Work is becoming more complex as organizations decide how best to move forward after the initial shock of the pandemic. Some have opted for a fully remote workforce, some for a hybrid work model, and some for a full-time return to the office. However, one thing is certain: wherever they are, all employees are inundated with requests and tasks that come at them from multiple directions, whether that be phone calls, Slack messages, Zoom Meetings, or casual conversations in the break room.
In many ways, the modern workflow has become a hot potato game, and the pass-off is critical. You don’t want to “burn up” holding on to work for too long, but if you pass work too quickly, it will fall away. We are constantly passing orders like hot potatoes, expecting others to grab them and hand them over to the next person, but more often than not this work gets lost – falling into what I call the ‘dark matter of work’, or the sheer amount of work that is not recorded, tracked, or measured against targets because it takes place in communication tools and unstructured files. In some cases, the pass in a Slack thread happens when a coworker pings you and says, “Hey, I heard you were the one to contact about posting a new job description on the career page.” Or it could happen when someone walks by your booth and asks, “Can you send me some updated slides for Thursday’s sales deck?”
Playing hot potato at work can feel intuitive because ultimately the right party is brought in, but if they are not looped through the right channels or with enough context or clear next steps, there will be a cost. Tools like instant messaging apps aren’t built to manage complex work, and when work is forced by those tools, employees feel overwhelmed because the work falls away from them. The cost of the “hot potato” in the workplace is then felt in two ways: it creates an invisible workflow and increases the burden on the employees.
With an invisible workflow, tasks or assignments often fail because there is no clear trace of ownership, status or next steps. Lack of clarity or guidance in the assignment can lead to work having to be redone, efforts to be duplicated or goal alignment wrong. On a small scale, this may seem annoying, but when it becomes a recurring trend in teams, departments or organizations, it can lead to delayed project launches, lost sales opportunities and financial tensions. Technology that captures all these hot potato transfers and provides greater insight into the invisible workflows can help organizations track work, eliminate repetition and ambiguity, and keep projects on track.
While it may seem harmless, the game will also take its toll on employees’ mental health. Companies expect their employees to juggle different apps, such as Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom or Google Suite, that assign employees tasks, often without context. The expectation to constantly monitor and respond across multiple channels creates stress and can distract employees from focusing on the work that matters and delivers results. With the hot potato approach, an unclear assignment can also create confusion and redundant work, with employees spending more time than necessary duplicating projects. Ultimately, the combination of being overwhelmed and overworked will lead to feelings of anxiety and burnout.
These two consequences of the “hot potato” game in the workplace blend together and create a negative feedback loop. The more invisible workflows an employee has to go through, the more strain he will feel in his day-to-day work. As employees begin to burn out, many may leave the workforce, creating retention issues for the company — which is more expensive than ever during the ongoing Great Resignation. This in turn increases the workload of other employees and creates tension, further fueling the cycle of invisible workflows.
Organizations and managers can adopt better business practices to help their employees move away from a “hot potato” approach to a job assignment logging system that provides greater clarity, guidance and accountability. Here are three quick ways to do this:
- Provide context
Before assigning a task, managers should ensure that their colleague has adequate context, including access to background information, resources, goals, guidelines for format and assessment cycles, and deadlines. Ideally, this gives them a clear timeline and actionable steps to take once they pass the job.
- Create a single source of truth
Managers should also think about how to track the transfer chain in a place that the whole team can access so they can reference it if there is ever any confusion. This single source of truth also provides insight into the status of the project or task for all involved, unlike Slack, Zoom, or in-office conversations that are broken up in different places or not recorded.
- Follow the process
Finally, managers must create consistent and clear processes from the start using technologies such as request forms and workflow automation. This type of structure provides guidelines for how the task will be accomplished, who will accomplish it, and when those individuals should step in and hand it over to the next person.
In some ways, work is now child’s play, but we no longer have to pass the potato so quickly or carelessly. At first glance it seems harmless, but in doing so, we lose the thread that connects collaboration and create invisible workflows that affect employee burnout and stress, not to mention the company. This year it will be important for organizations to evolve their work practices with the changing work environment and find new protocols that prioritize employee wellbeing and the ability to focus on the work that matters most.