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Work simplification is one response to employees overwhelmed by increasing organizational complexity, information overload, and a 24/7 work environment.
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Last year’s Global Human Capital Trends chapter on “the overwhelmed employee” became one of the most popular articles Deloitte has ever published—a sign that the phenomenon was hitting organizations even faster and harder than we thought.1 The capability gaps we observed with regard to the simplification of work (figure 1) reinforce the importance of the issue of the overwhelmed employee. In this year’s research, we explored if organizations were doing anything to address this concern.
Consider some data: In one day more than 100 billion emails are exchanged, yet only one in seven is critically important.2 The average employee now spends over one-quarter of the workday reading and answering emails.3 People now check their mobile phones more than 150 times a day.4 And a new study by the National Journal found that 40 percent of workers believe it is not possible to succeed at work, make a good living, and have enough time to contribute to family and community.5
There are many reasons for work overload: always-on technology, global 24/7 demands, and the proliferation of messaging and social tools we have at our fingertips. But another important driver is complexity in work practices, business processes, and jobs. In this year’s survey, 74 percent of all respondents (including those at small companies) rated their work environment as either “complex” or “highly complex” (figure 2).
We see five primary drivers for this trend:
Happily, change is coming. From IDEO’s redesign of the shopping cart to transformations brought about by Uber, AirBnB, and Open Table, whole industries are being rocked by dynamic technological and design innovations aimed at simplifying the way we live. To think that this trend will not happen in the workplace is likely wrong. So for many businesses, it’s time to rethink the underlying model of how work gets done—before competitors do.
How can work be simplified, making systems easy to use? Some work will—and should —simply go away, like the plethora of unread, unnecessary emails. More broadly, HR should be the catalyst for the entire organization to declutter,11 advising the business on how to save time and reduce the number of emails and meetings. HR’s role should not simply be to implement talent management practices, but to make people more productive and enhance their level of engagement with the firm.
Some steps are already being taken. Some companies are now waking up to the need to simplify the work environment, reduce workload, eliminate steps, and engineer simpler applications that do not require a great deal of training or time to use. Our survey found that 10 percent of companies have programs to simplify work practices and 44 percent are planning to build such programs—indicating that just over 5 in 10 organizations are directly trying to address this challenge (see figure 3).
Recognizing that we can’t slow the proliferation of technology, companies are now embracing practices to stop emails on weekends, implement simpler tools, and even penalize people for sending emails while on vacation. Coca-Cola, to cite one example, recently shut down voice mail to “simplify the way we work and increase productivity.” 12 Company leaders are asked to model behaviors that help people slow down and think. Google, for example, has published a manifesto on “nine rules for email” to help internal teams stay productive.13
Some companies are starting to treat “time capital” with the same seriousness as financial capital.14 One approach is to cut back on the seemingly endless rounds of meetings and conference calls. This serves the dual purpose of increasing efficiency and creating a calmer, more relaxed environment where employees can actually think. Recent psychological research suggests that multitasking could be changing the structure of our brains by wearing away the grey matter, which is the part of the brain that processes information.15
Simplification may be one of the most important and underutilized tools in an organization’s arsenal.
Flexible working conditions and extended benefit policies also reduce worker stress, as can open work environments that promote more relaxed person-to-person interactions. Research suggests that people are more productive, more relaxed, and more engaged when they personally interact with their peers.
Simplification may be one of the most important and underutilized tools in an organization’s arsenal. The opportunity can lie both in simplifying the work environment and in simplifying the work itself. In 2015, companies should continue to take steps to streamline work, reduce administrative burdens, and simplify complex processes. Companies can “simplify” without being “simplistic”—and the entire organization can benefit as a result.16
GE, a company that is used to reinventing itself, has implemented a strategic focus on simplification over the last several years. The company builds complex products; yet increasingly, employees and customers were noting that the company itself had become too complex: Customer outcomes were slowing as processes grew burdensome. A more nimble, entrepreneurial approach was needed. Led by Jeff Immelt, the CEO, simplification is now an integrated part of GE’s strategy, encompassing lean management, speed and competitiveness, commercial intensity, and digital capability. Simplification represents a cultural as well as a structural transformation.
First, GE is asking leaders to implement lean management: remove layers, increase spans of control, and reduce the number of checks and approvals needed to get things done. Wherever there is complexity and duplication, shared services are being created. The company is also making work easier by implementing new digital technologies that make employees more productive wherever possible.
Second, GE has developed a holistic program called FastWorks. FastWorks, which is based on the lean start-up methodology, involves a new way of working that begins with an intensified focus on—and understanding of—customer needs. Experimenting and iterating quickly to create solutions that add value or create value are hallmarks of the approach. FastWorks is being used throughout GE to help teams move faster, bring GE closer to customers, and to maintain a high level of customer input and involvement across the product lifecycle.
Third, GE is implementing a set of mindset, belief, and behavioral changes to help leaders and employees reduce complexity and to create a new culture within GE. The culture of simplification is coming to life through a set of new “GE Beliefs,” which are focused on delivering fast, better solutions to customers. The GE Beliefs, created through a crowdsourcing process within GE, are:
The GE Beliefs play a large role in leadership development and are also used to change how GE recruits, how it manages and leads, and how its people are evaluated and developed.
Fourth, GE has recently redesigned its performance management process, with an emphasis on agility, continuous discussions, and customer outcomes. Today, rather than targeting goals, managers emphasize priorities, helping employees continuously adapt and channel their efforts to the most important customer needs. The old world told people to “do more with less.” Today, GE tells its people to “do fewer things better.” This freedom and support to continuously focus, spend time with customers, and avoid trying to do too many things at once is core to GE’s new management process (renamed Performance Development), bringing simplification to the work life of every employee.
For GE, simplification is now part of its new culture. The focus on simplification is helping employees to focus as well as helping the company to operate faster, compete more vigorously, reduce costs, and improve quality.
Technology, globalization, and compliance needs continuously add complexity to work. Left unaddressed, this can lead to an organizational environment that damages employee engagement, lowers quality, and reduces innovation and customer service. At the same time, technology and design thinking are converging in a way that offers significant opportunities to get ahead of the curve. Business and HR leaders should put “simplification” on the agenda for 2015 and focus on individual, organizational, and work-specific programs that reduce complexity and help people focus on what really matters.