This Is the Year to Simplify the Workplace

03/12/2015 06:22 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015
Michaela Begsteiger via Getty Images

When you read an article in the NY Times Business Section about how the CEO of one of the country's largest healthcare providers is encouraging employees to take yoga and meditation classes, you know that there's something changing in the corporate lexicon.

"Mindfulness," as it is called, is all the rage in corporate circles at the moment. And it's not a shocker. In an era where we check our phones more than 150 times, send more than what seems like 100 billion emails on any given day, and are expected to be "on" pretty much 24/7, it's no surprise that corporate managers have come to realize that this non-stop nature of work eventually takes its toll on employee productivity, engagement, and morale.

However, the constant connectivity is only one part of the equation. The workplace is getting increasingly complex due to the increasing penetration of new technologies into the workplace, administrative compliance demands, as well as overly complex business processes.

In fact, Deloitte's Global Human Capital Trends 2015 report (a study of people-related issues in 3,300 global corporations across 106 countries), which was released last week, clearly documents the problem: 74 percent of HR and business leaders characterized their work environment as either "complex" or "highly complex."

If you think about the fact that a seemingly simple task of conducting performance reviews can take up to 1.8 million people hours , or that your compliance costs have tripled to $265 million in three years , you know that you have a problem on your hands.

As labor market conditions continue to improve at rates uncharacteristic of the past decade, and 2015 shapes up to be the year when most employees are likely to jump ship, mindfulness programs are only a fraction of the solution toward simplifying the workplace.

Simplifying the workplace -- not be confused with simplicity -- requires a sophisticated evaluation of the details within a program or process and then eliminating what is not urgently needed.

Employees are overwhelmed because they've succumbed to the pressures of the demand to do more with less. For organizations looking to create a more productive and engaging work environment, it's time to shift gears and focus on empowering and equipping employees to do fewer things better.

Here are a few tips to start that process:

1. Make simplification a business and HR priority

A big part of the responsibility in the simplification process falls on the shoulders of HR leaders. HR should be the catalyst for the entire organization to declutter, advising the business on how to save time and reduce the number of emails and meetings.

A good place to start in simplifying the work environment is by asking employees about the processes that waste their time and complicate their tasks, and then develop a business case to justify the need to redesign.

2. Get e-mail overflow and unproductive meetings under control

The average employee now spends over one-quarter of the workday reading and answering emails. Recognizing that we can't slow the proliferation of technology, companies are now embracing practices to stop emails on weekends, implement simpler tools, and even penalize people for sending emails while on vacation. Some companies are starting to treat "time capital" with the same seriousness as financial capital and are working on cutting back on the seemingly endless rounds of meetings and conference calls.

Maximizing employees' time by reducing the numbers e-mails, meetings and conference calls has become a critical priority for organizations. The less time people spend answering e-mails, attending meetings, and dialing-in, the more productive and focused they are throughout the day.

3. Invest in more integrated, simpler technology

New technology features arrive faster than most people can learn to use them. The ever-increasing focus on technology for the sake of technology has to come to an end: The simplest products are now the ones most widely used.

New features are cool and exciting, but companies need to evaluate software based on its ease of use. Major technology vendors such as SAP and Oracle have programs on the market that simplify their applications and tools, making the process of redesigning the world of work that much easier.

4. Implement design thinking and process simplification within HR

Design thinking is a new process that brings user interface designers, process experts, and graphics people together to make work systems more functional and easier to use. From IDEO's redesign of the shopping cart to transformations brought about by Uber, AirBnB, and Open Table, whole industries are being rocked by dynamic technological and design innovations aimed at simplifying the way we live. To think that this trend will not happen in the workplace is likely wrong.

For many businesses, it's time to rethink the underlying model of how work gets done--before competitors do. HR teams should serve as an organizational role model by removing steps and using design thinking to implement just enough process and technology to help people get the job done.

Simplification may be one of the most important and underutilized tools in an organization's
arsenal. But the good news is that companies are now waking up to the need to simplify the work environment and are taking the necessary steps. In fact, the Deloitte survey found that 10 percent of companies have programs to simplify work practices and 44 percent are planning to build such programs.

2015 is bound to be a landmark year in companies' efforts to streamline work, reduce administrative burdens, and simplify complex processes.

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