Work is becoming increasingly more complex as organizations decide the best way to continue 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-office. One thing is certain, though: no matter where they are, all employees find themselves inundated with requests and tasks coming at them from multiple directions, whether that’s phone calls, Slack messages, Zoom Meetings, or casual conversations in the break room.
In many ways, the modern workflow has become a game of hot potato, and the pass off is critical. You don’t want to get “burned” by holding onto work too long, but if you pass work along too quickly, it gets dropped. We’re constantly passing assignments like hot potatoes, expecting others to grab them and hand them off 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 vast amount of work that isn’t captured, tracked, or measured against goals because it takes place in communication tools and unstructured files. In some cases, the pass happens in a Slack thread when a colleague pings you and says, “Hey, I heard you were the one to reach out to about posting a new job description to the careers page.” Or it might happen when someone walks by your cubicle and asks, “Can you send me a few updated slides for Thursday’s sales deck?”
Playing hot potato at work may feel intuitive since the right party will ultimately be brought in, but if they aren’t looped in through the proper channels or with enough context or clear next steps, there is a cost. Tools like instant messaging apps were not built to manage complex work, and when work is forced through those tools, it leaves employees feeling overwhelmed because work is getting away from them. The cost of the workplace “hot potato” then becomes palpable in two ways: it creates an invisible workflow and increases the burden on employees.
With an invisible workflow, tasks or assignments often fall through the cracks because there is not a clear trail of ownership, status, or next steps. Lack of clarity or guidance in the assignment may result in work needing to be redone, efforts being duplicated, or alignment on goals missing the mark. On a small scale, this might seem like a nuisance, but when this becomes a recurring trend across teams, departments, or organizations, it can lead to delayed project launches, missed sales opportunities, and financial strains. Technology that captures all of these hot potato handoffs and provides more visibility into the invisible workflows can help organizations track work, eliminate repetition and ambiguity, and keep projects on track.
Although it seems harmless, the game will also take a toll on employees’ mental health. Businesses expect their employees to juggle different apps like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, or Google Suite, all through which employees are assigned tasks, often without context. The expectation to constantly be monitoring and responsive on multiple channels creates stress and can distract employees from focusing on the work that matters and generates results. With the “hot potato” approach, an unclear assignment can also cause 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 workplace “hot potato” game feed into each other and create a negative feedback loop. The more invisible workflows an employee has to navigate, the more strain they will feel in their day-to-day work. As employees start to burn out, many may leave the workforce, creating retention challenges for the business – which is more costly than ever during the continuing Great Resignation. This in turn increases the workload of other employees and creates strain, 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 toward a system of record for assigning tasks that provides better clarity, guidance, and accountability. Here are three quick ways to do so:
- Provide Context
Before assigning a task, managers should make sure their colleague has enough context, which could include access to background information, resources, goals, guidance on format and review cycles, and deadlines. Ideally, this will give them a clear timeline and actionable steps to take as soon as they pass on the assignment.
- Create a Single Source of Truth
Managers should also think about how to track the handoff chain in a place that is accessible to the entire team so they can reference it if there is ever any confusion. This single source of truth will also provide all involved with visibility into the status of the project or task, unlike Slack, Zoom, or in-office conversations that are broken up into different places or not noted down.
- Follow the Process
Finally, managers should create consistent and clear processes using technologies like request forms and workflow automation from the very start. This type of structure provides guidance into how the task will be accomplished, who will accomplish it, and when those individuals need to step in and hand it off to the next person.
In some ways, work is now like child’s play, but we don’t need to pass the potato so quickly or carelessly anymore. It seems harmless on the surface, but in doing so, we lose the thread that ties work together and creates invisible workflows that impact employee burnout and stress, not to mention the business. This year, it will be important for organizations to evolve their work practices with the changing workplace environment and find new protocols that prioritize employees’ well-being and ability to focus on work that matters most.