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A Guide to Understanding Glue Work

Create an equitable work environment and increase your team’s productivity by managing glue work effectively.

By Tegan Samija  •   July 28, 2023  •   8 min read

An organization’s success depends on its ability to value diversity and foster an inclusive environment that rewards everyone’s contributions. Many teams are striving to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion across their company and have made important progress. However, there’s an invisible culprit that’s undermining many teams’ efforts: glue work.

Poorly managed glue work can lead to unhealthy work culture and decreased productivity, especially for minority groups; research shows that women and people of color are disproportionately affected by glue work. Read on for examples of glue work and a guide for managing it effectively. Plus check out this Supermanagers podcast with Karen Catlin, explaining what glue work entails:

What is glue work?

Glue work describes the tasks that provide value to your organization but don’t fall under anyone’s job description. These tasks are the ‘glue’ that holds your team together and makes it possible to achieve your goals. Examples of glue work include writing reports, taking meeting notes, managing internship programs, and creating documentation. While glue work is key to organizational success, if poorly managed, it can become a significant load for some employees while the rest of the team is unaware. As a result, team dynamics and performance can suffer and team members may even end up wanting to leave your organization.

“Glue work is this work that has to get done for the health of an organization or a team, any kind of working group, it has to get done, but it’s no one’s job.”

Karen Catlin, Leadership Coach and Advocate for Inclusive Workplaces on the Supermanagers podcast

The effects of glue work

Improves knowledge sharing

If your team members are working in silos, they aren’t sharing valuable information that could help one another succeed. Creating a culture of regular knowledge sharing is key to fostering continuous improvement in your organization. Different ways of exchanging information include contributing new ideas and insights, sharing learnings and expertise, and suggesting helpful resources to other team members—all of which can be glue work. When knowledge sharing is recognized by managers and distributed evenly across employees, it’s a powerful tool for a united, innovative team.

Pro tip: A well-run meeting with Fellow fosters communication and collaboration to avoid workplace silos by including an agenda the whole team can contribute to.

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Encourages teamwork

Everyone wants to be part of a team where members support each other and care about more than just their own tasks. In the most successful organizations, team members are regularly willing to help each other out, share ideas and feedback, and check in with each other. These activities are all considered glue work because they can often take extra time; however, they’re critical for a high-performing team committed to a shared vision and goals.

Helps the organization grow

If your organization aspires to grow, you won’t get very far without glue work! Glue work is at the heart of any effective growth strategy, and teams often fail to reach their goals because they aren’t accounting for it. Whether you’re hiring new team members, launching a new product or service, or setting ambitious revenue targets, glue work is essential to success. For example, if you’re onboarding new employees, team members should take some extra time and offer support while they’re getting up to speed.

Leads to burnout

Not all the effects of glue work are positive. Glue work can be a big contributor to burnout when it continuously falls to the same team members or goes unrecognized in your organization. Because glue work activities require consistent time and energy, it’s important to create sustainable systems for managing these tasks on an ongoing basis. Left unchecked, glue work can contribute to long hours, unclear expectations, and dysfunctional workplace dynamics that result in serious burnout.

Contributes to poor work-life balance

Another sign of poorly managed glue work is when employees don’t have a healthy work-life balance. Glue work tasks can result in team members consistently working long hours, being unable to fully unplug during time off, and feeling stressed outside of work. Often, glue work is added on top of employees’ existing responsibilities and prevents them from focusing on their core tasks. Regular interruptions and task switching can cause employees to have less control over their schedules and slow down their progress.

Leads to inequality

One of the most important negative impacts of glue work is that it can disproportionately affect female and minority group employees. Glue work falls most often on women and people of color, leading to unfair treatment and an inequitable work environment. Glue work can even result in decreased likelihood of promotions for the people who take on these tasks. Creating a strategy for equitable task delegation is essential to running an organization that values diversity.

How are women affected by glue work?

Research shows that women and women of color are affected by glue work significantly more than men. In fact, women typically complete glue work tasks 48% more often than men. Additionally, when managers were asked to choose someone to complete these tasks, they asked women 44% more often than men. Glue work also makes women less likely to receive promotions and reach their career goals because it’s often not recognized in promotion discussions. As a result, unmanaged glue work can be a significant source of inequality in teams.

“One of the pillars of allyship is to understand the experience of people who aren’t like you. For women, and especially women of color, part of that experience is being expected to do more glue work than their peers.”

Karen Catlin

Examples of glue work

Supporting new or less-experienced team members: A comprehensive onboarding process is essential for welcoming new members to the team. However, when a clear process isn’t in place, this work can fall to team members who already have their own workloads to manage. Similarly, helping guide junior team members is a common type of glue work that can include reviewing work, providing skill-related feedback, and giving situational advice.

Managing meetings: There’s a lot of extra work that goes on behind the scenes of effective meetings to ensure they’re helping achieve your objectives. For example, meeting summaries can be a great resource for recalling the important details discussed. For these summaries to be created, someone needs to take detailed notes, highlight key decisions made, assign action items, share the meeting notes, and organize the next meeting. If this isn’t done by the manager or on a rotational basis, the work can continuously fall to the same people.

Organizing team events and initiatives: Team-building activities like offsite events, retreats, fundraisers, and training sessions can be a great way to help your team bond and develop new skills. However, organizing these initiatives can require extensive efforts to bring them to life. It’s important to be mindful of who’s in charge of selecting vendors, managing budgets, coordinating logistics, and more.

How managers can handle glue work

1Learn your employees’ task scope

The first step to managing glue work is making sure you understand what falls within each team member’s task scope and what doesn’t. Review your employees’ core responsibilities with them and ask them to create a list of any additional tasks they regularly complete outside of their roles. It can be easy to forget or minimize seemingly small tasks, but these add up—make sure all tasks are included, no matter their size. Your goal is to gain a complete picture of all the activities required to keep your department running smoothly that aren’t currently part of anyone’s job description.

2Delegate tasks fairly

Once you have a complete list of your team’s glue work, it’s time to think strategically about task delegation. You may be able to eliminate some tasks that are non-essential; however, there will always be work that isn’t part of anyone’s job description but needs to get done. For these tasks, you can either take them on as the manager or come up with a system for rotating these tasks between team members. If there are still too many glue work tasks left over, you may need additional resources.

Using Fellow, you can delegate tasks effectively during meetings by assigning action items, making clear decisions about who is doing what, by when, to foster transparency and accountability.

3Understand your employees’ career goals

An aspect of managing glue work that’s often missed is spending time reviewing your employees’ professional goals with them. It’s important to learn about their goals so you can identify any glue work tasks that might be slowing down their progress. For example, if someone wants to be promoted to a technical role, they should be spending the majority of their time on technical tasks so they can build their skills, not taking on a lot of non-technical glue work.

You may find there’s some glue work that can actually help employees reach their career goals faster. For example, if someone wants to become a manager, then taking on tasks related to team organizing can help them grow. While not everyone will get to do only the tasks they want to do, as a manager you can make sure glue work is distributed as strategically as possible for your team members.

4Don’t ask for volunteers

Finally, it’s important not to ask for volunteers when assigning glue work. Studies show that women and people of color are more likely to volunteer for extra tasks than other staff, so a volunteer-based system can lead to inequality. Instead, delegate these tasks or use a rotation system so you can ensure they’re evenly distributed. Of course, don’t forget to regularly recognize your employees for going above and beyond their roles to help build a thriving organization and collaborative team, too.

Parting advice

Glue work is essential to collaboration and maximizing the overall impact of any team. However, the division of glue work is often unfair and contributes to both inequality and decreased team productivity. Creating a strategy to guide how you manage glue work in your organization is essential to building a culture that fosters inclusivity and recognizes employees equally. Fellow is a valuable resource for managers and leaders who want to manage glue work effectively and help their team reach its full potential.

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