Inaugural Lecture of Professor Matthias Holweg
Office work is commonly perceived as neither productive nor fulfilling, with recent advances in communication technologies only exacerbating the problem. Far from improving office productivity as intended, Holweg argues that email and other messaging capabilities have actually reduced efficiency, and are linked with poor mental health and stress.
For his inaugural lecture as American Standard Companies Professor of Operations Management Matthias Holweg identified the root causes that restrain white-collar productivity and impede process improvement, and proposed ways in which machine learning could improve processes within the office.
Holweg claims that the office is not a happy place. 'Work emails and meeting overload have been identified as a major problem, one which has a negative effect on overall productivity and individual wellbeing.'
Communication technologies aimed at improving white collar productivity have actually led to a ‘productivity paradox’. These technologies have established the norm of overcommunication within the workplace, encourage the blurring of work and private life, and are thus a source and symbol of distress.
‘Over-communication has negated the efficiency benefits of email as means of communication in the workplace. Email response time has become a proxy for performance. You are considered a higher performer if you answer out of work hours and on the weekends, which is a dangerous notion. The problem is, we receive no capacity feedback - it’s unlikely that you’ll know the full workload of the person you’re emailing.’
Firms are already reacting to pressures to resolve this. Google is aiming to reduce internal phone calls and has implemented a ‘no expectation to read or answer emails at weekends’ policy, after workers complained about ‘information overload’. Atos, has reportedly banned internal email in favour of a bespoke enterprise social network application, Volkswagen switches email servers off after 5pm, and Daimler automatically deletes emails received while people are on holiday.
A step in the right direction, but Holweg argued that much more needs to be done to universally improve processes within the office context.
Holweg’s journey to identify the root causes that restrain white-collar productivity began by experimenting with ways he could reduce email traffic to his own inbox. He set his spam filter to maximum, unsubscribed from all opt in communications, and set up an automatic email response, asking anyone with an urgent query to phone him instead. One in three people subsequently picked up the phone suggesting that two thirds of his emails were, in fact, redundant.
To record his own reactions to the email traffic, Holweg used sensors to track peaks in his stress levels and body temperature. By creating a multi sensor platform mapping application, he was able to monitor his email inbox, and link incoming email traffic to his stress levels.
The results did show periodic peaks in stress levels which could be linked to peaks in email traffic, however, there are a number of additional factors which may influence the body’s stress response. Holweg accepts that – to measure stress in a reliable way – the recording of cortisol levels is needed and acknowledges that the results from this initial study may not be wholly reliable.
Keen to improve on this research, Holweg began a longitudinal study, which mapped email flow within the business school over the 2014-2015 academic year.
Results revealed that the workforce deals with an average 200,000 emails every week, with each member of staff handling an average of 80 emails per day. With research showing that ‘recovery’ from email disruptions to workflow requires up to 20 minutes, Holweg estimated the potential cost of such disruptions at Oxford Saïd to be around £6 per individual email.
Mapping the origin and destination of messaging revealed that more than half of all emails both originated and ended within the building itself. In an attempt to combat this, several interventions were introduced. Email awareness and usage training ran in 2015, with improvement methodology training running across 2016-2017; Improved technology was implemented in 2016-2017, including an internal instant messaging capability and shared drives. The School’s Intranet was also identified as a potential solution but required significant improvement.
The shared drives have been found to work well, reducing the need for staff to share documents via email. The various training programmes have also appeared to have had a positive impact, with the amount of email traffic showing a distinct downward trend since the study began. Though things seem to be improving, and Holweg is optimistic that an improved intranet system may help to further negate the need for emailing, he owns that the situation is still far from ideal.
‘We clearly still need to go further, in order to look to improve the existing culture around administrative processes.’
Is AI the answer?
Holweg concluded that it is the mixed process context of the office which sits at the heart of why it’s so hard to improve the productivity and wellbeing of the office worker.