How Should Companies Respond to Employee “Information Overload”?

A survey by Deloitte, called the Global Human Capital Trends 2014 omnibus survey, has revealed that information overload is a central cause of employees feeling “overwhelmed”. The study surveyed over 2,500 companies in 90 countries around the globe and contains a wealth of data and information about “global human capital trends”, including the challenges facing organisations today, one of which is the “overwhelmed employee”. Over half of the respondents to the survey believed that their companies were not adequately addressing the issue of information overload, and nearly 60% went as far as describing their organisations as “weak” in managing problems of information overload.

What’s the cause of information overload?

Frequent interruptions, multiple information streams and difficulties in accessing the required information are among the reasons why employees experience information overload. The report cites other research too that highlight contributory factors, such as the fact that just over 40% of employees spend their time on activities that do not help their productivity; and that employees buy in to a culture of busyness, where being busy is tantamount to a ‘badge of honour’.

What should organisations do to reduce information overload?

According to the report, there are four types of strategy that organisations can pursue to reduce the problem of information overload:

Use smaller, agile teams. The report  makes reference to findings by Harvard and Yale University Professor Richard Hackman, whose research work has revealed that smaller teams outperform bigger ones. It also cites Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’s “two pizza” rule:  meetings should be small enough (no more than seven people) to feed attendees two pizzas. The report also comments on the rise of Agile project methodology which recommends meetings that are compact bursts of face-to-face communication of no more than 15 minutes, “forcing people to rapidly discuss issues, resolve problems and get back to work.”

Simplify HR practices and employee systems.  The report discusses the efforts of particular organisations to simplify their HR practices and systems. For example, Adobe has removed some steps in its performance appraisal process, saving employees weeks of time. Best Buy has changed its flexible working policies so that staff can take time off more easily. Companies such as Richard Branson’s Virgin (not cited in the Deloitte report) now allow their “unlimited vacation” whenever they choose, without being tracked.

Outsourcing or insourcing non-core tasks.  According to the report, “repetitive, non-core tasks” should be delegated to other people. Pfizer is given as an example: the company “offloads technical and administrative non-core tasks”, enabling its scientists to save “months of time” each year.

Changing work expectations.  Some companies have instigated “email free” time, other companies are  offering their employees the chance to travel less, for example by making use of virtual technology, and to do more of their work from home. The report also noted that some executives have stopped sending emails to their teams at nights or at weekends, to “send a signal” that it is OK to unwind after work.

What is your company doing to reduce the problem of information overload that causes employees to feel overwhelmed?”  The research findings highlight that this problem is of global concern, and that companies have an opportunity to take proactive steps to resolve the problem. If you are in a leadership position, perhaps the report will give you ideas of the kinds of initiatives that may work for your organisation.


Image via Fransgaard

Deloitte Global Human Trends Report