Task Inflation and Inbox Capture: On Unexpected Side Effects of Enforced Telework

I’ve spent years studying how knowledge work operates. One thing I’ve noticed about this sector is that it tends to treat the assignment of work tasks with great informality. New obligations arise haphazardly, perhaps in the form of a hastily-composed email or impromptu request during a meeting. If you ask a manager to estimate the current load on each of their team members, they’d likely struggle. If you ask the average knowledge worker to enumerate every obligation currently on their own plate, they’d also likely struggle — the things they need to do exist as a loose assemblage of meeting invites and unread emails.

What prevents this system from spiraling out of control is often a series of implicit friction sources centered on physical co-location in an office. For example:

  • If I see you in the office acting out the role of someone who is busy, or flustered, or overwhelmed, I’m less likely to put more demands on you.
  • If I encounter you face-to-face on a regular basis, then the social capital at stake when I later ask you to do something via email is amplified.
  • Conference room meetings — though rightly vilified when they become incessant — also provide opportunities for highly efficient in-person encounters in which otherwise ambiguous decisions or tasks can be hashed out on the spot.

When you suddenly take a workplace, and with little warning, make it entirely remote: you lose these friction sources. This could lead to extreme results.

In some roles, for example, in the absence of this friction task inflation might become endemic, leading knowledge workers to unexpectedly put in more hours even though they no longer have to commute and are freed from time-consuming business travel obligations.

This inflation might even collapse into a dismal state I call inbox capture, in which essentially every moment of your workday becomes dedicated to keeping up with email, Slack, and Zoom meetings, with very little work beyond the most logistical and superficial actually accomplished — an incredibly wasteful form of economic activity.

What’s the solution to this particular issue? Knowledge work organizations might have to finally get more formal about how tasks are identified, assigned, and tracked. This will require inconvenient new rules and systems, but will also, in the long run, probably be a much smarter way to work, even when we can return to our offices.

More generally, I think this is just one example among many where the sudden disruption that defines our current moment will force us to confront aspects of knowledge work that up until now have been barely functional, and ask: what’s the right way to get this work done?

(Photo by Corley May.)

21 thoughts on “Task Inflation and Inbox Capture: On Unexpected Side Effects of Enforced Telework”

  1. There are tools like Asana, Trello and Basecamp in which you can assign team members very specific goals and track their progress. These services even allow you to layout the whole journey in advance and plan out milestones.

    • Yep. Software developers have this figured out. The rest of knowledge work has not figured this out because it’s a pain. I talked about this some in my New Yorker article about email…

      • Given the focus on algorithms and optimising resources like memory and calculation, no surprise that people in these fields worry about this and have figured this out. But how do you translate these ideas to other fields without the mathematical baggage?
        I wonder if some will just shrug it off as our “opinion” rather than a provable fact…

      • Cal, would you be willing to share your specific Best Known Methods when it comes to the specifics of implementing a smooth work flow management system to track your action items, waiting for items, etc. I understand this might be different for people in different type of jobs, but I’m sure we can all benefit from your collective knowledge on this topic.

        P.S: I sent you an email few weeks ago and asked if you would do a blog on this topic and share your opinions with your fans.


        • I just saw that Cal answered my question with his last two blogs in the last few days. Thanks Cal. Keep the blogs coming please, they are great!

    • What’s everyone’s views on Monday?

      I generally track my obligations in a simple text file.

      To date I haven’t found the barrier to entry for any popular time management software to be worth the benefit, especially as my current system has been fine tuned to relatively nice levels of efficiency.

      • I use a modified version of time blocking + a calendar to-do list on a notebook for my personal schedule and don’t use any of the tools I mentioned for personal management and I also consider my system to be more powerful than them. The only time I have used those tools is for bigger projects while collaborating with other people, which is what Cal is concerned with in this post.

      • I’m a notebook and time block person. I’ve also got a huge dry erase calendar on the wall of my office and home office. I do use Trello occasionally for work (but mostly for my grocery and other shopping lists), if there’s a real need to visualize some longer term stuff a bit differently.

  2. I assume you are aware of JIRA (and similar products), and how software development relies on it for just this sort of relatively disciplined tracking. Obviously, there are plenty of exceptions, but as someone who came into this industry at a relatively late age, I do think that this industry is way ahead of many other knowledge-work industries in this regard.

    • Yes, software designers have this figured out, but a properly disciplined Agile methodology can be used for managing work in just about any field. Agile is great for defending the team from kamikaze task requests, documenting the work in a lightweight manner while we’re doing the work, and keeping everyone feeling confident that they’re doing the right things at the right time. I even keep a home Kanban board, and run seasonal sprints! Summer 2019 was particularly productive.

  3. I’ve worked remotely for 17+ years. In my previous position, management would try to quantify our work every year—with little success. The problem centered on managements not completely understanding our job and being unwilling to do the hard work required to quantify what we were doing.

  4. Fortunately, my experience with teleworking so far has been the opposite. You can’t be pulled into impromptu meetings (from which informal assignments often arise) when you’re not sitting a few feet away. All meetings must be scheduled on Zoom now, which causes you to think whether it’s really necessary. I’m a government lawyer in a conservative environment, and so instant messaging isn’t a thing. Overall, I’m really enjoying WFH and have had some really productive days.

  5. Sounds like something freelance workers/telecommuters have known about for a long time. But now we have names for it. “Task inflation” and “inbox capture” are perfect terms for this phenomena where telework invades our home life.

  6. This is interesting Cal, thank you. I’m a UK academic – at many institutions our annual 1572 working hours are officially divided between tasks (10 hours for module leadership, 170 hours for ‘research and scholarly activity’ etc). There are many problems with this – not all tasks are captured, many time allocations are unrealistic etc – and our unions have been in industrial dispute with our employers for much of this academic year, with over four weeks of national strikes in the last six months.

    While we do have this ‘high level’ formal process for task identification, assignment and tracking already, we don’t have a similar process at a more local, departmental level, so as you suggest, ad hoc arrangements occur. I’m fortunate to have a good manager who knows her staff well, but others are not so lucky. Systematic biases can often occur, with, for example, female and black and minority ethnic members of staff being assigned the bulk of the more pastoral roles, meaning less time for activities more likely to lead to career advancement (thus exacerbating the gender and ethnicity pay gaps).

    I think to avoid the same problems as at the ‘higher level’ formal process, workers themselves would have to be involved in the identification of tasks (and attribution of time to those tasks), assignment of tasks would have to be transparent, and I suspect people would feel there is a fine line between tracking and surveillance at this very local level.

    I like the idea of a more formal local process, but I wonder whether there is a danger that we end up with yet more admin and bureaucracy, yet more performance metrics, yet more sticks to beat ourselves with (like the Research Excellence Framework, the National Student Survey etc).

    I wonder whether some of this is connected to the level of autonomy we (academics as a group, I mean) feel we should have over our own work?

  7. This will be difficult for lawyers (especially associates) at large law firms (probably all law firms). Aside from this pandemic, we are forced to monitor our e-mails at all times and being “responsive” (i.e. being someone answers e-mails quickly) is a real sticking point in how we are evaluated at the end of the year. The pandemic has only made these demands worse. I saw you speak with the law firm Morgan Lewis and the moderator there voiced those same concerns. Our industry is entirely too dependent on excessive e-mail communication and I don’t see a way out. But as a lowly associate, I obviously have no say. Partners are dealing with the same thing from clients.

  8. It is natural for the manager to assign tasks and not see the results of the employee’s work hours or approach. This can lead to resentment from the worker and can also lead to lost productivity and disengagement. We perform Cognitive Demands Analysis (CDA) on jobs and this is another opportunity to quantify what we are asking of individuals in the workplace whether in person or virtual. The CDA tool is used for those returning into the workplace after an illness or injury but it would be beneficial in this respect to see what the work requires.

  9. My experience so far has been the opposite.

    As a lowly PhD student, I’m finding that since I’ve become remote, my obligation to check emails has waned.

    My daily deluge of irrelevant administrative emails and conference advertisements seem even less relevant and distracting than they do when I’m in the office surrounded by co-workers.

  10. Dr. Newport, really looking forward to hearing your thoughts on how to take advantage of telecommuting for deep work. Also, I would like to hear your advice for students and grad students especially who may have more control over their scheduling and are less prone to micromanagement. I have a feeling that there is a lot of potential in telecommuting. One thing I’ve started to do is schedule emails to my professor for the following morning/Monday if technically ‘out of hours’. I’m hoping this can produce a type of rhythm that can be beneficial.


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