Let's start by putting a foolish notion to rest: The corporate world does not automatically evolve to be more efficient. Rather, businesses, as a group, often pursue strategies and tactics that are ineffective, often for decades at a time.

"Reengineering" is a case in point. For decades, investors and decision makers--despite massive evidence to the contrary--convinced themselves that downsizing transforms a poorly run company into a well-run one. Only now is that myth beginning to dissolve.

The open-plan office is another example. The overwhelming scientific consensus, based upon multiple studies, is that open-plan offices massively reduce productivity and damage employee health. And yet such environments have become the norm.

Corporations, in short, can collectively make serious, lemming-like blunders. One of the worst and most financially damaging of those blunders is the widespread elimination of service staff in favor of self-service.

Take, for example, making travel reservations. Back in the day, you'd call a travel agent, explain where you need to be, and when. About a half hour later, the travel agent would fax you an itinerary.

Today, however, the work of finding the best flights, hotels, transfers, etc. is on YOUR plate. Sure, you have lots of tools to help you, but using them requires that you spend the time to choose the tool (Orbitz? Travelocity? Hotels.com?), learn the quirks of that tool, and then use that tool.

Let's run the numbers!

Suppose you end up spending a half-hour doing your own itinerary and for the sake of argument you cost your company $100,000 a year. That's approximately equivalent to an hourly salary of $50, so it cost you $25 to create the itinerary.

But that's just the basic cost. Because presumably your time could have been better spent, you're also paying an opportunity cost. That's a half-hour you didn't spend coaching, creating, innovating, or communicating, all of which was probably worth at least another $25. So, creating your itinerary actually cost you at least $50.

Back in the day, car rental firms, airlines, and hotels paid travel agents a small commission to create itineraries. While those firms could (and did) pass that cost onto you, the average wage of a travel agent in today's dollars was about $18 an hour.

However, while it may have taken you a half-hour to do your itinerary, a specialist could probably have done it in half that time (15 minutes), which would only have a direct cost of $4.50. Therefore, in this case, creating your own itinerary cost you $45.50.

But that's just the start. Self-service forces you to waste mental energy and memory on a clerical tool, drawing you away from work that you might really enjoy. Can you see how crazy this is?

Voice mail is another huge time-and-money waster.

Back in the day, most companies had receptionists and admins (often shared) who, among other duties, would take calls and write out messages, which would then--presorted and appropriately screened--simply appear on the recipient's desk, usually on a Post-it.

Today, however, we have voice mail, which forces you to listen through your messages, screen them out yourself, and transcribe them for future action--all of which is low-value clerical labor. What's more, you end up spending much more time listening, relistening, deleting, and sorting messages than a receptionist would have spent taking the calls. And a receptionist would only cost your company around $12 an hour.

Let's run the numbers!

Suppose you spend a half-hour a day futzing with incoming voice mail. That costs your company $50. (As before) A receptionist could probably have fielded all those calls in 10 minutes, which would have cost your company $4.

Therefore, getting you to self-service your phone messages is costing your company $46 per professional, per day. Again, that's crazy! As Craig Lambert writes in the recently published Shadow Work:

Shadow work includes all the unpaid tasks we do on behalf of businesses and organizations. Most of us do not recognize it or realize how much of it we are doing, even as we pump our own gas, scan and bag our own groceries, execute our own stock trades, and assemble our Ikea furniture. Scores of shadow tasks have infiltrated our daily routines, settling in as habits as we drive our kids to school or make our lunch at the salad bar. We are not slaves in ancient Greece or peasants in medieval Europe, but nonetheless we are working for nothing. Shadow work has introduced a new element to the modern lifestyle: middle-class serfdom.

While there may be no easy solution to the problem in the wider world, in the workplace the solution is simple:

  1. Rehire the support staff to do necessary online clerical work.
  2. Stop forcing your professionals to do clerical work for which they are ill-suited.
Published on: Nov 17, 2017
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