Despite company efforts to update their information flows with sophisticated new messaging and collaboration platforms, high volumes of information are increasingly the norm for most of the workforce. To understand information overload’s costs, causes and potential cures, Gartner surveyed nearly 1000 employees and managers – and found that 38% of employees say they receive an “excessive” volume of communications at their organization. Only 13% say they received less information in 2022 than they did in 2021.
In the same survey, 27% of employees reported that they feel at least somewhat overloaded by information. This means that employees report they are overwhelmed by the number of information sources available at the organization, feel there is no point in keeping track of the information they receive, and spend their day attending so many meetings that they have no energy left for their actual job.
It can be tempting to view this simply as the cost of doing business in a knowledge economy, but feelings of overload come with real productivity costs. For example, the number of employees who understand and are aligned to company strategy drops by more than half when they feel overloaded by information. Further, only 6% of those who feel overloaded by information report they are highly likely to stay with their current company. It is easy to imagine that an overload-induced energy drain could compound pre-existing problems with staff disengagement such as burnout, fatigue, and distrust in leadership.
Burden, Not Volume, Drives Information Overload
Consider a typical day for your average employee. They start with an inbox already brimming with threaded conversations with colleagues, cascaded internal news via large distributions, meeting invitations of all types, solicitations from external vendors, phishing attempts from bad actors, and some stray messages from their intermingled personal life — and then it’s all downhill from there.
Periods of concentration and productivity are derailed by interruptions, and time is wasted searching for critical information among the various platforms.
Information volume, as it turns out, is only a partial driver of information overload. Rather, the real culprit is the information itself — and specifically the degree to which the accessing and interpreting of the information imposes extra “work” on its recipient. This is what we call information burden.
Information burden is defined as a set of information that is:
- Duplicative: 57% of employees and managers say they often receive multiple communications about the same or similar topics at the same time.
- Irrelevant: 47% say that the company communications they receive are unrelated to their day-to-day responsibilities.
- Effort Intensive: 38% say they have to do extra work to keep up with the amount of information they receive at their organization.
- Inconsistent: 33% say that the company communications they receive are often inconsistent or internally conflicting.
Conservatively, an employee wastes 3 hours and 27 minutes per week dealing with information burden. Executive leaders should regard this as unacceptable, especially because they’re impacted too.
Management Is at Greatest Risk of Feeling Overloaded
Complex work situations — like those featuring high levels of change or hybrid work — put employees at a heightened risk of facing information burden. But one population of employees stands out: executive management.
Our research shows that 40% of leaders and 30% of managers report high levels of burden. This is not to be taken lightly: Those that report high burden are 7.4 times more likely to report high decision regret, and 2.6 times more likely to have avoidant or negative responses to change.
The stakes are clearly high: An inability to get control of information at your organization cuts to the heart of your ability to set and deliver on strategy. The current approach to managing information results in many managers being questionably aligned to strategy, avoiding critical business changes, and making bad decisions.
Solving the Problem
Chalk it up to urgent transformation needs or bad habits, but burden is a tragedy of the commons. There are two actions that organizational leadership can take right now that will help alleviate the suffering that all functions are facing.
Step 1: Create a low-burden culture.
Unspoken communication norms prevail in today’s workplace, leaving employees unsure of what good behavior looks like. We establish our own habits for communicating in both our personal and professional lives, and these preferences for email vs. text vs. call vs. apps travel with us.
Constant change only compounds confusion about good behavior. Employees that find themselves collaborating with a new team arrive unsure of whether it’s protocol to chat with leadership over Teams, during office hours, or only through email. Without a mutual understanding of how information should be shared at the organization, employees tolerate dysfunction and feel disempowered to surface dysfunction — and so the cycle of burden continues.
To some degree, allowing personal preferences to reign has enabled systemic dysfunction. Organizations should instead establish clear expectations for how information flows. Shared norms are beneficial for a variety of reasons — they improve psychological safety on teams and empower employees to surface and address instances of channel abuse.
Your organization already does plenty of norm-setting. (Just think of your latest customer-centricity or safety campaign.) There is now good reason to think that information sharing is a behavior that warrants more than our current “anything goes” approach.
One example of signposting for communication norms comes from Dropbox’s Virtual-First Toolkit, which catalogs their recommended use of a mix of synchronous and asynchronous tools and has been featured on their public-facing blog “work in progress.”
For each channel, Dropbox establishes clear boundaries for what to use each channel for, and conversely, what each channel is not so great for. The guidance includes why an employee would make the choice of email over Slack (e.g., “Slack can be noisy, so it’s easy to miss important things and forget to respond. If something is critically important, try email”) as well as which types of activities should be resolved over a meeting.
For an employee who is new, or who moves across teams, understanding the lay of the internal channel land from the start alleviates so many stressors of where to go and what to expect out of their experience.
Step 2: Reinforce accountability from the top.
The phrase “drinking from a fire hose” is a familiar one, but we really should talk more about who’s holding the hose.
In the case of information burden, water is coming from everywhere. Disparate announcements on staffing changes, sales wins, and updated forecasts sent by various department leaders create confusion about what information is most critical or relevant. Communications and digital workplace teams are constantly introducing new collaboration and productivity platforms, and the legacy messages continue to surface to the top of internal searches.
Part of the challenge of understanding where the burden is coming from is a lack of visibility — each function is narrowly focused on their own pages, apps, or microsites. The second part is the drudgery of administration.
Effective information management is ongoing, cumbersome and requires commitment from all involved. Establishing shared governance over the employee information experience is a mechanism to address both challenges at the same time. It allows stakeholders to align on a shared vision of information management and collectively maintain a user-friendly system.
Align on a Shared Vision
Establishing shared governance requires getting everyone on the same page about where and how employees receive information in the first place. This can be accomplished through focus groups, surveys or even establishing dummy inboxes to mimic the volume of content employees receive in a day. A shared understanding of what the current experience is actually like is necessary to determine what the experience should look like.
The perfect jumping off point for establishing shared governance is the intranet. The resource is shared — every department has at least one intranet page — and the channel is intended to serve as a self-service portal, which means improvements in functionality will help save employees’ time.
One organization, the New South Wales Department of Planning and Energy (NSW DPE), leveraged their shared understanding to act as the building blocks for a recent intranet redesign. NSW DPE created a content council co-led by senior owners of channels and representatives from groups that produce content to set content standards and uphold those content principles for audits. They established two types of audits for the redesigned intranet: a quarterly accuracy review and a biannual experience review to maintain accurate, accessible content and resolve accessibility and functionality issues quickly. As a result, NSW DPE effectively consolidated more than 2,000 intranet pages into fewer than 500, significantly contributing to a low burden culture.
Organizations can start their own shared governance system by bringing together functions that are most responsible for managing channels and employee experience (e.g., HR, Comms, IT). Also important is to include functions whose employees normally face a high volume of information (e.g., customer service, sales) as the consequences of burden on these groups directly impact the organization’s touchpoints with customers.
Information overload is the inevitable result of the modern organization’s always-on, more-is-better approach to communication. Unfortunately, it is also a driver of employees’ disengagement and poor decision making. While we are all, as employees and leaders, affected by this reality, the onus is on the company communicators themselves to craft a low-burden culture. It will require energy, expertise and coordination to architect and reinforce more human-centric communication practices.
Start with the realities of what information is needed and what information is getting in the way in order to nudge your teams toward a series of behaviors where everyone is jointly committed to reducing the information burden they place on their peers and themselves.