My dear Mum, God rest her soul, used to say to me “have you done all your work then?” This was 2019, and my answer was “I’m never finished”.
See Mum was from the Industrial era Shoe Factory workforce so prevalent in 1960–1990s Northampton. So work was somewhere you went, to make things and concluded when the horn signalled the end of the day.
OK, she didn’t stop because, like most working hero Mums, my Mum was also then doing household chores and some relaxation time in front of the TV.
BUT she had a sense her work was done. There were large piles of shoe fronts to machine stitch between 0830 and 1630, and ironing, cooking and cleaning to do, but there was a time when there was no “bulging work stack”.
For me, that’s not been the case since I don’t know when.
Sure, there is a different thing to a tray of leather shoe parts and an inbox or folder full of paperwork. I had more in my head perhaps about the work I was doing and wanted to do.
I always seemed to have arrears. Because I saw beyond my actual tasked activity and had dreams of doing other things. I wanted to stretch my own intellectual and knowledge perspective.
So I’ve always got a bulging reading backlog.
I aligned myself, took on, signed up to, and instigated additional projects. Be it research into flexible working experiences for my colleagues. Be it, exploring a new learning programme for new entrants.
Things I didn’t have to do but wanted to.
So I’ve always got a bulging projects backlog.
Whilst this might seem odd or workaholic-like, it was simply an expression that I wanted to attach myself to more than my minimum viable workload.
I would sometimes catch myself and ask myself “why are you piling more onto the work/reading/learning stack?”
My answer came back to this: I’m restless, curious, keen.
Restless, curious and keen to see changes in the ailing states of things like education, work and learning for people.
Restless, curious and keen to not knowing enough about people, psychology, systems, economics, the environment, leading others, innovation.
Restless curious and keen about existing versus flourishing.
So I deliberately added to my own work/learning stack continually.
Now the point of this post is that’s a deliberate bulging by decree/determination.
What I see in 2022 is something different. The forces of the world are creating the bulging work stacks and we’re all pretty much at the whim of those forces.
Of course, some industries are still feeling the effects of COVID-related shifts in how people live and work (retail, hospitality) which is reducing work — lower footfall, lower capacity etc. But in the vast majority of cases — especially in office-related knowledge work, local government, health and social care, education — work has increased and is continually increasing.
Not just COVID adaptations around safety, testing and social distancing, but challenges around:
Hybrid working situations. Whatever they mean to you, it’s different permutations, expectations and uncertainty about what a place of work is really there for. We’ve had 2 years of bedroom/kitchen table/ironing board working with laptops and devices and we’ve made the best of it. BUT we miss social cohesion but fear infection rates that are still high even if not as dangerous as 2020.
Digitised, online preferences. Our buying, consuming and interacting is now done a lot through screens. So, therefore, is the adjusting value and supply chain that supports that.
Learning programmes and consuming knowledge-based content is also largely online or in written/spoken form. Events are recovering but not sure we’ll see them operate in the same ways as a pre-2020 fashion would.
Connectivity to others. Whilst we see pictures of award ceremonies, gatherings and some forms of socialised living and working, we’re in a very different place to connect to others. Forming trust onscreen is undoubtedly different to in real life and requires more work to do the connection in some ways, and less in others (commutes and hopping around metropolitan centres).
Meetings, decision making, innovation practices. All different on a Mural Board compared to a White Board in a conference breakout room. We’re learning and adapting and doing our best.
Vaccination programmes and new policies on social interactions. And a new highway code even in the UK.
All these things have added to the work stacks we have.
They require additional cognitive processing and habit creation— erasing orthodoxies we used to simply be in muscle-memory mode in doing. Now we’re conscious of things we’re incompetent at but we weren’t before COVID.
It’s not even the master plan of a Government-led conspiracy to occupy us more, whilst they proceed with their agenda that we’re too distracted or tired to argue against. Although if you’re in tune with politics, a lot is added to your computing the world stack and there’s often outrage, anxiety, managing polarisation and understanding new legislation to deal with in your own headspace.
One product of the turbulence of a global pandemic shockwave is bulging work stacks for everyone.
Now, zooming in on my professional field, HR, People Practices, Learning, Organisation Design, Development and performance, is in the eye of many a storm.
My conversations with clients, with colleagues and with fellow connected people in my network are of this nature.
Busier than ever.
Pre-pandemic, it was busy with digitisation, efficiencies, polarising political views, social injustice and climate emergency.
Now it’s pre-endemic living and working AND all those things and more.
We’re processing a lot more information.
We’re activating a lot more programmes, projects and initiatives through force and choice.
We’re “on” more.
A recent report revealed that we are putting in more hours. Compensating for the lack of commuting with more screen time. In desk-based knowledge workers, this study reported 2 hours per day MORE we’re spending online connected to our working systems. Per every one of the 45% of the UK population involved in office-type work, that’s a LOT more hours.
Increased demand? Yes.
Increased complexity? Yes.
Increased processing to get things done that may have been easier pre-home working? Perhaps and probably.
In my book — The Energized Workplace — I called out a concept I’d conjured up based on the pre-pandemic ways of working:
It reflected the advent of long hours “culture”, terms like karoshi and the highest levels of stress-related absences in work with 17.9m working days lost in the UK in 2020 when the book was written and increases year on year.
One can only conclude that the bulging work stacks are clearly more than we can physically, cognitively and emotionally handle.
So something has to give, and the impact on us all is our primary concern. We have to curtail this overload and laudable though they are, mindfulness techniques, sabbaticals, flexible working approaches and more, they emphasise helping us at an individual level, and more needs to be done on fixing the system.
And there are systems that can help us fix them.
Much of what work is, is work we’ve created about work
By that, I mean processes, sign-offs, meetings, bureaucratic form-filling and time spent on things that are in themselves NOT the actual work we do but are work about that work. We’ve designed things like this, we can redesign and undesign them.
By stealth, we create bureaucracies that creep into our working schedules and workload without really noticing until it’s apparent that things have become dysfunctional.
Process re-engineering, Lean, Six Sigma, Kaizen, Agile, Design Thinking, Systems Thinking, Organisational Design and operating models, Digital and Robotic Process Automation.
We have plenty of these “lying around” to refer to earlier blog posts of mine. And some, if not all, are proven to work on work. And make it more efficient, effective and productive. At least, bearable.
Easing the individual burdens on people; removing stasis and blockages to progressing creative and applied endeavours of work we put into getting the job done.
I’m not prescribing any of these over any other. There’s no blanket solution or silver bullet. There is only continued application of ourselves to create capacity and to remove burdens of process from us with so many more complex and complicated factors of work calling on our time and energy.
Just taking one example — the theory of accumulated marginal gains — small incremental improvements aggregated, creates timesaving in Team GB Cycling and it can create improvements in Team UK working.
Now more than ever, HR and Organisation Design and Development professionals can take a leading role in creating more optimised, flourishing experiences of work that lift people from undue work-related stress and simultaneously improve and enhance the products, services and outputs of our labour.
It’s time to de-bulge our work stacks — starting in HR, Learning and Organisation Development.