Work Friction is Bad for Business

This article, Arbeitsfriktion ist schlecht fürs Geschäft (Work Friction is Bad for Business), by Volker Jacobs, originally appeared in German on The Future of HR website.

It’s a paradox: teams tasked to create better employee experiences still tend to prioritize the organization over the employees they’re meant to support. The reason? A pain point business leaders have until now overlooked: work friction. The reality is that work friction is bad for business because it creates poor employee experiences – and remains a hurdle all leaders must overcome.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, human resources (HR) managers, like all people, have wrestled with what we’ve come to accept as the “new normal.” One part of this reality: employees pay increasing attention to how, where, and when they work. As a result, many businesses have rebranded their HR function to focus on employee experiences (EX). 

While that rebrand hasn’t entirely refocused the traditional HR mandate “to do more with less,” it has redefined the terms. Better experiences, the idea goes, deepen employees’ investment in their workplace and elevate organizational performance. So the trend to prioritize EX – and in turn, create better experiences for less money – certainly sounds like a good idea.

But look a bit closer and it’s easy to see an ever-widening gap between this new strategy and demonstrable results. Teams tasked to create better employee experiences still tend to prioritize the organization first and foremost. The fact is, this top-down focus occurs at the expense of the organization’s employees.

The reason? A pain point that impacts almost all employees (and organizations): work friction.

If the concept is new to you, you’re not alone. But once you know how to identify work friction, you’ll understand why it’s so consequential and be better positioned to address it. In this piece, I’ll introduce work friction – and highlight how anything that makes an employee’s job harder is bad for business.

What is Work Friction?

If you’re familiar with Lean, Six Sigma, or Agile methodologies, you’re likely wondering: what leader doesn’t already focus on how to minimize friction? And there’s no doubt about it: most executives already work to identify and eliminate points of resistance in order to optimize productivity throughout their organization.

But even those most successful at addressing organizational friction regularly miss opportunities to eliminate work friction. In fact, chances are they’re unaware of the misstep.

Work friction – defined as the energy an employee expends to overcome resistance they feel disrupts their pursuit of a goal – is unique in its focus on employees’ efforts and energy rather than on organizational pain points.

Put simply, work friction is any task that makes an employee’s job harder. Consider an employee tasked to write an internal company newsletter. In spite of their goals, they may spend their work day:

  • Triaging emails or Slack messages that don’t specifically require their response.
  • Contacting payroll about a recurring error in their biweekly paycheck.
  • Reaching out to a colleague to interview them about their individual role in the organization without receiving a reply.

Each example above is an instance of work friction. Each requires the employee to expend unnecessary energy on a task (e.g., emailing) that doesn’t apply to their goal (drafting the newsletter) and prevents them from efficiently completing their work. 

Naturally, any impact to employee productivity has a corresponding impact on organizational output. When companies take steps to identify and eliminate work friction for individual employees, they improve the experiences for all stakeholders throughout the organization, from customers to senior leadership. This is what the fundamentals of EX get right. 

But today’s EX teams tend to miss a simple truth: if employee experiences are paramount, it’s simply good business to identify and eliminate elements that hinder individual employee productivity. Next, let’s look at how to identify work friction in your organization.

To Identify Work Friction, Focus on Employees’ Personal Stories

In order to identify work friction, learn about the moments in your employees’ days that prevent them from completing their goals. To be sure: don’t assume your aptitude for identifying organizational friction means you’ll efficiently root out work friction. One efficient way to dive into the differences? Listen to employees’ stories about their experiences at work. Then, use what you’ve learned from these stories to make these work experiences better.

Say that your company finds it difficult to retain recent hires. To determine why, you develop a hypothesis that your onboarding service is the issue. However, looked at from the new joiner’s perspective, it is not only the onboarding service that is important for them in their first months with the company. It is the new job they’ve signed up for as well. So onboarding becomes “begin to work” and encompasses the company’s onboarding services and the job itself. 

Once you’ve developed your hypothesis, the next step is to test it. You might, for example, start with a targeted survey to (some of the) employees who were recently hired. This gathers information relevant to testing your hypothesis (i.e., that there is an element of friction in the “begin to work” that impacts employee retention). And it prevents additional work friction (that is, requiring employees to respond to surveys that are not relevant to them.

To test your hypothesis and determine the exact source of work friction, ask employees about:

  • Their goals. 
  • What they feel disrupts their pursuit of their goals. 
  • What steps they take (i.e., what energy they expend) to overcome disruptions.

The goals, disruptions, and efforts employees take to overcome disruptions are the heart of work friction – and the key for how to address it. Next, let’s look at how to minimize or remove work friction after you have identified it.

Three smiling people sitting at a small table with their laptops open

Prioritize Individual Points of Disruption

So you’ve tested your hypothesis. You’ve solicited and listened to your employees’ stories. And you’ve identified disruptions. Your next step should be to surgically remove work friction, right?  Truthfully, the answer isn’t so easy. Your employees are people, after all, and so what works for one may not work well for another. 

The way this looks differs across different industries, too. Solutions for the knowledge worker’s work friction outlined earlier in this article, for example, might not be helpful for entry-level employees in a call center. Remember, disruption is any element that makes it harder for an employee to do their work. Individual employees’ work is always key to addressing work friction. 

For the next step to turn work friction insights into action – and develop correspondingly targeted solutions – continue to work with your employees. For example, if you work in a call center, you could invite six call center agents and two of their team leaders to participate in two focus group sessions. In this case, one group would focus on validating the findings from the survey. The other would focus on ideating solutions that actually work for them.

Recently hired agents who work remotely, for instance, might say that a limited capacity of subject matter experts to help with resolving customer issues makes it tough for them to feel supported in their new roles. As a result, you might increase the allocated time of experts to support entry level agents. Then, you can follow up with those agents a few months later to see whether that improved their experiences in the workplace.

Work Friction Fighters Demonstrate Success with Data 

As with any new process, it’s understandable that HR and EX teams aren’t yet set up to fight work friction on their own. Rather, they need expertise and resources from other areas such as IT, work planning, facilities management and, of course, leadership. And that means they need a tech solution that connects improvement processes across teams.

There’s no “secret sauce” that can eliminate all work friction. But a deft approach to gathering, analyzing, and discussing employee data can help organizations identify, avoid, and remove many points of disruption. To develop the best strategy, assemble a x-functional friction fighter team and…

  • Identify and prioritize work friction employees experience.
  • Equip friction fighter teams with meaningful insights to reduce work friction.
  • Measure the impact that friction removal has on business outcomes.

The right technology, of course, can help demonstrate that friction has actually been reduced. What’s more: it can demonstrate the impact that reduction has on metrics including productivity, customer experience, and attrition to sustain successes across the organization.

Even though work friction is bad for business, it doesn’t have to be bad for your business. Request a demo of FOUNT and learn how to get started quickly.