Extreme Multitasking: Surviving the Superjob

A majority of Americans have taken on extra duties at work, often without more pay. How the up-and-down economy has redefined multitasking.


Denver pastry chef Eric Dale took on a new role — maintenance man — and saw his hours soar after his boss, Jen Jasinski, realized he was handy.

If you like the hazelnut tortamisu at Rioja, the top-rated Denver restaurant, thank pastry chef Eric Dale, who garnishes his sticky invention with gianduja chocolate and espresso cr me anglaise. If you’re fond of the “flight of artisan water buffalo cheeses,” that’s him. And if you happen to pop your head into the bakery room and admire the tile job on the floor, you can thank Dale for that, too.

Ever since his boss, chef Jen Jasinski, discovered that Dale is handy, she’s had him doing double duty as the maintenance man. He’s spent hours repainting the oven, fixing the plumbing and installing a garbage disposal. And that’s just the start. He used to manage the dessert operation at one restaurant. When the recession hit, his boss asked him to take on a second location; now he’s up to three. All told, Dale says, his hours have expanded by a third, to more than 60 a week. The industry has changed, Dale says, and kitchen staffers can’t afford to be “fat and sassy.”

In this new era of the superjob, everyone does windows, and anyone who gripes about working too hard will hear an even hairier tale from the exec on the next bar stool. Emboldened by an unemployment crisis that’s only now easing up, businesses ranging from mom-and-pop shops to the Big Three automakers have asked a dwindling number of employees to take on extra tasks that have little to do with their primary roles and expertise. While hiring in some sectors has picked up, the Labor Department’s hours-worked-per-employee figures have been rising steadily for almost two years. Companies’ new solutions to staffing and budget shortfalls often look surprisingly makeshift, with engineers going on sales calls, accountants pitching in on customer service and CFOs running a division on the side. And some believe the shift is permanent, as the quickening pace of change demands more flexibility from everyone at the office. Management consultant Rich Moran, whose clients have included Apple and AT&T, says that going forward, employees will do whatever it takes to help their company compete: “Job descriptions are written in sand, and the wind is blowing.”

Some workplace experts say the superjob is the logical next step in management’s quest to make the workplace more cost-efficient. The latest shift started when businesses redistributed the workload over a smaller pool of employees following the layoffs of 2009; last year’s nascent recovery intensified the process. In a recent survey by Spherion Staffing, 53 percent of workers said they’ve taken on new roles, most of them without extra pay (just 7 percent got a raise or a bonus). Now that sales are picking up, there’s even more work to do, but companies are reluctant to hire, says Howard Tarnoff, SVP at employee-management-software provider WorkForce Software. Some are anxious about what the economic future holds, while others are taking their cues from global giants that have managed to increase revenue and profit even as they’ve dismissed thousands of workers.

Experts who work with Fortune 500 companies say that as hard as it can be to keep up, employees can benefit from the trend. Research shows that many successful leaders grew the most through “stretch experiences,” says Seymour Adler, an SVP at Aon Hewitt’s talent-and-rewards practice. “They killed themselves for a period of time, but there was an enormous amount of learning.” At Rioja, owner Jasinski says the economizing helped her avoid layoffs when sales dropped. Now that business is booming, she says, she has no plans to hire outsiders: The multitasking creates a sense of teamwork and keeps employees engaged. Still, even the most hard-nosed bosses know that workers can be stretched only so far. New research suggests long hours and project overload can reduce productivity, and recent statistics seem to back that up: In the middle of 2010, after five quarters of impressive growth, U.S. labor productivity took a dip, while a separate survey from the Conference Board found that just 43 percent of Americans are satisfied with their job the lowest level since the survey started in 1987. The irony, of course, is that many companies think most of their own employees are perfectly happy; in a climate where new jobs are still hard to find, polls reveal staffers are afraid to tell management any different.

In one sense, the superjob phenomenon is part of an economic cycle that’s as predictable as the seasons. At the end of almost every recent recession, employers have increased the hours of their remaining workers before hiring reinforcements. But this time around, experts say, there are other forces at play. Some employers have grown wary of the organizational strain of hiring and firing every time the economy swings not to mention the growing cost of benefits (about $9,600 a year per employee, says Mark Stelzner, an HR consultant at Inflexion Advisors). Globalization and technological advances also play a role: Engineering and advertising agencies say clients are demanding shorter delivery times, requiring employees to work more hours, and U.S. executives must be available around-the-clock to take care of issues in Hong Kong and Paris. Then there’s the growing consumer demand for convenience that has druggists putting in long shifts at 24-hour pharmacies and retail managers working Christmas day.

Whether on major projects or small chores, assigning new roles to existing employees can be a smart move, says Debbie Zmorenski, a productivity consultant at LSA Partners in Orlando. But during the recession, she adds, many companies acted in more of a state of panic. Instead of thoughtfully reassigning tasks based on a careful assessment of employees’ skills and affinities, they rushed the process, redistributed the workload willy-nilly and provided little training. When you send a shy but talented IT specialist out to do sales, says Zmorenski, “you’re setting him up to fail.”

Debbie DeChambeau knows the feeling. She loved her inside-marketing gig at a large East Coast real estate firm, introducing her employer’s agents to the company’s home-insurance products. But as the recession gained speed, she says, her division’s new president decided the company couldn’t afford the luxury. DeChambeau was promoted to manager, overseeing several of her coworkers while continuing her marketing duties. And by the way, could she please double as an insurance agent on the side?

DeChambeau remembers this period as the summer she seldom set foot in her flower garden. She hadn’t actually sold insurance for 15 years, but following a one-hour training session, the company set her loose on the unit’s complex product-rating system. “This isn’t good,” she recalls thinking. “I’m going to create more problems than I solve.” And despite her efforts to catch up, she worried about steering her sales force wrong. “It’s awkward when they know more than you do,” she says. Her own sales performance, meanwhile, hardly blew the doors off the barn: In two months she sold two policies.

Not surprisingly, DeChambeau says she felt overwhelmed by the competing demands. Whether she focused on marketing, management or sales, she felt she was giving the other two short shrift: “It was a big blur.” There is, in fact, a technical term organizational psychologists use to describe what employees endure when they’re saddled with multiple jobs role conflict. It’s that feeling that no matter how hard you try, you can’t win. When role conflict drags on for months, experts say, burnout and reduced productivity are almost inevitable. DeChambeau’s solution: She left to start her own consulting firm, and she’s thrilled to focus on the work she does best. “I feel like a new person,” she says.

Taking on extra work doesn’t necessarily mean a promotion. Some executives who would welcome a juicy “stretch” assignment, for example, find themselves spending time on chores that used to be handled by the support staff. Hospitals are training doctors to do fund-raising. Some companies save money by routing call-center overflow to their white-collar offices; an executive might be expected to drop everything to handle a botched sales order, says Stelzner. At the University of Vermont, meanwhile, even top administrators like Richard Cate, VP for finance and administration, have to empty and wash their own trash baskets. Cate, who scrubs the banana peels and orange rinds from his green mini bin twice a week, can’t complain he’s the guy who cut the university’s custodial-services budget in the first place. And while he notes that some staffers say it makes no sense to have top officers and educators spending time on trash, he says the small effort saves the university $500,000 a year.

Still, some say the rising tide of goofy chores can interfere with more important tasks. David Shiman, the faculty union president at the University of Vermont, says most professors don’t mind taking out their own trash (although the 6-inch mini bins have become something of a campus joke, with some using them as desktop planters). But it is another distraction. Academics can no longer rely on department administrative assistants to file expense reports and book travel, he says, and many professors are putting in extra hours to figure out the new performance-tracking software all time pressures that can divert their energies from the classroom. Shiman says he’s hoping the university will hire more instructors, “so we can be the teachers we want to be.”

When Philadelphia-area copywriting and marketing consultant Carolyn Frith served as a marketing head for a high-end home-fixtures manufacturer, she didn’t necessarily mind endlessly proofing the price book while her product manager went on maternity leave. After all, someone had to make sure the book’s margins were wide enough to accommodate a three-hole punch. When the sales assistant got canned, Frith understood that there weren’t any magic elves coming along to track the literature flow and warn the sales force not to hog the brochures. And if the security guard got laid off, and it fell on her to switch off the lights and dial in the security codes for the parking lot gates? Well, why not? The only problem: “It was hard to find time to plan strategy and meet with customers,” she says.

If you’re wondering why it’s so hard to juggle those petty chores, just ask a scientist. Yes, while we’re busy emptying the trash, researchers are studying productivity, and they’re telling us to stop with the multitasking already. Turns out, the practice reduces productivity, because it takes a ton of mental energy to switch from one task to the next. In one five-year study conducted at a midsize recruiting firm, researchers affiliated with MIT’s Sloan School of Management found that when employees took on additional assignments, firm revenue and project completion increased but only up to a point. When the caseload piled higher, speed and completion rates plummeted.

The sheer number of work hours demanded by the superjob can also short-circuit your brain even if you get eight hours of sleep every night, says Susan Koen, an organizational psychologist and consultant whose clients include Pfizer, Alcoa and Procter & Gamble. If you work a 14-hour day, your primitive monkey mind assumes you must be dealing with some terrible emergency wild cougars on the horizon! and kicks into overdrive in a misguided effort to keep you alert. The result: a lousy night’s sleep that has you dreaming about spreadsheets. And the longer you keep it up, the worse it gets. Eventually, says Koen, hard-driving executives reach a state of cognitive impairment comparable to that of someone who has just enjoyed a three-martini lunch including a tendency to overrate one’s own performance. Sometimes, the folks most in need of a break are the last to realize how poorly they’re functioning.

To their credit, some employers are doing everything they can to help their superstars short of reducing the workload. Ken LeBeau, director of employee-assistance programs for health care giant Cigna, says he’s getting more corporate requests for stress-reduction seminars. And outfits that saw a rebound in 2010 are hiring coaches to help executives with time management and delegation. “They’re calling us because management can’t handle the growth,” says Kate Wendleton, CEO of outplacement and coaching firm the Five O’Clock Club.

Another popular tactic: newfangled recognition programs that reward employees for taking on extra work. This isn’t your father’s employee-of-the-month award. Major companies are turning to software “wizards” that dole out laurels on preset schedules, says Adrian Gostick, a coauthor of The Carrot Principle and a former VP at employee-recognition consultancy O.C. Tanner. “Managers are busy and don’t have time to figure out whether what an employee did is worth an e-mail of thanks or a $200 award,” he adds. And the reward is often a token bonus. One credit union asked its tellers to organize a customer-appreciation day with a Greek theme, tasking them with arranging food and decorations, and persuading fellow employees to dress up as gladiators and goddesses. The tellers’ reward: a thank-you card and a gift worth $25.

Other organizations rely on the human touch. At Ohio Presbyterian Retirement Services, a retirement housing and health care provider, Chief HR Officer Dana Ullom-Vucelich says the company increased its recognition budget to record levels for its 3,100 employees. She still relies on traditional tactics such as flying employees to speaking engagements. But she’ll also call the employee’s family to express appreciation ringing an executive’s wife, for example, to talk about how his contribution makes a difference. As for herself, she recently agreed to do double duty as the company’s head compliance officer. Her reward? The CEO offered his warm thanks at a board meeting. And, she says, “I took myself out to lunch.”

Of course, the ultimate responsibility for workload management falls to the employee. Experts say that in many cases, employers have no idea how many tasks they’ve loaded on one person, so workers have to “manage up.” Chris Perry, a New Jersey based brand manager responsible for a $65 million product line, says that despite “tons of conflicting priorities,” he’s thriving and enjoying a promotion, thanks to his careful efforts to set limits. In order to spend evenings with his wife, he starts his workday early and often sends a few casual morning e-mails to make sure the effort gets noticed. When he’s overwhelmed with projects, he asks the top brass to clarify their priorities. Perry admits he’s often tempted to work late when he sees his coworkers chained to their desks through the dinner hour. “It’s hard to play that game of impression versus reality,” he says. But so far, Perry has been able to impose his own rules: Everyone at the office knows he doesn’t check work e-mail after hours.