9 levels of office worker’s hell

Sometimes even an obviously self-serving study by a corporation can be helpful. The e-book “The 9 Levels of Enterprise Work Hell” fits into this category. The Utah company behind this e-book, AtTask, sells work management tools for business teams, and much of the “advice” contained in the book involves getting the right work management tools for business teams.

Yet the e-book is cleverly designed and written, with lots of spooky graphics and gothic images and typeface. The data was derived from 1,000 survey responses, so it’s not a bad sample, either. And, most of all, AtTask has found a fun way to deliver serious information about those things that irritate people most.

Fast Company also pulled together a fine synopsis on this, interviewing AtTask Chief Marketing Officer Bryan Nielson, whose quotes are included here. And now, without further ado, here are AtTask’s workplace equivalents of Dante’s levels (or, to be accurate, circles) of hell:

1. Tool Hell

The average person uses 13 different tools or methods to manage their day, says Nielson. That’s way too many and leads to workers spending more time trying to remember how to use existing tools, learn how to use new ones and get the old and new ones to work together, than actually using them to do important work. 

“All that toggling back and forth creates challenges and fragments work experience,” he says. Nielson says the fix is to consolidate tools, using one or two that are easily accessible by everyone. And, of course, choose a task-management tool. AtTask makes them. Also, AtTask advices setting up best practices for the team and making sure everyone knows what they are and sticks to them.

2. Rework Hell

Workers spend 14 percent of their day duplicating information and forwarding emails and phone calls. A quarter to 40 percent of project budgets are wasted as a result of rework, says Nielson.

“The cause for this is disconnect; workers aren’t getting the right information from those who request the work,” he says.

Part of the problem is that the work, and its outcomes, were not clearly defined before the tasks began. Before a new request is taken, take plenty of time to gather information upfront, Nielson says, and get stakeholders involved at every stage by managing feedback and approvals in a central location.

3. Fire Drill Hell

In this level of chaos and insanity, fires are bursting out all over the place (oftentimes strategically set by those who use a fire to cover their lack of productivity). No one has a chance to stand back and consider how the work should be done or what the outcomes of the work should be. The “average” corporation spends about half its time in fire-drill mode, Nielson says. To eliminate this type of work hell, don’t start by pretending fires aren’t breaking out or that you can immediately stop them. Instead, acknowledge their existence by building time in project schedules for them. That way, they are part of the timeline, not the disrupter of timelines. Then, start to fireproof your workplace by improving communication. “Encourage workers to give feedback on requests such as, ‘I can take this urgent project, but it will cause these four other things to slip. Are you OK with that?’” he says.

4. Silo Hell

More than half of workers say departmentally “siloed” information is their top challenge in managing data, says Nielson. People often create their own silos intentionally. Everyone is using different systems and solutions, no one is smoothly sharing information, and transparency is nil. Teams don’t talk and don’t work together. “The problem is not having complete alignment,” Nielson says. His solutions: eliminate needless formalities that throw up obstacles between people and departments, such as going through proper channels. Encourage collaboration, using such techniques as a new office layout, shifting of job responsibilities, rearranging reporting channels. Diversify project teams and organize staff meetings by project instead of department.

5. Reporting Hell

Old data isn’t very useful except for comparison’s sake. But how often does your data need to be updated? When is data out of date, and when is an update not really very useful? These are other questions are raised in Reporting Hell, as direct reports send in mounds of numbers and analyses in different formats, at different times and with little thought to whether the latest report matters to the enterprise.

Managers gather information for meetings and to justify their jobs, says Nielson, but the collection method is often outdated. Instead, he says companies should create a communication plan that will identify who needs to get updates, what information they need, when they need it, where the data will be stored and how it will be distributed. Then create a process in collaboration with your team members that automatically distributes information to the right people.

6. Meeting Hell

At the enterprise level, all meeting cannot be eliminated. But, says Nielson, an awful lot of them can be, thus freeing you and your workers from “the prison of the working dead.”

“Fifty percent of meetings are considered a waste of time, and 74 percent of workers do other work while in meetings,” he says. That’s because most meetings aren’t collaboration meetings, they’re status updates.”

Eliminate status meetings and review meetings, he advises. These can be handled asynchronously with a robust work management system that everyone has access to. Never schedule any other kind of meeting without first asking, “Is this meeting really necessary? Is there a faster way to get information to and from people.” If the meeting is necessary, he says, clearly define the purpose beforehand so participants can prepare.

7. Interruption Hell

Nielson says about 50 percent of the average worker’s day is consumed by interruptions, of which 80 percent have “no value.” These can range from someone dropping by a workstation with a “quick request” to emails with random and unapproved work requests to text messages, instant messages and sticky notes that mysteriously appear stuck on a computer screen during a worker’s break.

Like the fire drill, you’ll never eliminate all interruptions, Nielson says. But you can reduce the amount you get each day. Categorize the common types of disruptions you get each day and plan for them, he says. Set up a specific process for making requests that allows workers to check their inbox at set times during the day or week. This can be an online work management tool, or something as simple as a paper tray or dedicated email address. These assignments should be approved and prioritized. And until everyone gets the message, don’t take requests in any other way, and do not suffer non-essential interruptions without pointing them out to the perp.

8. Email Hell

This one, says Nielson, gets hellish really fast but can be remedied fairly easily.

Most workers say they feel overwhelmed by the welter of emails that flood into their inboxes every working day. They spend so much time managing email that they don’t get any serious work done.

“Email is overwhelming organizations,” he says. “We get hundreds each day. It’s impossible to get through them all, but we’re expected to. We end up doing email at all hours of the day.”

The solution: break everyone’s addiction to email as the single source for communicating everything from meeting time updates to the location of the company picnic. Remove its status as a management, collaboration status update, feedback and document-sharing tool, says Nielson. Use a project management tool instead. This will significantly decrease the amount of email you receive, and put communication within the proper context.

9. Collaboration Hell

What kills collaboration is one-on-one communication between two team members that leaves everyone else out. Or everyone not on the system collaboration platform, or never collaborating in the same physical place. The solution is to centralize correspondence, says Nielson, giving the whole team visibility into each other’s work and feedback. “Chat or instant messengers are great for real-time, but those conversations are lost when the window is closed,” says Nielson. “True work collaboration needs to be documented, visible and easy to track.” When the project demands true collaboration, the collaborators need to be inputting and outputting from the same work process tool. When all parties are talking to one another, the work gets done right. When the pieces and players are scattered, collaboration fail happens.

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