Managing your team's workload

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One of the most frequent issues in today’s fast paced work environment is managing workload. Too much to do all of the time or the new task or project that pushes workload to the unimaginable right now, today. As a manager, workload is one of the most important things you will help your team manage and there are plenty of things you can do to that end. Let’s take a look at some simple steps to take.

Let’s start with your overall approach to managing workload. Workload is one of the primary topics you should be regularly discussing with your team as a whole and with individuals. Make sure you ask about workload and keep tabs on who has stretch room and who has a full plate. When you communicate new projects and deadlines, explicitly ask about how this will impact workload and whether there are issues and conflicts. Discuss possible trade-offs up front to ensure that workload does not become an issue. Finally, don’t forget to openly acknowledge exceptional or peak workload periods – recognize when extra effort is needed to get to end of job.

However, no matter the steps we take to try to avoid overload, it still happens. When workload is problematic, start by simply assessing some facts. When gathering the facts, realize that your team members are probably in the throes of frustration and feeling out of control. You can help them check their emotions by directing the conversation to the facts and not the emotions caused by the situation. Look out for negative thinking patterns in comments like “I’ll never get it all done” or “I’m just not good enough” and point out the alternatives.

The first thing you want to do is assess whether the problem is temporary (caused by a peak in workload) or whether it is an ongoing situation.  How you seek to resolve the problem will be different if you have a temporary issue. This can be assessed by simply asking the question – is this an ongoing issue, a periodic one or an exceptional situation?

Some industries and job roles have natural peaks and valleys. It’s important for everyone to recognize natural peaks and valleys and accommodate them as much as possible.  As a manager you can encourage your employees to think somewhat differently about their work schedule. Perhaps during peak times, they can put in more hours which can be recovered during the valleys. Make sure that there are accommodations for employees to take time to recharge their batteries during the down times. It is important to help the team level set on what the job will require in general – and peaks and valleys can be a part of that.

But just working more during peak periods is not always enough. There are a few areas to explore to understand the situation. Think about the flexibility which is possible in deadlines. Consider who on your team might be able to help during this crunch time.  Make sure there isn’t a specific personal situation which is adding to the issue. If there is, figure out how you can help by reassigning tasks or creating more space for the employee to handle their personal crisis.

Here are some questions you can use to discuss the situation with your employee. These questions focus on the temporary problem – we’ll get to the more systemic issues later in the article.

  • What are the projects and tasks that you have on your plate?

  • What are the deadlines to these projects and where do they conflict?

  • What is the priority level of each of the key tasks/deadlines?

  • Are there tasks which can be pushed out to after the peak workload has gone back to normal?

  • What day to day things can you stop doing to make time?

  • What can you reprioritize personally to make more time, temporarily, to get the work done?

  • Who might be able to help with some of your tasks?

  • How is your personal situation impacting your capability to manage the peak workload?

  • How do you plan your different tasks and projects and manage your time?

Helping your team to learn how to prioritize (and reprioritize!) is an essential skill. Some recurring tasks can be left undone for short periods of time. Some meetings can be skipped with little to no consequence. Work with individuals who aren’t sure how to assess and help them learn how to do it themselves going forward.

Finally, you’ll want to check in on how your employee is planning and managing their time. Some people don’t have any kind of system and easily become overwhelmed when faced with what looks like a mountain of tasks. Spend some time to help team members with this issue to list all their todo items, assess the time needed to get them done, and plan out exactly when they are going to get them done. Explain how they can leverage their calendar or a to do list or project management tools to manage their time more effectively.

Discussions about systemic issues with workload are a bit different.  There are two different angles to look at : what the employee is doing and how the job is being done.  Following are some specific things for employees to assess for discussion:

  • Assess how you are spending your time – compare key tasks vs responsibilities/objectives

  • How are changing organizational priorities impacting your workload?

  • Are there any potential process improvements which could lighten your workload?

  • Assess the meetings on your calendar – what is your role? Are you necessary to the call? Are there meetings which are not a good use of time which can be eliminated?

  • What are some things you might stop doing, things you can spend less time on?

  • How do you plan your different tasks and projects and manage your time?

Ask the employee to prepare an assessment of these areas and then sit down to have a conversation about it. Take a close look at how the employee is spending their time relative to their job responsibilities. Are they focusing too much on any specific task or aspect of the role? Have changing priorities made focus on certain tasks less important? Have changing priorities added new tasks but taken nothing away? In that case, spend some time brainstorming what tasks can be stopped.

If your team member is in a similar role with similar workload as other colleagues who are better managing their time, you might ask someone to buddy with the struggling person to help them re-balance their workload and suggest ways to optimize their time. Remember too that each individual has their own work pace. Some people need more time to accomplish tasks. If this is an ongoing issue with an individual, it might be time to consider a different role for them which carries less workload. But before you make that decision, consider whether your team members who are getting it all done are sacrificing their personal lives and simply putting in hours beyond the normal workday.  If everyone is either struggling to get their jobs done within the normal workday or putting in lots of extra hours to get it done, it’s time to reassess roles and responsibilities and work capacity to ensure that you are not over burdening your team.

Don’t let workload become the bug bear of your department. With regular attention and focus, you can help your team to prioritize and focus on what’s most important and not just what seems most urgent.