Managing ‘Hyperemployment’

 Ian Bogost recently wrote an article for the Atlantic on the impact of technology on the redistribution of work, which has put most of us in a state of what he terms “hyperemployment.” He points out that the same technology that makes our communication easier also makes us more likely to distribute work:

Email and online services have provided a way for employees to outsource work to one another. Whether you’re planning a meeting with an online poll, requesting an expense report submission to an ERP system, asking that a colleague contribute to a shared Google Doc, or just forwarding on a notice that “might be of interest,” jobs that previously would have been handled by specialized roles have now been distributed to everyone in an organization

That feeling of wearing many hats at once is a familiar one in academia–and I find some of the collaboration it enables, like co-writing proposals and papers in Google Docs, invaluable. I’ve stepped into an administrative role in a program and it’s already been a learning experience. I’ve started keeping a list of all the skills I wish I’d learned in graduate school, from minor things like a good filing system and more Excel spreadsheet tricks to strategies for handling contentious meetings, marketing, scheduling meetings, and advising students. We are already used to conversations about whether graduate programs should prepare students better for alt-ac careers (or for that matter, for teaching!), but there’s also a growing recognition of the need for developing skills once associated with dedicated jobs.

So how do we handle a culture of hyperemployment and its associated ‘busy’ trap? Given that the demands are only going to increase and the technologies can only become more pervasive, there are a few steps you can take:

Commit to one technology. Before this year, I’d never really needed to work with Excel, as I’ve always made do with Google Spreadsheets for the few times I’ve needed that type of tool. However, most of my university is using Excel for everything from scheduling to tracking enrollment numbers. Converting files back and forth and managing the quirks of different systems doesn’t have much of a payoff. The lure of an “easier” or more “efficient” system should constantly be balanced with the time cost of another learning curve.

Avoid using technology as a stalling tactic. I’ve been on countless emails where groups of academics and collaborators have tried to get something done, and the thread ends up lasting weeks before someone gives in and sets up a Doodle poll for the needed meeting. Whenever possible, I try to anticipate the roadblocks and skip to the chase, avoiding the additional inbox clutter and time spent using technology to avoid the real confrontation.

Use some system for email–but don’t let it control your life. There are so many ways to procrastinate, but email is the best because it feels like accomplishing something. I’ve noticed that one of my worst habits is flagging emails as important for “later.” In the past I’ve aspired to the elusive Inbox Zero, one of the many strategies that Ian Bogost notes as part of email self-help literature, a genre that I still find essential. Right now my goal is to reduce the number of emails I get by unsubscribing from everything possible while avoiding building up a pile of urgent emails awaiting replies. I try not to read an email until it’s time to respond, saving some duplication of effort.

How do you manage the technology-enabled distributed work that has become part of everyone’s day? Share your strategies in the comments!

[CC BY 2.0 Photo by Flickr User Ymmat]

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