The Nine Levels of Work Hell

Dante's got nothing on the endless loops of interruptions, overwhelming emails and pointless formalities that plague workplaces. Here's how to break free.

Mind-numbing meetings, overflowing inboxes and urgent projects that require you to drop everything--do ever feel like parts of your workday are a personalized form of hell? If you’re frustrated by ineffective work processes--and complaining to coworkers over drinks--you’re not alone.

Fifty-four percent of employees have felt frustrated about work and 40% say they don’t understand the company’s vision or have never seen it, according to “America’s Workforce: A Revealing Account of What U.S. Employees Really Think About Today’s Workplace,” a 2013 survey by Kelton, a Los Angeles-based research firm.

“A company’s biggest investment is in its people, but organizations are often disconnected and don’t use this resource appropriately,” says Bryan Nielson, chief marketing officer of AtTask, a Utah-based software firm that creates work management tools for business teams. “Optimizing knowledge workers is how companies succeed.”

After surveying approximately 1,000 AtTask.com users, Nielson identified nine levels of “work hell," those things that irritate people most. He shares the levels and offers solutions for eliminating the suffering:

1. The Hell of Too Many Open Tabs

The average person uses 13 different tools or methods to manage their day, says Nielson, and anytime you utilize multiple tools to do one thing, you become inefficient. For example, you probably use a tool like Microsoft Word for documents, email for feedback and a spreadsheet for managing workflow and approvals.

“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. Select a task-management tool, such as Producteev, BaseCamp, or AtTask, that allows collaboration and document storage in one place.

Get feedback on tools before you roll them out; 92% of employees continue to use email even if there is a work management system in place, according to a 2012 Harris Interactive Study. Also, implement best practices for the team, so everyone uses the same processes.

2. The Hell of Duplicating Work

Workers spend 14% of their day duplicating information, and 25% to 40% 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.

Before a new request is taken, take plenty of time to gather information upfront. Also, get stakeholders involved at every stage by managing feedback and approvals in a central location.

3. The Hell False Urgency

The average organization spends about half of its time on unplanned, urgent activities, says Nielson. The first step is to understand the root cause--is it poor planning or lost email requests?

To eliminate this type of work hell, build time in project schedules for these sort of fire drills so they don’t disrupt timelines. Communication also needs to be improved, says Nielson. “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 okay with that?’” he says.

4. The Hell That Is Silos

More than half of workers say departmentally “siloed” information is their top challenge in managing data, says Nielson. Cross-team interaction is often limited, and the bigger the organization, the bigger the chance that is happening.

“The problem is not having complete alignment,” he says. To get out of silo hell, companies need to eliminate needless formalities, such as going through proper channels; instead, allow direct collaboration, says Nielson. Consider diversifying project teams and rotating job responsibilities, and organize staff meetings by project instead of department.

5. The Hell of Constant Updates

From spreadsheets to presentations to memos and reports, the amount of paper organizations generate can be overwhelming. 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 that automatically distributes information to the right people.

6. Meeting Hell

Nielson calls meeting hell “the prison of the working dead.”

“Fifty percent of meetings are considered a waste of time, and 74% 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 by using a work management system that gives real-time visibility on projects. Before scheduling other meetings, ask yourself if the meeting is necessary, or if there is a faster way to get information to people. If the meeting is necessary, clearly define the purpose beforehand so participants can prepare.

7. Interruption Hell

It takes 10 to 15 minutes to get back on track when interruptions occur, and the average worker spends two hours recovering from distractions each day, says Nielson. While it’s hard to eliminate all interruptions, you can reduce the amount you get each day. Categorize the common types of disruptions you get each day and plan for them, says Nielson.

Choose a location where coworkers can submit requests, such as a special email address or a paper tray. Monitor requests and prioritize them with existing projects. And when someone stops by your desk, remind them of the process.

8. Email Hell

It takes 16 minutes to refocus after handling incoming email, and 94% of workers feel overwhelmed by the amount of information they receive each day, says Nielson.

“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 is to displace email 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

Collaborating is like working on a big puzzle, but with teams often spread across offices and time zones, problems can arise, including missed deadlines, budgets or expectations. 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.”

[Image: Wikipedia]

Add New Comment

5 Comments

  • Great points! Having worked in both small and large businesses, there really is no 'sweet spot' for eliminating these collective pains in the neck.

    As much black ink as exists on building your perfect culture, little is offered in erasing the unwanted trash! This list would be an outstanding topic for a number of Lean Workouts, to strip the non value-add out of virtually every office. Though, I did work for a gentleman who used to get copied on emails between team members sitting 10 feet from each other. He called an impromptu meeting, where all he said was "...get off of your backsides and talk to each other!" Problem solved!

  • Larry Boyer

    I really loved this article. It's a clever approach and spot on. I'm sure many people can related to these particular topics as being in work hell.

  • Wanda Majkol
       Your agents sound just like me.  I worked in customer service for over 20 years, and I love helping all of my customers (most were friends).  A lot of times it was hard to get my lunch when I ate in the lunch room, as my customers would come in and refused to let anyone else help them, and my boss would call me back to care for them.  
     When I was transferred to a branch, they followed me there to have me help them, I would find out what they wanted to do and then have a customer specialist (I was head teller and my job was to supervise and run the office), then the customer and I would go to lunch.  I really missed working closely with the customer service where I worked closely with the customers.  
    Now I am desperately in the need of a job, but I am a young 73 and I do not receive replies to the resumes I have submitted.  I do have a few medical problems that make it challenging to go back to a regular job, even if I can get one.  What I need is to work from my home. 
  • Hi Stephanie.

    Thanks for the information. I love the reference to Dante's Inferno. It is such a great context setting piece. I know exactly what you're talking about. I can feel it.

    I'm really interested in information, conversations or thoughts you have around helping people change their behaviour, especially around knowledge sharing and removing silos. Adapting to new technologies and work processes is tough. Adapting to new ways of being, from closed to transparent is really tough.

    That's the world I work in. I'd be really interested in finding other resources and hearing other's perspective on the behavioural aspect of this kind of change.

    Thanks so much, Sharon