meeting. Meetings have become streamlined and efficient; some teams have made arrangements for contact in emergency situations, so team members can ignore irrelevant chats and emails for several hours.

The members of the above-mentioned groups began to work from home more frequently, arranging working hours flexibly, so as to better take care of their personal lives. More importantly, they have changed their long-standing notions about who has the right to decide when, where, and how to work. For example, managers no longer require employees to take time off for work from home on a certain day, and employees do not have to tell colleagues where they work. Employees participating in the STAR experiment are less worried about working overtime, answering calls and responding to emails as soon as possible, and they are more focused on completing tasks. What the manager has to do is to determine the task requirements, clearly tell the employees and the team the requirements, and then evaluate everyone’s performance based on these requirements. Before the launch of the STAR experiment, managers also knew that clarity and transparency were important, but usually when the pace of work was fast, some necessary discussions were omitted.

In short, STAR is not just about the company’s senior management approving a new set of policies and then implementing it from top to bottom. In this experiment, professionals and managers have the opportunity to redesign daily work routines according to each other’s personal lives, new technical methods and specific work requirements. STAR ensures that in addition to changing working hours and locations, it is possible to consciously consider the way the team works.

Both the company and employees benefit
The leadership of TOMO invited our research team to settle in because they were worried that employees would easily change their minds when they were physically and mentally exhausted. The company’s IT directors and human resources managers have realized that the causes of work overload come from three aspects: the shortage of staff after several reductions in personnel, the need to coordinate with overseas cooperation teams across time zones, and technically can be online at any time. They hope that after redesigning the work with dual goals, they can reduce employee fatigue, improve job satisfaction, and help the company retain valuable employees. From the perspective of implementation effects, the STAR experiment has been successful in all three dimensions.

We evaluate the effect of the experiment from two aspects. The field survey data allows us to directly compare the STAR experimental group with the reference group and see the changes experienced by the former during the same time period. Since the groups participating in the experiment were randomly selected, the employees and managers of the two groups were highly similar before the experiment started. We are very convinced that the changes experienced by the participants are the result of the STAR experiment. From the interviews and ethnic data, we can also see what kind of experience work redesign is. We also understand the employees’ personal descriptions and reflections on these changes, and how the team finds solutions suitable for specific situations.

After one year of the STAR experiment, the responsibilities of employees and managers have not changed. However, compared with the reference group, their feelings of exhaustion have been reduced and job satisfaction has improved. This improvement is particularly obvious among employees who do not assume management responsibilities. Sherwin is a software design and development engineer over 50 years old. He had a heart attack a year before the experiment started. He said: “I have been busy and have never stopped, but I no longer feel powerless. This change is too great.” In Sherwin’s view, the STAR experiment “completely released his pressure.” On a large scale, the survey we conducted at TOMO proved that the stress levels and psychological anxiety (preclinical diagnostic criteria for poor mental health) of other participants were significantly lower than those of the reference group.

The participants in the STAR experiment also felt that compared with their past and compared with the reference group, they had more autonomy in working hours and locations, and their direct supervisors also gave more support to their personal needs and family life. We have discovered an interesting phenomenon. In the STAR experimental group, the rating of the work fathers’ support to their superiors has risen significantly. This indicates that the dual-purpose job redesign has a direct impact on male employees. Their family responsibilities were either Hidden or ignored. In general, the participants of the STAR experiment reported that after the experiment started, there were fewer conflicts between work and life, and more people believed that they had enough family time.

From the interviews we conducted after the STAR experiment, we can also see that the participants showed more care for themselves, they increased their exercise, and they could catch up in the afternoon when working at home, and also had time to communicate with neighbors and friends. Through smart watches that can objectively measure the quality of sleep, we found that the sleep time of the participants in the STAR experiment was slightly longer, and compared with before, they also had more energy after waking up. According to the data of several rounds of research we have done afterwards, the interviewed participants have an average of 8 to 13 minutes of short sleep during the day. Although the increase in sleep time is limited, it is worth noting that the quality of sleep has improved, although STAR training does not specifically address healthy sleep issues. In addition, these changes run through the entire evaluation process.

Finally, by comparing the records of TOMO’s human resources department, we found that the number of STAR experiment participants who are willing to resign is significantly lower than the reference group. In the following three years, the ratio of managers and employees who participated in the STAR experiment was 40% lower than the reference group. This difference means that the return on investment has increased by 1.6 times.

In summary, we found that taking the team as a unit, redesigning work tasks through small and feasible adjustments, has brought benefits to TOMO and its employees under overloaded working conditions. The experimental results prove this point. But in the course of our research, TOMO Company announced a merger with another company, so unexpected complications appeared. The positive changes produced by the STAR experiment in improving employee professional satisfaction and alleviating negative emotions such as fatigue, stress and upset were more obvious among those employees who participated in the experiment before the merger. After the M&A announcement, the original positive trend began to weaken, largely because employees worried that the new way of working could not be continued after the merger. This was indeed the case later. The company’s new leadership team did not further promote the redesign of the dual-purpose work, and the experiment was abandoned halfway.

Although it is deeply regrettable that the old practice has been re-used, the effect of the STAR experiment in TOMO shows that the company can arrange professional work and management work in a more effective and sustainable way. We believe that as senior management, middle-level managers, and grassroots employees have a deeper understanding of the cost of overloaded work, dual-purpose job redesign will become more and more popular. Office workers will choose to leave when physically and mentally exhausted, or they may stay, but it is difficult to create value because they are drained.

Obviously, whether it is for the sake of employees or employers, our working methods should be improved.

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