What follows are snippets from our conversation with Professor Erin L. Kelly - edited for length and clarity - make sure you listen to the entire conversation for great insight! To know more about the work of Professor Kelly and the book, Overload, visit the MIT Sloan page. The book is the fruit of many years of collaboration, research and writing with Distinguished Professor Phyllis Moen, McKnight Presidential Chair and director of the Life Course Center at the University of Minnesota. You can see here the work and Publications of Professor Moen. To get familiar with the tools and strategies introduced by Professor Kelly in the podcast visit the Work, Family & Health Network website.
Agnes Uhereczky: Thank you very much for joining me in this podcast conversation today. I am excited to finally get the chance to talk to you about your new book, Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do about It. The book is even more pertinent and relevant in early July 2020 then it has ever been. One of the messages of the book is that it is time to craft new ways of working and something that leads us to sustainable work. The book is one-half problem analysis and one-half solution orientation, which is the STAR intervention. Could you please give a little bit of background to the listeners who are not familiar with the STAR approach, and explain how did you get to go into a company and do these 400 interviews, and several waves of surveys, and get down to the nuts and bolts of what it means for people to be overwhelmed.
Erin L. Kelly: Sure, I'll start there. Thank you so much for recognizing the importance of the book in the context of our current times. We are working in new ways because of the pandemic, but this book was written well before that and we hope it has relevance after that. The book is authored as you mentioned by myself and Phyllis Moen who is a sociologist at the University of Minnesota, and we were part of a large research team called the Work, Family & Health Network. Our task as a large research team was to think about the ways that work impacts family and personal life but also the ways that work impacts health and wellbeing and to look for promising approaches that might support the health and wellbeing of workers. We were funded by several foundations and also by the Health Agency of the US government, the National Institute of Health, the health research arm of the government.
So, we went talking to a wide variety of firms and a large firm that we called TOMO - which is a pseudo name - that was very interested in exploring how things could change for their workers. We concentrated on their IT division and their professionals and managers, who are a highly educated group of people, software developers and testers. But when we first started with them the firm recognised that their employees were burning out, that some of their best employees were leaving the organisation to go elsewhere. And that people were feeling what we came to call overloaded; they were asked to do just too much. The firm invited us in and our larger research team was able to test whether this change that we call STAR, whether that benefits the employee and the firm. And we also had some studies that looked at the benefits for family members too.
Agnes Uhereczky: Did you have already an inclination to where you are going to go with STAR? At the very beginning of the project were you still approaching the project such as flexible working, and leave policies, or were you already advanced in the methodology that you knew that it is going to be more about work redesign and managing the workload.
Erin L. Kelly: I would say: yes and no. When we started talking with this company, we had already done some pilot studies. Phyllis Moen and I had led a team studying the results only in the work environment at BestBuy, and our colleagues, Ellen Kossek and Leslie Hammer had developed a set of supervisor training materials that they had tested at another firm. What we wanted to do was to combine those in a way that would build on some older approaches of flexible work policies, and encouraging managers to be more supportive of their employees. But we come together in a way we hoped would be even more effective. I guess, we drove contrast between flexible work policies that are set up as accommodations particularly in the US where we don't have any right to request flexibility laws. So when a person wants to work differently, wants to work at home, wants to downshift their hours or wants to change their schedule they would need to ask a manager, and that manager could say yes or no. So, we wanted to avoid that individually negotiated approach because we could see a lot of dilemmas that come out from doing it that way. What we tried to do was to create this team approach what we called dual agenda work redesign approach, where a whole team sits down together and talks through when where and how work gets done, and how we can coordinate the work effectively but start from the assumption that everyone has flexibility and that we all support each other as whole people, and addressing personal and family concerns as well as paid work.
Agnes Uhereczky: Could you please explain the main framework of the STAR (Support, Transform, Achieve, Result) approach and how did it work?
Erin L. Kelly: In concrete terms, we delivered STAR in two stages. The first stage was having front line managers, so managers who were supervising a team of 8-30 employees; they went through some training that encouraged them to think about how they support people's personal lives as a core part of their role. It often begins with the recognition that managers want to be supportive of their employees, managers believed that they are supportive of their employees. And here we drew from the research, done earlier, by Ellen Kossek and Leslie Hammer that shows that employees see a certain level of support that’s much lower than managers believe that they are conveying. So basically, there is a little bit of disconnect in how managers express their support.
Managers were given a device that just buzzed them a few times a day to encourage them to prioritize talking to employees about what they needed and deliberately demonstrating their support to employees family and personal life.
That was one component and the goal there was to create new habits of talking about our personal lives and to be explicit trying to problem solve together about what can we do that can be helpful to each person.
The second component was a set of participatory workshops where teams sat down together with a facilitator and did some role plays, strategizing, asking each other questions. The goal there was to help people imagine that they could work much more flexibly. In that part of the workshop people would often talk about 'why are we doing as much as we are doing, and what could we take away that would allow us to feel less overloaded'. They also questioned if they needed all of these meetings, and if they were not having all of these meetings then how are they going to coordinate, and make sure that the project is not folding. Teams got creative about how they did their work. Some of that was increasing work at home but another important part of it was talking through how we want to communicate and coordinate and work together as a team.
Agnes Uhereczky: Now, article after article is coming out about the struggles of working women and mothers, and working women who are carers, about the devastating effects of the lockdowns and the pandemic. I think that there is a huge relevance with the work that you have done and today's developments. We run a survey asking people's experiences with the lockdown, and in the comment section where we asked survey participants to tell us their experiences and what they would have liked for their managers or direct supervisors to do for them, the feedback we collected pointed out that they would have liked more flexibility in terms of deadlines from their managers, or they wanted them to reduce the workload, or have more empathy towards them. The tools, approach and skills that STAR is offering to managers are relevant today.
Erin L. Kelly: Absolutely, I think that the best-case interpretation of what the pandemic has done with a stay at home order and rushed working from home is that it has disrupted old patterns, and it showed that there are possibilities for more remote work and more varied schedules in many different types of jobs. But the worst case is that this is a recipe for additional overload, people are being asked to do more at work as they are asked to figure out new ways of doing things as we are in a new era.
Employees don't have a sense of control, they are not able to choose this, and they are not able to have a mix of time in the office and at home which is probably ideal for most people. And, as you mentioned, there is the extra work on the family and personal side. People are swamped with urgent caregiving responsibilities for children, urgent concerns about older adults in their lives, we have our health worries that maybe are affecting us. So it is not a fair test of work from home done right, and I think this is important for managers and executives to realize. At the same time, if we took this moment and said we know we can work differently, we need to figure out as a team as a company how we are going to approach this, I think the work redesign tools that our study evaluated and that are freely available can be adapted. The kinds of conversations that people engaged in in our study can be borrowed and used right now for how do we want to work together, how do we show support for each other, what are we doing that is not urgent and we need to set aside right now so that we can do a good job of what we absolutely must do but we also push ourselves to recognize that we need to work in a sane and sustainable way.