What is a fast-paced environment?
The phrase “fast-paced environment” is used in job descriptions to describe the pace and rigor of work in different industries, departments, and company sizes.
Its meaning varies. In startup and innovative tech spaces, the wording is often used to invoke a sense of excitement for the opportunities to come. In service-oriented roles like bartending or restaurant work, it describes the speed at which you might be dishing out drinks and meals. Health care workers, creatives, and more might work in fast-paced environments that require adaptability and wearing multiple hats, another common catchphrase. In all cases, expect activity to be nonstop and with little downtime.
What to expect in a fast-paced environment and important skills
Regardless of industry, there are a number of commonalities that exist across professions that self-describe as a fast-paced environment. Those who favor a faster pace to a seemingly low pressure, laid-back atmosphere likely enjoy these factors and have these skills:
A focus on innovation and high performance
The ability to prioritize and manage their time effectively
Using judgement and skill to complete tasks.
Working on multiple projects at once and juggling competing priorities
An emphasis on individual and teamwork to keep things moving
A high degree of collaboration
Responding favorably to change and not always following a step-by-step process
Meeting and exceeding set goals and deadlines
Fast-paced environments and burnout
In many instances, the fast-paced environment has become synonymous with high performance, which can be good (read: fulfilling) or very, very bad. Let’s talk about the bad.
When not properly defined and managed, a high-performance environment can lead to high stress. Over time, high stress can cause workplace burnout.
In May 2019, the World Health Organization recognized burnout as an occupational phenomenon. The org defined burnout as a syndrome linked to chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterized by three dimensions:
feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one's job;
And reduced professional efficacy.
That same year, a whitepaper, The Extent of Workplace Burnout in Modern America, reported that 56 percent of employees say they suffer from stress at work and 55 percent of employees say they have considered leaving their current employer due to lack of support for the symptoms of burnout. Other studies have shown that working women report higher rates of burnout than men, due, most often, to the combination of paid work and unpaid labor (housework) they juggle regularly.
The percentage of burned out employees of all genders increased with the global pandemic. In the fall of 2020, Harvard Business Review compiled data from 1,500 respondents in 46 countries that revealed 89 percent of respondents said their work life was getting worse as a result of the pandemic and 85 percent of respondents said their wellbeing had declined. To satisfy increased job demands, 62 percent of the respondents said they were struggling to manage their workloads and had experienced burnout “often” or “extremely often.”
Professions in the health care and service-oriented industries and high-performance roles that went remote experienced this increased burnout across seniority levels. For some organizations and for savvy job seekers, this might mean that describing the work environment as “fast-paced” could be considered a deterrent moving forward.
5 questions about fast-paced environments to ask during an interview
That said, a job posting that describes the work environment as fast-paced isn’t necessarily a red flag indicator or coded language that the employer requires high productivity at the expense of their employees’ health and wellness or that employees will be overworked and underpaid. During interviews, ask the following questions to determine if the fast-paced environment is one in which you can thrive.
How does leadership define “fast-paced”? How does your team define “fast-paced”?
Asking these two questions will illustrate how well-aligned the senior leaders and the line managers are in their expectations and determine if productivity at all cost is influencing the overall organizational culture in an undesirable manner. You also want to ensure that your definition of fast-paced aligns with the organizations.
What is a typical workday like?
The answers to this question should give you more insight into how employees manage multiple projects and prioritize their time. Be cautious if interviewers offer rigid, task centered, step-by-step depictions that would stifle innovation.
How do you view employee downtime?
With this question, an interviewee can get a sense for whether the hiring manager believes scheduled and ad-hoc breaks are an essential element to assist in preventing burnout.
How are expectations passed down from senior leadership to line leaders to team members?
Similar to the first question, how “fast-paced” is defined, this question seeks to unearth a company’s work culture and sense of balance. Additionally, it shows how effectively and clearly information is disseminated at all levels of the organization. Lack of communication or poor communication paired with quick and evolving work is a recipe for unhappiness.
What does success look like in this role?
This question is important both in and outside of fast-paced environments. Look for answers that point to collaboration and innovation and that meet not only your individual professional goals, but also tie them to the overall success of the organization.