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.)