The economic downturn we’ve experienced for the last few years is taking its toll on the workforce. Whether you work in a project environment or not, "Businesses expect a lot more out of their employees these day…" writes Anne Kadet for the Wall Street Journal. In her article, ‘Superjobs’: Why You Work More, Enjoy it Less, Kadet writes about organizations of all size who are expecting employees to "…take on extra tasks that have little to do with their primary roles and expertise—with engineers going on sales calls, accountants pitching in on customer service and chief financial officers running a division on the side. And some believe this shift is permanent, as the quickening pace of change demands more flexibility from everyone at the office."
Although I have always felt that it is a good idea for everyone in the organization to be willing to pitch in and help when times are tough, I worry that too much "pitching in" will do more than lead to burnout—it will lead to exhausted workers who are frustrated and unmotivated to do anything more than what they must to survive (I guess that’s the real definition of burnout, isn’t it?). Which is not an environment where project teams can creatively problem solve or invent and create. Ultimately, this type of environment will lead to an even greater project failure rate and ultimately organizational failure.
"Some experts say the superjob is the logical next step in management’s quest to make the workplace more cost efficient," writes Kadet. "The latest shift started when businesses redistributed the workload during the recession; last years nascent recovery intensified the process."
Kadet says that a recent survey conducted by Spherion Staffing suggests that 53 percent of workers surveyed last year have taken on new roles, most of them without pay (only 7% got a raise or a bonus). "Now that sales are picking up, there’s even more work to do, but companies are reluctant to hire, say human-resource experts. Some are anxious about what the economic future holds," she writes, "while others are seeing their profits increase now that that their workforces are leaner."
Although I believe there are probably a lot of great opportunities for careers to grow during this time, I agree with Kadet when she suggests that even the most hard-nosed bosses know they can only stretch employees so far. It’s pretty obvious that the current conditions are taking their tole on the workforce. "Indeed, a recent survey from the Conference Board found that just 43% of Americans are satisfied with their job—a record low," she says.
What does this mean for project teams and the workforce at large?
We’ve talked before about how multitasking can actually reduce productivity. In fact Kadet brings this up. We aren’t really neurologically wired to do dozens of unrelated things at once. At least we’re not wired to do them well. What’s more writes Kadet, "The sheer number of hours demanded by the superjob also can impair your performance as your brain gets fatigued, says Susan Koen, an organizational psychologist and consultant whose clients include Pfizer, Alcoa and Procter & Gamble."
According to Kadet, "Of course, the ultimate responsibility for workload management falls to the employee. Experts say that in many cases, employers have no idea how many tasks they’ve loaded on one person, so workers have to ‘manage up.’"
As project leaders, I think it’s important to have an understanding of all the work our project team members are engaged in. If we don’t have visibility into all work (not just project-based work), it makes realistic capacity planning problematic. Most people are not inclined to say no, so we need to help. I think that’s part of being an effective project leader.