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March 2, 2023

The dark side of ‘shadow work’

As businesses push support tasks out to workers, they may actually be reducing productivity instead of cutting costs.

In the news

Data entry. Downloading and learning an array of applications. Booking your own business flights. Troubleshooting company-provided tech devices.

These are all examples of what has come to be known as “shadow work,” the act of completing tasks that aren’t compensated or part of the job description but are still required to complete the job (not to be confused with psychological shadow work).

Shadow work has become common in both our work and personal lives. We check out and bag our own groceries, handle our own banking transactions, order and pay for our food sans wait staff. As consumers, we have been enlisted by businesses to drive out cost by working harder ourselves. And we call it progress.

In the workplace, some now wonder whether—by forcing individuals to handle tasks once performed by others (and performed better and more efficiently, in all likelihood)—businesses are contributing to a drop in productivity. Would we all be getting more real work accomplished if we weren’t so busy with apps and forms?

Shadow work may also lead to burnout, exacerbating the global skills shortage. And in his book on shadow work, author Craig Lambert argues that the practice has decimated entry-level service-sector work, thus denying vulnerable workers access to the first rung on the corporate ladder.

The Cognizant take

“Shadow work gives the illusion of free work,” says Keahn Gary, a Senior Manager at Cognizant Research. “But there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

While business leaders may not pay real dollars to employees for work activities outside their formally scoped roles, or to team members working above their pay grade to demonstrate they should be promoted, Gary believes businesses will pay an equal or greater cost elsewhere as a result. That cost “may be frayed employee engagement or loyalty, employer reputation or other cultural expressions like partnerships and productivity,” she says. And while this cost may be deferred, hidden or even indirect, “it will be paid in full.”

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, two of the original shadow work activities—caregiving and home management—caused the departure of millions of women from the workforce, Gary points out, causing a domino effect: “Fewer primary caregivers in the workforce places strain on the labor market and means a more homogenous workforce. That’s a problem because embracing diversity is a key principle of modern business.”

Cognizant’s research, Gary says, “shows that future readiness requires leaders to recognize the value of people and their experiences at work in the face of complexity, uncertainty and competing priorities.”

To combat or compensate shadow work, leaders need to take an active interest in the employee experience, regularly reviewing work activities for opportunities to streamline, redistribute and reengineer. “Don't be afraid to right-size individual job roles to accurately capture and account for the real requirements, scope and workload,” Gary advises.

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