Book Review: Overload by Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen

Book Review: Overload by Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen
Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do about It
Genre: Management

Hardcover | 336 pp. | Princeton Publishing Press | | 1st Ed.
Buy on Amazon
4.5 rating

Overload is not a traditional business book based on a collection of case studies, nor a scholarly effort to collect previous research on a specific topic. It’s the result of a real-life experiment hold within a company, focused on work redesign, which used a control group to analyse the results. As such, it avoids the typical issues that laboratory experiments hold.

Why Overload?

Erin L. Kelly is Professor of Work and Organisation Studies at MIT Sloan Business School, while Phyllis Moen is professor of sociology at the University of Minnesota. The book starts with the sentence: The way we work is not sustainable, which is the central issue that the authors try to understand through the book. Their focus has been on professional and technical jobs, generally known as “good jobs” that however, are becoming more and more “bad jobs” in terms of overload and burnout risk for the workers. For sure, technology and an always-on, always-working culture have helped create this issue, but other trends have shaped the current situation, analysed in depth across the book. This includes outsourcing and delocalisation practices, as well as cost-cutting projects and stakeholder value-focused management. Topics that I have already started covering in my essay Reinventing Work.

Good jobs, previously characterized by relative autonomy and security, have become bad, with rising workloads, a sped-up pace, and escalating expectations that seem impossible to meet.

Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen, Overload, page 4

Their analysis is thorough on the multiple reasons for why so many engineers, programmers, project managers… the list can be long, continue to be burdened by overload symptoms. The firm resolves to “do more with less,” and employees try frantically to make that happen. But the issues that are caused are not only dangerous for the individuals, but also the organisations. The problem is not lack of talent, but lack of time.

But creativity and innovativeness are simply incompatible with burnout and exhaustion.

Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen, Overload, page 5

What they suggest is to implement a dual-agenda work redesign that can both profit the individual as well as the organisation, and their research tries to demonstrate precisely the level of improvement this creates. The experiment was conducted in a company that they confidentially call TOMO, and unfolds over five years, with a specific focus on the IT division of this large, Fortune 500 tech-focused company. The choice has been to study the “middle” of the worker’s continuum, as there were fewer studies available on the field. Unfortunately, the company went through an acquisition in the course of the study, by a more conservative firm that ultimately did not apply the learnings of the pilot. The authors, however, try to demonstrate with many details the results and findings.

The issue with Overload: the individual view.

Chapter two is focused on the analysis of the issue. Companies, as well as nonprofits and public sector organisations, are staffed in a lean way with pressure on employees to be responsive and agile, despite the growing demands. Although measured worked hours seem not to be growing drastically, what the authors’ focus on the perception of being “always-on”. Overload is defined as the sense that work demands are unrealistic, given limited resources.

They identify four dimensions that contribute to Overload:

  1. Long Hours. Particularly relevant in the US but also familiar in many European Countries is the tendency to work many more hours than the legal or contractual ones.
  2. Always-On Availability. New technologies have made it possible to “never leave the office”, and management expectations are often to get immediate answers. A dimension that is accrued in companies that are global and with operations spanning multiple time-zones.
  3. Multitasking and Split-Attention to Work. The increased load of work, but also the set-up of open spaces and the always-on mentality, mean that people are constantly juggling multiple tasks often at the same time, with the result of scarce attention to the most relevant part of their job.
  4. Conventional Expectations for Face Time. Even if work stretches between office and home, there is still the tendency to feel constrained by an old model that rewards “face time” and being visible to one’s manager and other people higher in the hierarchy.

All these points are particularly interesting also in the wake of the current Covid-19 pandemic, as all 4 of these are recognisable in the excessive “zoom fatigue” that many are discussing today.

But what are the consequences of Overload on the individual? For sure, there are indications of poor health behaviours, chronic conditions and health crises that arise from the increased stress levels. This way of working particularly hits sleep. But there are also other dimensions to be considered, particularly the effects on family and personal lives.

How did we get there: the Organisational View

Chapter three outlines reasoning from the side of the company on why firms have been pushing the boundaries and produced Overload. The situation is mainly focused on the US, as there are some missing policies compared to other markets. Currently, available research shows three perspectives on this.

  1. Workaholism. The first point of view is about the fact that some people are “driven” and extremely passionate about their work, which pushes them to invest so much time in it. For sure, many biographies have helped frame this, which often goes under the not so friendly name of workaholism, to underline a possible “individual” addiction to work and the related success.
  2. Hard Work Valorisation. The second point of view looks at the rewards – coming from business and society – of hard work. Many cultures seem to promote a “work-devotion” schema, and this often also translates in individual responses. Being “the go-to guy” is particularly relevant for many people. Which essentially translates in self-discipline to work long hours.
  3. Financial Pressure. A third theory looks at the push for firms to meet specific financial criteria, and the related anxiety for executives to maximise shareholder value in the short term. The focus on costs has often led companies to cut workforce or shift work to cheaper labour markets. This left most workers to feel less secure about their work. Plus, the workforce cutting, as well as the coordination effort needed to manage a global workforce, have increased pressure, and led to more extended hours. Which “made employees both desperately productive and productively desperate.”

In the case of TOMO, the research has been able to validate the following elements that add to the Overload perception:

  • Unrealistic timelines. As everything accelerates, there is a perception that managers in the company tend to set unrealistic deadlines, often as a result of an “overselling” of a specific project.
  • Downsizing. The company went through different cycles of workforce reduction, but the workload stayed the same for many of the interviewed people. This has left less and less time available for true collaboration and innovation, and ultimately does not allow people to help others.
  • Offshoring. In this particular case, the company has opted for offshoring to India looking at maximum cost-saving. This means that remote workers need much more training than local resources, and a lot more coordination effort, which is often not considered in the business case that leads to the offshoring decision.
  • Insecurity limits dissent. This last part is almost a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because people fear for their job security, they don’t address their overload concerns with management, often giving the impression that there is not an overload problem.

But what are the costs for the firm of Overload?

  • Cost of losing talent, as Overload is directly linked with turnover.
  • Cost of reduced quality
  • Cost of reduced innovation

Dual-Agenda Work Redesign as a Potential Solution

The authors propose a Dual-Agenda work redesign system that they labelled STAR. Dual agenda refers to the fact that these changes address both organisational concerns (working effectively) and employee concerns (working in ways that are more sustainable and sane, that reflect their personal and family priorities and protect their health).

The fundamental assumption of the methodology is to try to change the workplace, not the worker. The methodology STAR targets three specific work conditions in trying to improve well-being and making work more manageable.

STAR is designed to (1) increase employees’ control over when and where they do their work; (2) promote social support for personal and family lives (including recognising the need for time off from work); and (3) manage high work demands by focusing on results rather than time spent in the office or online and by reducing low-value work whenever possible.

The project was conducted by choosing a pilot group (and maintaining a control group) within the company and conducting several pieces of training, interviews and surveys.

STAR provides an unusual opportunity for employees and managers to reflect together on the way work is done and how individuals, teams, and the larger organisation can function more effectively while also supporting employees’ health, well-being, and personal commitments.

Most of the work done was related to discussing and analysing the way both employees and managers perceived work and their role.

A work redesign intervention was needed to change the social meaning so that new ways of working (…) are legitimate and logical rather than questionable or deviant.

Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen, Overload, page 102

Did the project succeed?

The field experiment demonstrated that STAR succeeded on all the measures that were important to the senior leadership of the firm. What was particularly noticeable, is the nature of the experiment, that allowed the comparison of the pilot group of people that went through STAR with the control group. The most significant changes happened in Burnout and Job Satisfaction for the people involved in STAR, and an increase in the turnover intention for people not included in the pilot, particularly during the merger talks. What did change on the ground?

  • Work is done more remotely and less in the office.
  • Work is done at different time, able to accommodate the personal needs of the individuals better.
  • Roles have evolved, as people feel more empowered.
  • Decision Rights as well have evolved.
  • Meetings and Coordination Policies have evolved, particularly with the fact that people are now enabled to skip sessions they don’t need to attend.
  • Instant Availability has been modified, as well as Assumed Urgency.
  • Greater engagement and more refòlectionm appeared.
  • Improved collaboration

All of these gains did not necessarily result in a reduction of worked hours. Still, people had much more autonomy in managing time, so it was now a decision more in their power to decide when and where to work, which contributed to a general reduction of Overload.

Was it than a full success? Well, no. ASs mentioned early, the management of the company that acquired TOMO simply pulled the plug on this initiative. Chapter seven does a thorough analysis of the reasons why this might have happened, giving a detailed lesson on Change Management and Leadership. However, the authors don’t cease stressing the fact that the project has been successful in demonstrating the value of addressing a new narrative of work based on the proposed STAR methodology.

A lesson from Overload.

Chapter eight lists the broader lessons learned by addressing the topic of Overload.

Overload arises because firms ask more and more of fewer and fewer employees.

Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen, Overload, page 193

Even though there are needs to be changed that are broader and at the level of the entire labour market, the authors identify three areas of interventions worth exploring.

First of all, employers can make changes by recognising the costs of the current ways of operating. This means looking at the cost of reduced engagement, burnout and turnover tied to long-term exhaustion of employees. A few companies have been practising some initiatives that tried to address these issues successfully, which demonstrates that approaches like STAR can be beneficial. The authors, however, acknowledge the issue policies might have different targets, especially when hourly workers are concerned.

Second, managers and employees can also start the conversation on some dual-agenda questions. At a minimum, employees and frontline managers can change how they interact with others to avoid reinforcing dysfunctional practices.

Third, there is a need to change the public policy context by providing sufficient safety nets for the new reality of work.

Ideas for Action

The book contains, in appendix three, a list of actionable ideas for managers and employees of actions that can be taken independently from an active project. I found this list particularly valuable, and have decided to propose here a quick extract.

Ideas for Managers and Team Leads

  1. Focus less on when, where and how work happens and more on results.
  2. Identify and reduce low-value work.
  3. Clarify what is expected for each employee, in terms of work products and other deliverables.
  4. Encourage employees to share when they are feeling overloaded.
  5. Don’t celebrate long hours or treat them as signs of commitment.
  6. Make it the default that employees decide when and where they work.
  7. Talk about how work is done too. Ask employees how they work when they feel most productive, energised and focused. Encourage employees to work that way at least some time.
  8. Recognise that concentrated time (often offline) is needed for getting real work done.
  9. Investigate performance problems to see what the issues really are for a particular employee.
  10. Be sure your own evaluations of who is performing well and who is a star are not really evaluations of who has always-on availability.
  11. For positions that seem to require high availability and responsiveness (like client managers or technical support), consider having two or three employees assigned to maintaining one relationship or monitoring one system.
  12. Acknowledge and support people’s lives and priorities outside of work.
  13. Change up your own work routines to fit in your personal, family, or health commitments.

Ideas for individuals

  1. Do not talk about long hours, working on vacation, interrupting sleep for work, and so on as a personal badge of honour.
  2. Do not joke about work from home as a time to eat bonbons, do laundry, or otherwise slack off.
  3. Do not comment on people’s hours or how long it has been since you’ve seen them in the office.
  4. Think about when, where, and how you are working when you feel most productive, energized, and focused.
  5. Consider blocking time offline for real work on your agenda.
  6. Broach the topic (cautiously) of trimming low-value
  7. Change up your own work routines to fit in your personal, family, or health commitments. Share that within your team, without guilt.
  8. Support your coworkers’ efforts to make their work sustainable and to meet their personal priorities.
  9. Share when you are feeling overloaded or when a particular task or timeline is not realistic, from your perspective.
  10. If you’re feeling burned out, that your health is at risk, or you are considering leaving the job because of its intensity or hours, say so and say it to multiple people.

A personal note

As I read through these points, I noticed how many of these have made up part of my work both as a manager and as an individual. I have always been inclined to think that long hours spent at work are not a badge of honour, but rather a sign of something else, which led me to many of the listed behaviour above. I have had to personally fight a lot on people that have been judging me for my supposed “slack” at work… But I feel I have been right most of the time. This just shows that indeed a lot can be achieved through personal initiative.

Conclusion

This book covers an often neglected aspect of the current reality of work, the fact that many (if not most) of what was considered “good jobs” are transforming in pretty “bad” jobs, seen by the experience of individuals. Overload is one aspect that impacts these roles, often now also menaced by the development of AI and new technologies. As such, this book helps significantly in breaking the narrative of an all-happy future of work that many have been advertising.

Overload and the clash of old rules with new realities are not private troubles that employees and frontline managers can fix for themselves by getting up earlier, deciding on their own to not read email in the evening, or scaling back on family obligations. Solving these problems requires inventing new ways of working to promote sane and sustainable jobs, fostering effectiveness on the job, and insisting on a higher quality of life for workers of all genders, ages, educational levels, occupations, and life stages.

Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen, Overload, page 6

The solution proposed is valuable and points at the right aspects: this is not a question of technology, but instead of what Works represent today and what will represent for future generations. I have already mentioned this when speaking of Remote Working maturity. For sure, the fact that the experiment was not fully implemented at TOMO leaves a bit of bitter taste in the reader, despite the attempts of the authors to really focus on the value identified. Yet I cannot avoid mentioning that most conclusions are simple, straightforward and intuitive. The value of this book is in showing that there is a path for the reinvention of work beyond the standard ideas we all still have. And for the role of HR in this path.

Did you read Overload? How did you find it?

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Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do about It
Genre: Management | Rating: 4.5/5
By Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen
Hardcover | 336 pp. | Princeton Publishing Press | 17/03/2020 | 1st Ed.
ISBN: 9780691179179
Buy on Amazon

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