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How to reduce workloads

During Covid, we all grew used to the erosion of work-life boundaries and the 5% productivity increase. We do more, take on more, work more hours, deliver more. We burn out, we “burn-in”. We “engage” by suggesting doing more non-essential “relaxation” exercises which we join to be a team player. But the key to post-Covid engagement is conscious workload reduction, allowing the space for higher quality results, more creativity and the joy that comes with non-overload. Five ways to make this happen for teams.

Despite the gains workers have made through the Covid pandemic – increased flexibility, better conditions – the result has been higher workloads for everyone. With all the people leaving the hamster wheel, there is little slack for the people left behind. In 2020, 62% experienced burnout and in 2021, 67% of us reported even more stress and burnout post-pandemic[i]. Stress without a break over time turns into anxiety, depression and long-term unemployability.

Companies used to be proud of their reputations for “grinding people down” and “maximizing their (human) resources”. It was cool to do time on weekends, and log in after dark. But like an open-ended sausage, whatever you squeeze on one end squirts out the other in equal and opposite measure: more hours at work means fewer hours at home with family, friends, the community, let alone the debt you owe to yourself. This is “burn-out”.

Some companies understand this, and urge employees to “take time out”, “do mindfulness” and stop work to “go for long walks”.

But in the end, there’s no change in the number of deliverables expected nor the number of hours expended in our processes. We dutifully take our walks and return to bursting inboxes and realize we are infinitely more stressed after our hour-long company-mandated meditation class than before.

These companies enjoy proof-of-engagement and grind their people down with a culture of perpetual urgency and fast-burn projects, never enough. This is burn-in[ii].

“Burn-in” is the ultimate lagging indicator of Covid. We all grew used to the erosion of work-life boundaries, the 5% increase in productivity and the digital tools that keep us distracted, hyper-busy and never fully present.

Where did all this come from?
In general, people like to deliver, and even over-deliver. When we see a high-functioning person or team, we don’t reward them with time off but with a heavier load; until they break. This policy grinds our high-achievers ; it’s never enough. “Burn-in” deepens when over-delivery becomes routine and the insatiable need to feel useful, valued and irreplaceable is never met.

How do you know it’s happening to you?
How do you know your team is operating in an unsustainable norm of perpetual over-delivery? Are expectations too high, deadlines too tight?

Time for a cultural “deep-dive”, spending some time to ask the team a few simple questions:

  • Do you log in at night on a regular basis?
  • Do you dread returning after a vacation to a full inbox, everything you missed?
  • Do you check your mail when you’re on vacation to counter the previous?
  • Do we celebrate success by adding another project?
  • Do we attend meetings that are non-essential?
  • Do we automatically “cc the world” when responding to emails?
  • When a new project pops up, do you ask what can be dropped or postponed, or just add it to the list?
  • Do you feel able to say “no”?

Five ways to lessen the load
There’s no way around it. An hour is an hour. Whether we’re reading through a mountain of unnecessary cc emails, logging tickets or hours. Or, brainstorming with colleagues to solve an urgent supply chain issue or working on a new innovation: how should your team spend their days?

Kill the unnecessary
Audit your team’s current rituals. All of them. If a two-hour prep is required for every weekly team meeting, then it’s time to start cutting some corners. Admin, team planning, non-essential reporting, performance reviews, animated slide decks for internal presentations, hourly tracking are all done during the working day and take time away from creative work or improving the customer experience which should be everyone’s laser focus.

Signature projects
When we have too many projects, we can’t do any of them well. And this creates stress. Every time we transition from one task to another, we lose time, focus, and even up to 60% of our cognitive ability[iii]. Answering 50 emails referring to 25 different projects literally makes us dumber, slower, more distracted, less “present” and unhappy[iv].

One person, one “signature” workflow to own and maximize. Once that’s safely up and running, allow them to pull at something new on their time schedule. We naturally want to please, and a ticket system or Agile backlog is a visual way to take on just enough to do well.

Four-day workweek
One day a week without meetings as well as a general “slowdown” of email and messaging (Fridays might be the least threatening) allows us to do the “deep focus” work for projects or proposals that require creative thinking. We use our full brains in an uninterrupted state and the results at the end of the day are far better than when this same activity is pieced together in snippets in between zoom calls and group chats. Start by blocking half-days and even turning on automatic replies to manage expectations.

Gamify letting go
Gamification is a great way to tackle a culture of overperformance; who gets this week’s prize for underperformance for a non-essential task (“done” is better than “perfect”)? Making an internal presentation with one slide rather than ten, switching to “as needed” rather than weekly meetings or killing projects that don’t deliver are worth celebrating with a team muffin morning.

 No is no
If someone can’t take on another thing and is trying to push back politely, listen. If the signal is too weak to hear, ask. Is it too much? Are other projects affected? There is no shame in saying “no” when all you’re trying to do is deliver a quality result with your original load. Most of the time, leaders are not doing work themselves, often don’t even know what certain tasks demand nor see the small potholes that take many hours to resolve.

Overwhelmed high-performing teams don’t complain or escalate. They work more, organize better, do it faster, and feel safe in their over-delivery. Take care of your teams’ mental health to ensure sustainable, long-term delivery and enable true engagement; the kind that comes with just a few hours of downtime we used to enjoy pre-pandemic.

[i] Russell, Murphy, Terry  (2022) “What Leaders Need to Know Before Trying a 4-Day Work Week”. Harvard Business Review. Accessed June 19, 2022.

[ii] Deutscher (2022) “How Even Great Companies Are Draining Their Employees And How To Change It” Forbes Magazine. Accessed June 19, 2022.

[iii] American Psychological Association (2006). “Multitasking: Switching costs. American Psychological Association. Accessed July 01, 2022.

[iv] McKee (2017). “Happiness Traps”, Forbes Magazine. Accessed July 01, 2022.

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