Have you ever walked into a children’s birthday party when it was in full swing? It’s like walking into an ocean of noise; kids screaming and laughing and crying (sometimes all at once), running around all over the place making it impossible for you to sort names or faces. 

Now imagine all of those noises are internal communications: long-winded company announcements, lengthy product advisories, information that is only relevant to a segment of the workforce, the same communication delivered on multiple platforms…you get the idea. How can anyone know what’s relevant and important to them when they’re all yelling for attention?

This, my friend, is information overload. And your frontline workforce is suffering from it. 

Let’s dive deeper into what information overload is, what causes it, and what it does to your frontline workforce. 

What is information overload?

Information overload happens when a person receives more information than they can effectively process. Making a decision or performing tasks while suffering from information overload becomes difficult and can impair judgment. It can even cause physical and mental harm if it goes on for too long (more on that later). 

The term “information overload” first appeared in the 1964 book, The Managing of Organizations by Bertram Gross. Since then, numerous other studies have validated his observations, and the concept has been further explored by psychiatrists all over the world. 

The most recent evolution of Bertram’s idea is the concept of “infobesity,” which is associated with the glut of digital information thrust upon modern employees. People were already suffering from information overload in the pre-internet days, so you can imagine how much worse it is now that information is so readily accessible online. 

Frontline employees are particularly prone to this, as they only have a limited time to consume company and product updates (which are all marked “important”) before having to focus on their actual tasks. 

What causes information overload?

In Information Overload: Causes, Symptoms, and Solution, Harvard researcher (and, for a brief stint, Performance Enhancement and Culture Director for Chik-Fil-A) Joseph Ruff attributed information overload to five primary factors:

  • Technology
  • People
  • Organizations
  • Processes and tasks
  • Information attributes

All of these factors have a tendency to overlap, which makes it hard for businesses to manage the flow of information. 

Technology

Ruff is very clear on technology’s impact on employees. “Technology plays a significant role in the cause of information overload. It not only helps to create content information, it also gives us access to vast amounts of it. Learning how to use this technology introduces still more information with which to contend.”

Technology is ubiquitous in everything we do, especially in frontline organizations. Sure, it can drive operational efficiency and consistency, and make it easy to communicate with staff at scale, but organizations need to be aware of the impact of these tools, and ensure they’re using them effectively. 

People

Frontline employees work in a team environment, and that means close communication. Team members have to exchange info all the time under pressure – all while servicing customers. 

Site supervisors try to help coordinate workers mid-shift and pass along vital information from corporate, but this often results in a communication cascade, where the manager turns into an information bottleneck.

Organizations

Companies need to keep employees abreast of significant changes, but they have a habit of blasting every little update to every single employee, whether it’s relevant or not. “When the change process is implemented well,” Ruff says, “the information load can be reduced; when handled poorly information load can escalate.”

In other words: frontline workers don’t have the time to sift through a dozen company updates to find the ones that are the most relevant to them, so they just ignore it all.

Processes and tasks

According to Ruff, “The more complex a task is, the greater the information load and the more time required to complete it.” 

Training can help reduce this load, and experience can turn the most complex task into a simple routine, but any change in the process immediately throws a wrench into the works.

Does the customer have a special order? The cashier needs to think about how to explain it to the cook, who has to break from the established routine to accommodate it. Did corporate introduce a new menu item? This slows everyone down as staff try to familiarize themselves with it while still maintaining the SLA for regular items.

Information attributes

This is the most devious information overload factor by far. Digesting new information is tough enough, but is the new information reliable? Does the site manager have a bad habit of misinterpreting the information they get from corporate? When a coworker explains how a new product works, do they get it right? 

The less certain employees are about the quality of the information, the more confused they get – and the worse they perform. 

What does information overload do to your frontline workforce?

Information overload is a serious issue that can have a significantly negative impact on your business and, more importantly, on the wellbeing of your employees. Here are a few of the information overload symptoms that frontline organizations might see:

Mental health issues

Being bombarded with information on a regular basis is not good for you. One study of managers in the UK, USA, Hong Kong and Singapore found that 42% attributed ill-health to information overload, and two out of three respondents associated information overload with tension with colleagues and loss of job satisfaction. Another Gallup study found that information overload is one of the major factors driving 76% of workers to be experiencing burnout at work. 

Why? According to neuroscientist Daniel Levitin, information overload increases the production of cortisol, a stress hormone, as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. These mental health issues are not to be taken lightly, as the effects will cascade to other areas.

Poor productivity

Frontline workers always have a lot of things to do, but never enough time to do it. Do you think they have time to read lengthy corporate memos? That’s a big “no.”

In fact, our recently-commissioned Total Economic Impact study, conducted by Forrester Consulting, found that store managers spent a whopping 1.5 hours a day reviewing and organizing information, and communicating it to frontline workers. That’s a lot of time in a retail environment – time that isn’t being spent assisting customers, managing staff, and maintaining smooth operations. 

Team cohesion and employee morale

Stress is never good for relationships – and especially in workplace relationships, where there’s high tension and constant pressure. 

We already talked about how information overload led respondents in one study to have increased tension with colleagues. This tension will lead to lower team morale and poor location performance, and may even trigger employee turnover. 

Safety concerns

According to Daniel Levitin, stress-induced brain fatigue can lead to “a depleted state in which, after making lots of insignificant decisions, we can end up making truly bad decisions about something important.”

And what could be more important than workplace safety? Manufacturing facilities are a dangerous place, with a lot of heavy equipment and hazardous materials, and the slightest lapse in judgment can be lethal. And while the dangers in retail and foodservice roles are less pronounced, incidents can still turn ugly when people aren’t paying attention. 

Knowledge gaps

If a retail worker is so overwhelmed with information that he can’t digest anything, then what’s going to happen when a customer asks him a question?

Nothing, that’s what. 

The worker has no answer, the customer gets no info, and you make no sales. This consequence of information overload can hobble your workforce readiness, which may tank the performance any of the product launches you may be planning.

Information overload is a serious issue that, if left unchecked, can harm your frontline staff, increase turnover, and decrease customer satisfaction and profit.