How Overloaded Employees Can Cut Out the Busy Work – The Wall Street Journal

From left, Gary Cole and Ron Livingston on the job in the 1999 comedy, ‘Office Space.’

Photo: Everett Collection

In the 1999 cubicle comedy, “Office Space,” paper-pushers obsess over memos about cover sheets for reports. Today, some real-life employees doing their jobs remotely are trying to clear the decks of virtual busy work.

Claudia Allwood is among them. A month after joining a skin-care company in September, she knew she needed to rethink part of her job. During Covid, the marketing deck she was in charge of presenting to her colleagues each week was no longer relevant. Rather than spend hours polishing the slides that others now viewed virtually, Ms. Allwood suggested to her boss that instead she take a few minutes to plug the data into the company’s project management app—without the charts or fancy fonts.

Ms. Allwood calculated the hours the report took every week and made a case for how the time could be better spent elsewhere. Her boss went for it. “I’m a single parent, so time is precious,” says Ms. Allwood, senior vice president of marketing at Herbivore Botanicals in San Francisco.

Working from home has inspired some people to lobby for less busy work and more control over how many hours they spend on the job. Without the usual in-person oversight, some employees feel empowered to rethink tasks that feel like a waste of time and are more open about their needs at home, said Jennifer Chatman, a professor of management at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. “Employees are in a position where they are calling more of the shots than they did before,” she said. “That has shifted the power balance a little bit.”

Prioritize Critical Tasks

Although some workers gained time by not commuting, the added hours spent caring for children, parents or others outside work leave many susceptible to burnout, says Jessica Calarco, a sociology professor at Indiana University. She also is a member of the Care Caucus, a new advocacy group that examines how Indiana University employees who also have care-giving responsibilities are managing a heavier burden outside paid work.“It’s not good for anyone if we’re being asked to do too much,” she said.

For those re-evaluating their workday, Dr. Calarco suggests prioritizing tasks that advance a company’s core mission while doing away with reports or projects being done simply for tracking purposes. For instance, she said, the Care Caucus suggested scrapping the letter of recommendation requirement for internal awards and grants and instead letting university employees be contacted to vouch for an applicant, if needed.

Seek Out Efficiencies

Being stretched thin spurred Rene Azeez to find more efficient ways to check in with co-workers at the MaRS Discovery District, a Toronto-based technology innovation hub. This summer, Mr. Azeez, the director of venture engagement, asked his boss to let him address colleagues at large meetings and town halls, instead of doing one-on-one catch-ups over Zoom. Mr. Azeez, who also is studying for an M.B.A., said working from home rules out informal in-person collaborations or updates from quick hallway chats. Ultimately, he realized that his typical 9-hour days just weren’t as productive outside the office. “It hit me like a truck,” he said.

Higher-ups allowed Mr. Azeez to delegate projects to others in his five-person department. He also plans to set department goals in “shorter sprints,” thinking ahead only to the next 90 days. “I asked to get a little creative and if can I shift my job description based on these new needs,” he said.

Share Your Thoughts

How have you streamlined your job to shed lower-priority tasks? Join the conversation below.

Keep Meetings Focused

Steven Vigilante, growth-marketing manager at Olipop, a maker of healthful sodas, said he approached the company’s chief of staff after finding his days working from home in Los Angeles were jammed with “massive meetings,” driving him to resume working from 8 p.m. to midnight. Mr. Vigilante suggested they determine who is critical to each meeting to pare the number of attendees. He also got the executive’s support for quiet hours—a three-hour interval during the week without scheduled meetings. “Everyone was feeling it, but I put my hand up and said ‘I’m drowning,’ ” said Mr. Vigilante who believes the changes have helped productivity.

Know Your Limits

At chip giant Nvidia, employees successfully sought a week-long companywide shutdown over Christmas that won’t count toward vacation days, said Beau Davidson, vice president of human resources. The idea arose this year after employees wrote in to a virtual suggestion box that allows for anonymity. Other suggestions have brought about virtual story-telling for employees’ children and an allowance for employees to buy ergonomic furniture for working at home.

Being open with his manager about his workload has helped Lee Gross feel less stressed about meeting deadlines while on the job at home in Irvine, Calif. Mr. Gross, who handles claims for an insurer, recently asked if he could stop sending a spreadsheet that updates senior executives on his most high-value insurance claims. His manager agreed to complete the spreadsheet herself, using data from Mr. Gross’s files. Handing it off saves Mr. Gross hours each month and made work less likely to spill over into the weekend. “If I push back, they will listen,” he said.

Finding the courage to turn down new projects also helps. Mr. Gross recently declined to take on claims work from another department. “I thought, I’m going to break if I do this,” he said.

Write to Alina Dizik at

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Appeared in the December 21, 2020, print edition as ‘Here’s How to Shed Low-Priority Tasks.’