Everything you need to know about information overload in the workplace

eXo Platform Blog

Managing large volumes of information in the workplace is among the top priorities for businesses, and for a good reason. The interconnected nature of today’s workplace coupled with the rise of remote working made information circulate mainly through digital channels. In theory, specialized solutions such as digital workplace solutionsdocument & knowledge management systems among others are designed to make it easy to manage and handle information.

However, in the absence of adequate policies and strategies to support such solutions, employees may become overwhelmed and overloaded with information. This obviously contributes to a lack of productivity, growing sense of frustration among employees and an overall bad employee experience and business performance. This phenomenon is generally referred to as “information overload”, infobesity or infoxication.

In today’s blog post, we are going to defne information overload, explore its causes, impact on both employees and businesses and how to effectively deal with it.

  1. What is information overload?

In its simplest form, information overload refers to the excess or the abundance of information available to employees when performing tasks or making decisions. The term first originated in Bertram Gross’s 1964 book “The Managing of Organizations”. Gross explained that information overload is likely to occur when the quantity of information available exceeds one’s capacity to process it thus reducing the quality of decisions to be made.

Throughout history, information overload has been a major concern for both the general public and businesses alike. One may argue that before the technological boom of the last decades, people didn’t have too much information at their fingertips (which is true to some extent).

However, before the internet, physical forms of information were the norm as printing became mainstream. People had to read and navigate through large volumes of papers and books to get what they were looking for. Needless to say, this situation was far from ideal as it had a negative impact on productivity and overall decision making.

The wave of new technologies in our personal and working lives were primarily developed to reduce our reliance on papers and make information easier to store, share and locate. On the one hand, these technologies offered a lot of flexibility and paved the way for people to access information that would otherwise be difficult to access. On the other hand, in some instances, the low cost of data and its widespread availability, has brought more information that we can handle thus leading to information overload.

  1. What causes information overload?

In an article published for “The Harvard Graduate School of Education‟s Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA)”, titled “Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms, and Solution”, Joseph Ruff attributed  information overload to five main factors: Technology, people, organizations, processes and information attributes. All of these factors constantly overlap making it hard for businesses to properly manage and limit the overflow of information. Let’s explore each factor in further detail:

  • An overload of technology

The primary cause of information overload is technology… or too much of it to be precise. Think about it. There is virtually an app for everything we do in the workplace from communication, collaboration, knowledge & project management, you name it.

This armada of tools (including messaging apps, video conferencing platforms, intranets, emails …) if managed poorly, has the potential to generate too much information that can be difficult to locate and access.33

Employees basically have too many solutions to keep up with and data sources to get their information from. This will obviously increase the time they spend toggling between apps to find what they are looking for. In fact, according to the International Data Corporation, a typical employee spends 2.5 hours, or approximately 30% of the work day  just locating information.

A Pega report which studied 5 million hours of live desktop activities, also found staggering results, with an average employee switching between 35 applications more than a thousand times a day.

  • Too much shared information… too little time to process it

By definition, information overload occurs when the amount of information to be processed exceeds our capacity to do so in a predefined period of time. And there are three important points we should focus on here: The quantity of information, our capacity to handle it, and the time we receive to process it. All three elements can be attributed to a given organization’s strategy but can also be down to the individual level.

First, sharing all types of information at work is made easy thanks to the multitude of technologies at employees’ fingertips. This can result in employees oversharing content via the company’s intranet, email and even social media platforms, leading to an overflow of relevant, irrelevant and duplicated information .

But how much is too much?

This leads us to the second point. One’s capacity to process information. And the answer for this question really depends on multiple factors ranging from personal traits and level of education and expertise all the way to motivation and job satisfaction. Yet, if employees are not provided with sufficient time, then they would most probably struggle with information overload regardless of their capacity.

  • Lack of strategic vision

In addition to people and technology, organizations have an important role to play in order to prevent and limit information overload. At the end of the day, managing information is a strategic process that starts all the way up the organization, and one that should reflect the whole strategic vision and culture.

However, in an attempt to adapt to the rapid technological changes and the rising expectations of their employees, some organizations may over commit and start to invest heavily in software solutions while completely overlooking policies and best practices. This eventually creates more problems than solutions.

Managing information in the workplace is by no means a “one size fits all” process. Each organization has its own vision, values and employees that require a combination of tailored strategies to effectively coordinate all the information circulating between its teams and departments. For example, a unique internal communications strategy to keep employees informed and engaged; a tailored document management strategy that lays the foundation on how to create, organize and manage documents; and so on.

  • Quality and quantity of information exchanged in the workplace

To effectively figure out what causes information overload, we would have to classify the types of information in the workplace based on its quality, complexity and novelty.

In general, information that employees deal with on a day-to-day basis can be simply classified into two main types regardless of its format: relevant or irrelevant.

Relevant information, as its name implies, refers to data that employees are actively looking for to perform their jobs effectively. On the other hand, irrelevant information is the complete opposite. It refers to data that employees are exposed to rather than actively seeking. With this in mind, we can deduce that information overload is tied to both the volume and quality of information. Too much of relevant information is confusing and time consuming; being exposed to irrelevant information is distractive and unproductive.

  • The nature of processes and operations

It goes without saying that the amount of information to be exchanged between individuals or teams is directly tied to the complexity and interdependence of the processes and  tasks at hand.

Some teams rely heavily on collaboration and the constant exchange of knowledge while others follow a more routine approach and don’t require too much information to properly function.

For example, the software development process incorporates various teams to collaborate (and multi-task) on a continuous basis from product management, design and development to QA and stakeholders, etc… In the absence of the right methodologies, in this case Scrum or Kanban, all of the involved parties will have a hard time coordinating their efforts which will eventually lead to confusion,  the overload of information and inefficient processes.

  1. What are the impacts of information overload?

Information overload impacts businesses on a variety of levels (individual, team and organization). The effects can range from lack of productivity and team cohesion all the way to employee’s mental (and even physical health). Let’s explore each of these consequences in further detail:

  • Employee burnout

It is a no-brainer that the constant overflow of information in the workplace can have its toll on employees’ mental and physical health.

Having to deal with too many tools and sources of information causes confusion, increases the sense of uncertainty and state of restlessness. This in turn causes anxiety, high levels of stress and mental fatigue.

In fact, according to a Gallup study “Employee Burnout: Causes and Cures”, 76% of respondents stated that they experience burnout at work at least sometimes. This staggering statistic is tied to multiple factors that mainly revolve around job unclarity and unmanageable workload and information in the workplace.

  • Employee disengagement

It comes as no surprise that when employees feel overwhelmed at work, then they are more likely to feel disengaged and unmotivated.

Exposing employees to irrelevant content within the company’s intranet, bombarding them with notifications from multiple applications and having them scroll through endless email threads to access information, is a recipe for disaster.

Instead of having them onboard, you would achieve the complete opposite. They would either feel pressured to cope, look for information elsewhere or even shut down completely. In all cases, engagement levels are likely to go down which eventually leads to higher turnover rates.

  • Lack of productivity

Have you ever wondered how many emails an average employee has to deal with on a daily basis? To put it simply, the number is quite overwhelming if not scary. In fact, according to DMR Business Statistics, employees have to deal with 121 emails every single day. The majority of which are not even work related.

This staggering number of emails can distract employees, limit their focus and contribute to a growing sense of stress and frustration. The McKinsey Global Institute found that on average employees spend 13 hours per week reading and responding to emails. This translates to 28% of work time and 650 hours a year spent on unproductive tasks. Furthermore, it has been proven that emails are distracting, with employees taking up to 23 minutes on average to refocus on more important tasks.

And emails aren’t the only killer of productivity in the workplace. As we have mentioned earlier, using an abundance of technologies in the workplace may backfire. Critical information may become spread between a host of applications which will eventually make it redundant, duplicated and generally hard to locate and organize.

  • Poor decision making

Our capacity to make informed decisions is directly correlated with the information we are provided with. On the one hand, in case we have little to no information, the decisions we take will most probably be misinformed and generally bad. On the other hand, the more information we receive, the more we have to process, and the better the decisions we take.

However, it is worth noting that there is a limit to the amount of information we can process. Once we reach our peak, the overload of knowledge will have the opposite effect thus reducing our ability to establish priorities, organize our train of thought and make good decisions.

  • Disconnected teams

According to a Salesforce report, 86% of employees believe that workplace failures are directly tied to a lack of communication and collaboration in the workplace. Additionally, a Mckinsey report also found that 97% of both employees and executives believe that a lack of team alignment directly affects the outcomes of projects and tasks.

With these figures in mind, we can conclude that the main pillars of successful teams are information and continuous communication and collaboration. Each team member should be aware of his/her roles and responsibilities, company/ team policies and above all,  have the right tools to communicate and collaborate effectively.

In case teams are not supported with the right policies and guidelines as well as the adequate tools, they will eventually find it hard to exchange information, effectively coordinate tasks and achieve their objectives. In general, information would be scattered, duplicated and even lost.

We all had one of those moments in our jobs where we spent a significant amount of time searching for information or working on something, only to find out that someone in the company has done it before. Needless to say, this has a detrimental effect on team cohesion and alignment.

 

Remote Work Tools

 

  1. How to deal with information overload in the workplace

Now that you are familiar with both the causes and impact of information overload, let’s dive into how to first avoid, and then overcome it if it does occur.

  • Analyze usage patterns and understand employees’ preferences

The first step towards preventing information overload is to understand how employees want to get and share information, communicate, collaborate and generally get things done.

One way to achieve this is to use analytics tools capable of accurately measuring engagement and adoption rates, identifying the most popular applications and the type of content that resonates well with employees.

There are a number of metrics that will help you assess the state of information overload within your organization. For example, the number of emails sent and received internally is a great indicator on how much employees are using emails in their daily operations.

Furthermore, if you have a digital workplace or a knowledge management system in place, you can dig deep into metrics such as average posts, knowledge contributors, search metrics and knowledge relevance to employees. The latter (knowledge relevance) is a measure of how relevant the information stored within the knowledge management system is to employees. It includes the average age of knowledge, percentage of duplicated files and unrevised versions, etc.

Additionally, you can take a more traditional approach by simply building and sending surveys (both quantitative and qualitative) to  hear directly from employees and their specific experiences and pinpoint areas of improvement.

  • Categorize and classify information

The next step is to categorize and classify information into a set of relevant categories. To achieve this, organizations have to first audit existing information and then assign a value for it.

Information can be classified based on its content, target audience and level of importance. For example, critical information is often labeled as confidential or classified meaning that readers require some sort of security clearance to access and handle it. Information can also be restricted (open to specific audience) or internal (open to everyone within the company).

In addition to guaranteeing the security of information, organizations can limit the noise of unorganized data and provide their employees with only the content they need thus helping them search information in a quick and timely manner.

  • Develop a robust internal communications strategy

Information overload isn’t only tied to the way we consume information rather how we create it. The absence of an internal communications strategy often leads organizations to fall into the trap of sharing too much content through multiple channels. For example, we often see companies convey news and updates through their corporate intranet, a dedicated newsletter and even their social media accounts which, as we already stated, can be confusing and overwhelming.

To tackle this, HR and internal communications specialists have to develop an internal communications strategy. First, designated teams have to assess their communication efforts, (Type of content, channels, etc…). Then, it is important to define SMART objectives, develop a content plan and, of course, choose the right channels through which the content is to be conveyed to a target audience. Last but not least, after laying the foundations of an IC strategy, the final step is to continuously analyze results in order to identify trends, patterns and areas of improvement.

This way, employees will receive targeted and relevant content through the medium of their choice thus guaranteeing high open and participation rates and, above all, an engaged and informed workforce.

  • Build a knowledge sharing culture

Limiting information overload has everything to do with the corporate culture and more precisely the knowledge sharing culture. In a blog post I have written a while back titled “how to create a knowledge sharing culture in the workplace”, I have walked through the different steps that organizations need to follow in order to help their employees effectively share and exchange information.

The point here is to create and convey a culture where employees are intrigued to share relevant information, are educated to do so and, more importantly, they are well aware of the dangers of information overload. Because in the absence of such a culture, the practice of sharing knowledge may be disorganized and a bit chaotic which eventually affects both the quality and quantity of the information shared.

  • Review processes to limit multi tasking

Although our capacity to multitask is often perceived as a positive trait, too much multitasking carries more harm than good for both individuals and teams. As we explained earlier, one of the many causes of information overload is the time we receive to process information. The more multitasking we have to perform, the more information we have to find and process, and fast… before we move to the next task.

Tackling this issue is down to both organizational and team levels. From the organization’s side, normally the information conveyed consists of news, events, company policies, training etc. The key here is to share information in a timely manner all while giving everyone the required amount of time to process it.

Think of training material for example. Everyone can learn at their own pace which means that the most effective way to train employees is to simply give them the time required to do so. Another example is onboarding. Here, newcomers may be required to do a lot from day one: getting to know their colleagues, undnerstanding their roles, training etc. It is important to give them the chance to explore the vast amout of information to get a good start.

From the team’s point of view, managers are responsible for managing their team’s workload, setting priorities and allocating the right time frames to do certain tasks. This way, employees will have sufficient time to perform their tasks without the constant need to switch between them.

  • Choose the right tools to support communications and knowledge sharing

All the points we have mentioned above are crucial to deal with information overload. However, they all have one thing in common: they wouldn’t be possible or feasible without the use of technology to some extent.

To analyse employees’ needs, categorize & classify information, build an IC strategy and create a knowledge sharing culture, there are a variety of software solutions that can help organizations effectively perform these tasks. But in this section we are going to primarily focus on three points: the creation, conveying  and consumption of information.

Typically, in an attempt to improve internal communications, most businesses refer to a corporate intranet or a modern digital workplace. Both contain a combination of social and content management features designed primarily to streamline all types of communications whether top-down, bottom-up or peer to peer.

When it comes to managing information, the choice often falls between standalone knowledge management systems or a digital workplace equipped with a built-in KMS. Both are designed to handle, categorize and classify large volumes and generally facilitate the access to timely and relevant information.

Let’s summarize

Information overload is a phenomenon that a lot of businesses either faced, are currently enduring or will have to tackle in the future. Its roots are down to a multitude of factors that are directly tied to the changing dynamics in the modern workplace. And as the saying goes “modern problems require modern solutions”. The key to avoid or eliminate information overload is a collective effort that starts from the employee all the way up to the organization’s level.

If you are interested in learning more about the topics of knowledge management, internal communication and collaboration in the workplace, make sure to take the blog tour. And don’t forget to suggest any new topics you would like us to cover next in the comments section.

 

 

 

intranet software

 

What is information overload?

In its simplest form, information overload refers to the excess or the abundance of information available to employees when performing tasks or making decisions. The term first originated in Bertram Gross’s 1964 book “The Managing of Organizations”. Gross explained that information overload is likely to occur when the quantity of information available exceeds one’s capacity to process it thus reducing the quality of decisions to be made.

See the full definition of information overload


What causes information overload?

In an article published for “The Harvard Graduate School of Education‟s Learning Innovations Laboratory (LILA)”, titled “Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms, and Solution”, Joseph Ruff attributed information overload to five main factors:

  1. An overload of technology
  2. Too much shared information… too little time to process it
  3. Lack of strategic vision
  4. Quality and quantity of information exchanged in the workplace
  5. The nature of processes and operations

Find out the reasons that causes information overload in the workplace


How Does Information Overload Affect Your Business?

Information overload impacts businesses on a variety of levels (individual, team and organization). The effects can range from lack of productivity and team cohesion all the way to employee’s mental ( and even physical health).
Here are some effects of information overload:

  • Employee burnout
  • Employee disengagement
  • Lack of productivity
  • Poor decision making
  • Disconnected teams

Discover the impacts of information overload


How to overcome information overload in the workplace?

Here are 6 Ways to Overcome Information Overload:

  • Analyze usage patterns and understand employees’ preferences
  • Categorize and classify information
  • Develop a robust internal communications strategy
  • Build a knowledge sharing culture
  • Review processes to limit multi tasking
  • Choose the right tools to support communications and knowledge sharing

Find out How To Better Manage Information Overload In The Workplace


What is a digital workplace?

A digital workplace is a next generation of intranet solutions or intranet 2.0 that is based on three pillars: communication, collaboration and information. In a way this definition is true but it doesn’t cover the whole spectrum of the term.
Here are some definitions of digital workplace:

  • An evolution of the intranet
  • A user centric digital experience

See the full definition of digital workplace


What is collaboration?

Collaboration is “the situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing”.

See the full definition of collaboration


What are the benefits of collaboration in the workplace?

Here are some of the benefits of collaboration in the workplace:

  1. Foster innovation and creativity
  2. Better problem solving
  3. Effectively handle times of crises
  4. Engage and align teams
  5. Increase motivation
  6. Attract talents

Find out the benefits of collaboration in the workplace


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Product Marketing Specialist

I am a product marketing specialist at eXo. My role is to assist marketing and sales teams in their operations and present our digital workplace solution to the world. I mainly blog about the latest tech trends, digital transformation, internal communication and how to navigate through eXo Platform.

1 Comment
  1. Hi there, thank you for sharing such a great piece of content with us. It is a really amazing and amazing post.

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