The result of information overload is that over time, it begins to compound, like interest. One burned out employee fails to make a proper assessment of who should receive an email, and the result is that another employee receives an email they must assess for its relevance, decreasing their decision-making capacity, and potentially leading to mistakes creating further information overload to others.
Recently, yet another article discussing how to manage communication overload at work sailed into our email. It caught our eye not as someone responsible for occupying your inbox real estate, but because it was the third or fourth article we’d seen in as many weeks. On an individual level, communication overload can be a serious problem in terms of employee productivity and job satisfaction. On an enterprise level, communication can have serious compliance repercussions.
The latest article we spotted on this topic defined communication overload as “a common challenge in today's fast-paced and interconnected work environment. You may feel overwhelmed by the amount and variety of messages you receive from different sources, such as emails, texts, calls, meetings, social media, and reports.” A study discussed in a May 2023 Harvard Business Review article noted that “1000 employees and managers – and found that 38% of employees say they receive an “excessive” volume of communications at their organization.”
Communication overload for an individual may mean important information isn’t getting processed at the right time. It may mean delayed review of internal emails until after client hours or triaging that task to the end of the burning ablaze with fires to put out. At its worst, it may lead to burnout.
From a compliance standpoint, employee burnout is an individual and enterprise problem. On an individual level, employee burnout may lead to turnover, failure to properly document transactions or and failure to follow through on reporting details. On an enterprise level, employee burn out can undermine reporting and process aspects of compliance programs. Communication overload can also impact decision making. Each communication, be it texts, emails, calls, or meeting requests, requires a small decision. The more decisions made, the lower the quality of decision making that occurs.
Additionally, some regulatory agencies consider communications in investigating firms. FINRA, for example looks at management’s internal communications when evaluating ethics concerns. Similarly, other regulatory bodies may examine client load when considering the appropriateness of an advisor’s counsel. If an advisor is too overloaded with clients, they may discern that the advisor’s capacity to give thoughtful, prudent advice is compromised. The level of communications streaming into an advisor from sources other than clients may also be an area of consideration for ethics and compliance issues.
Some of the generic tips given to handle inbox overload may create compliance concerns. As noted in the example above, some articles advise that employees prioritize some tasks over others, in essence, adding internal communications to the bottom of a to do list or a priority assessment. But that won’t account for compliance related emails or flags. Additionally, some tips suggest muting alerts or emails, which again might not notify an advisor about a crucial compliance detail, like a reporting period or a missed piece of information on a client form.
Instead, experts suggest focusing on the decision making involved with the process of sifting through communications. “Information volume, as it turns out, is only a partial driver of information overload. Rather, the real culprit is the information itself — and specifically the degree to which the accessing and interpreting of the information imposes extra ‘work’ on its recipient.” Adding to this burden, of course, is that turning off older alerts (say from sunsetted projects or programs) or ensuring that the invite list on a meeting request is truly as narrow as needed, is most likely at the bottom of the sender’s triage pile. The result of information overload is that over time, it begins to compound, like interest. One burned out employee fails to make a proper assessment of who should receive an email, and the result is that another employee receives an email they must assess for its relevance, decreasing their decision-making capacity, and potentially leading to mistakes creating further information overload to others.
The answer isn’t a simple one, like turning off alerts or channeling emails into specific folders. That’s because most of the information overload may be coming from internal communications. In the words of horror movies, the call is coming from inside the house. And even more horrific, compliance alerts or flags may get hidden within those internal communications. Instead, firm management needs to ensure that everyone in the firm understands how information overload impacts both the company’s culture and strategy as well as the culture of compliance. May we gently suggest not doing so by email?
These articles are prepared for general purposes and are not intended to provide advice or encourage specific behavior. Before taking any action, Advisors and Plan Sponsors should consult with their compliance, finance and legal teams.
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