how to delegate when your team is already overloaded

What do you do when you have an important new project that you’d like to delegate to a staff member, but your entire team is swamped? If you go ahead and dump it on them anyway, in the hopes that they’ll find a way to fit it all in, that’s a recipe for a frustrated and demoralized staff – and for things falling through the cracks by necessity. But sometimes new work comes up that’s legitimately important and does need to be done. Here’s how to handle it.

1. First, just because someone is busy doesn’t mean you can’t delegate to them. But it does mean that you need to help them reprioritize the rest of their work. People’s time doesn’t magically expand to fit an ever-increasing workload, so be realistic about the fact that other items will need to be pushed back. Are there other tasks that can be assigned out to someone else, have their due dates adjusted, or be removed from their plate altogether? If the person’s plate is already full when the new project arrives, you’re going to have to help them rearrange other work.

2. Tell people explicitly that you’re aware that they’re swamped. People are far more likely to burned out and frustrated when their manager seems to have no awareness of their workload, so let them know that you do.

3. If possible, considering making the project “as time allows” and be explicit that it doesn’t need to be done until their workload is at a more manageable level. (Of course, be realistic here. On some teams, that means that it will never get done and will just hang around making people feel guilty.)

4. If you have a staff member who’s frequently too busy to take on new work, this might be a sign to step back and reassess the person’s workload altogether. People need to have breathing room in their schedules, so that they can take a sick day, go on vacation, have time to think about the bigger picture (not just put out fires), and not burn out.

5. If the person is frequently too busy to take on new work but you’re confident that that’s not warranted by their actual workload, something else is going on. Are they overwhelmed because their skills or work habits aren’t what you need in the role? Are you on different pages about what “good enough” looks like? Regardless of the possible explanations, this is a sign that you need to sit down with your employee and talk.

{ 41 comments… read them below }

  1. Lucy*

    This is really insightful! I used to oversee a team of four people, and one of my responsibilities was to assign projects to them. I was so nervous at first about giving them more to do, especially at busy times of year, but people were more receptive than I thought they would be, especially when they had an opportunity to talk about what they were working on and to help each other when possible.

  2. Paloma Pigeon*

    One thought: When staff share that there is little room for additional work based on their workload and deadlines, never say “I’d rather staff have too much on their plate and then we’ll look for solutions.”

      1. C Average*

        + a million.

        THANK YOU.

        This goes triple if you’re making several times my salary and have time to wander the hallways making small talk about other teams’ workload.

        1. Artemesia*

          LOL Spot on. My very crucial and yet overworked and under appreciated SIL just quit a job like that. The management went ape — but all those years they could have provided adequate support, not interfered in the work and then blamed her for their own mistakes, or showed that they understood how unique and important her work was they of course didn’t. She had to keep working to have medical insurance; now she doesn’t.

        2. Holly*

          MY GOD YES. My boss is the king of delegation and I’m his only team member, so I typically get super overloaded, hear about my job security and then watch him as he walks around the office for hours on end doing…well, who knows what. Also watching the soccer game on his iPad. I’m about to get passed over for a raise, which isn’t helping my attitude. *grumble*

  3. Jillociraptor*

    One thing I’ve learned is that as a manager you really need to coach your people on how to manage their workload. I don’t mean just tracking and prioritizing their work, though many do need that and that is often to focus of this kind of coaching, but actually helping them to understand how to communicate about their work.

    I often find that especially those who are newer to the workforce assume that others know what they are working on, and assume that if someone is asking for something, it needs to be a priority. I’ve worked with my team on things like: making sure they’re communicating when they’re under water and things aren’t getting done, asking good questions to understand the priority level and timeline for what they’re being asked for, and making recommendations (“I’m working on [similar project] in 3 weeks – maybe it would make sense to combine these two timelines”).

    In my experience these are NOT intuitive skills for most people, so employees feel really put upon that they have so much work, and managers feel really frustrated that things aren’t getting done effectively. As I was learning how to do this well, someone told me, “If you don’t believe you’re in charge of your own time, no system or process or skill is going to help you.” This is just a really critical lesson to learn.

    1. LQ*

      This is a great point. I have a new coworker that does everything in the hardest way possible and I’ve told her over and over to ask for help but she knows she can figure it out if she just keeps at it so she never asks for help. This means she’s always extremely far behind. (Which puts things she should be doing on the rest of the team.) But she asks for help in a very different way than is useful or direct.

      Getting her to not say, “Hey when you get a chance I’d appreciate a quick glance at this document.” When what she means is “I need this document reviewed for accessibility by 3 pm for Head Honcho.”

      (Interestingly she, like the rest of my coworkers is old enough to be my parent, so you can’t blame her youth.)

      1. GrumpyBoss*

        I have the same problem with a couple of my staff. Some people see asking for help as a weakness, so I usually approach this with a, “I notice you seem to be overburdened and you have fallen behind on the Teapot report. Is there a reason why you didn’t ask John to assist you with the report?”

        When I can get to the reason of why they won’t ask for help, then I can solve it.

    2. Arjay*

      I agree. Just recently I was struggling underneath a bunch of deadlines that didn’t seem to have any actual urgency behind them. I started pushing back on them, providing my own more realistic timeline, and everyone was absolutely fine with it. The responses were all variations of “Oh, ok, thanks for letting me know.”

  4. Adam*

    This is where knowing your reports is key. Whatever new task you have for them may be important, but odds are your employee has their own opinions on what they’re currently doing and what takes priority. I could see myself getting nervous if one of my regular tasks that I saw as being “important” got sidelined by something new. Having a manager address that and put everything into perspective could help a lot.

  5. C Average*

    I love this post. I’m part of a team for whom swamped is pretty much normal. I’m glad our manager already has an intuitive grasp on a lot of this stuff.

    I have a follow-up question. We have quite a few “get to it when you can get to it” projects that do indeed never get done and just hang around making people feel guilty.

    When we’re busy, it’s with projects that are more important than these “do it whenever” projects.

    And then when we finally get a breather, it’s hard to discipline ourselves to get after these projects that have been hanging around waiting to be done.

    There’s no sense of urgency around them. There’s also the lurking knowledge that we’ve been doing fine without having gotten them done, and the suspicion that if we never did them, no one would really be the worse off for it. (In some cases this is probably not true, but I’m sure in a few cases it literally would not matter if the project never got done.)

    How do I keep these on my radar and maintain enough momentum in my rare down times to actually get them done?

    (My manager is not someone who will follow up on this kind of thing; she hands things off and forgets about them. So it’s really on me to find a solution. I spend a lot of my time in reactive mode because we work at such a fast pace, and I’m really poor at managing my time when there’s NOT a crisis or a sense of urgency.)

    1. KellyK*

      I’d focus on the ones that you think are actually important, and keep a list for downtime. (I’d also add any maintenance or routine tasks that you want to make sure get done when you have a minute but that get overlooked when things are crazy, so you have a complete “things to work on during downtime” list.)

      Also, what do you define as “downtime”? If you’re only looking at the ongoing, no-deadline projects every few months, you end up having to reinvent the wheel remembering where you left off. But if you get a “less crazy” time every week or two, it might be worth knocking out a little work on those projects to keep them a little fresher in your mind. Depending on what they are, they might even be a good break from other work, as long as you prioritize appropriately.

      1. C Average*

        Good call on checking in with these projects regularly. I think that’s why they feel so overwhelming and unpleasant: when I look at them again after months of NOT looking at them, it’s like starting all over again. Keeping a toe in the water would make jumping in a lot less daunting.

        Downtime = not facing anything that needs to be done immediately. My team creates and maintains our company’s internal and external knowledge base, and a lot of our work tends to be reactive (driven by product releases, software updates, consumer feedback, and a variety of other inputs). It’s really rare for us to NOT have something that needs to be done ASAP. But in actual fact, our to-do list is never done.

    2. Victoria Nonprofit*

      Hmm. My own experience makes me think of a couple of things here:

      1) People can’t go at 100% all the time. Busy times that require full acceleration have to be balanced with quieter times when folks can take a bit of a breather. If those quiet times are stuffed with the projects that are on hold during the busy times, they aren’t an opportunity for recuperation.

      2) You should be pushing back on your boss on the projects that don’t need to get done. Of course you might lose on any given project, but you should create a culture (for your team) in which you won’t allow non-projects to be dropped on them.

    3. Jen RO*

      This sounds soooo familiar. The only thing that’s (almost) worked for my team is scheduling the maybe- someday projects in the downtime periods… but that would require for you to know beforehand that a downtime period is coming. And by scheduling I mean putting them on the official calendar, telling stakeholders, setting deadlines, basically making sure that we will be held accountable.

    4. Wakeen's Teapots Ltd.*

      Mmmm, you kind of describe our environment and also my management style within it. I don’t follow up on low priority projects ’cause with the way people bust butt on the important stuff, it would feel petty to nanny things like that. I trust people to manage their own productivity.

      In my world, you could say those literal words to me “This TPS report project that none of us ever get to is making me feel guilty. We have a break right this second and I just can’t seem to get motivated to tackle it, what do you think?”

      Maybe it doesn’t matter any more and I’d feel terrible if you spent time on it. “Oh god, no, don’t waste your time. I forgot all about that. Just cancel the whole thing.” Or maybe it really should get done and, having all the compassion in the world for lack of motivation to do the TPS reports, I say something like, “Yeah, that’s a sucky project. Maybe if we break it up into pieces we can plow through this. I’ll take a chunk, give a chunk to Wakeenetta, Petunia and Hyacinth and we’ll all have it done in a day. We’ll make TPS day tomorrow.”

      So: dialogue.

      People who are motivated to crunch a grueling schedule aren’t the sort who are also good at low priority projects in downtime. Either just take the downtime and surf the net or help each other get the icky stuff done.

  6. AnotherAlison*

    3. If possible, consider making the project “as time allows.” . . .On some teams, that means that it will never get done and will just hang around making people feel guilty.)

    THIS has been the biggest problem I’ve had in my current position. My coworker and I are more or less self-managed (absentee maanger), and work requests come from all directions. If I don’t have a hard deadline, and you never follow up with me, I guarantee I will NEVER do your project, even though I said I would. I always feel bad about it, but after something has been on my to-do list for 6 months, I tend to think it was a pretty low priority for the requester, too.

    But, I have only 20 work days left in this position!!! This will not be my problem much longer.

    1. Ann O'Nemity*

      The team I’m on is fairly self-managed as well. One solution that really helps me is to pad my delivery estimates so that I do have time for emergencies and “as time allows” projects. Otherwise I’d be missing deadlines regularly due to firefighting and those “as time allows” projects wouldn’t get touched.

      Usually a manager would help with this kind of thing, but that isn’t always the case.

      1. AnotherAlison*

        That is a good suggestion.

        I was always in the situation where out of projects A-D, I was just getting ready to wrap up D and start on the long-term project X when another emergency would pop up. . .then I’d get sucked into another cycle of normal projects before I could touch X.

        I definitely have to get more productive in my next position. It won’t be the same with having long-term projects and no management, but there will just be a heavier work load in general. I’m moving from a non-billable to a billable role, and will have to fill out timesheets for the first time in 6 years. That will help with being accountable, I hope.

  7. CollegeAdmin*

    In a follow-up to #1, if you re-prioritize the work, stick to it. Don’t tell me to cease all work on Project A in favor of Project B for the week, and then get testy a few days later when I have no updates on Project A.

    Also, don’t seesaw back and forth between project priorities too much/too fast – if you keep doing this to me, both projects will suffer. I will get irritated and pick the one I think I should and/or want to do first.

  8. MaryMary*

    Suggestions on holding folks accountable for responsibilities that have always been part of their role (or should have been), but that have previously been allowed to slide because everyone is busy? Specifically, I’m talking about things like meeting notes, project plans, documentation on what exactly was delivered to the client, etc for people in client facing roles. One of my responsibilities is to make sure people start doing these things again. I use some of the tactics Alison mentioned in her article (acknowledging that people are swamped, doing as much “as time allows” as possible), as well as trying to build buy in around how these things will help us in the long run. It’s still been an uphill battle.

    1. Jillociraptor*

      This is really hard, and the following things have only worked somewhat for me, but I’ll share them anyway.

      1. Documenting, then resetting expectations. Write out a memo or something that clarifies what people are on the hook for, and then articulate that while this hasn’t been consistently enforced in the past, it will be now. Be clear on why each task is required and what good it does — even if that seems super obvious to you.

      2. Enforce it. Not “as much as time allows,” which just gives wiggle room and excuses–every time, every week. It’s a little counter-intuitive, but the more give you offer, the more they will take, and the more it will counter your message that this is now the expectation.

      3. Make it easy to complete the tasks. We do a weekly reminder with all the required tasks consolidated. It works…okay. But then no one has any excuses that they didn’t know what was due, or what to do with it. When you send reminders, share all the instructions so no one has to go back to an old email to find the right folder/template/whatever.

      4. Expect pushback. Everyone will insist they are SO BUSY and SO OVERWHELMED and you are SO MEAN for making them do this because So and So didn’t make them, etc. Be compassionate, but firm: “I know you are busy, but these tasks are vital to the functioning of our team, and I know the more you do it consistently, the easier it will get, so please bear with us as we get used to it.” Do not permit the narrative that it’s SO HARD and we’re SO BUSY. You can’t be too busy to do your job.

      5. Ask folks how it’s going. Don’t entertain the SO HARD stuff here either — but ask specifically what would need to change to make this go better. Do they need more lead time? A reminder on their calendar? If it’s reasonable, do it and tell people you did it. When people think you’re in it with them, things become easier.

      I wish I could say I have full compliance on all this stuff, but I don’t! Still, these things have helped me a little bit and hopefully they will help you too.

      1. GrumpyBoss*

        On #4, sometimes you really have to be the bad guy. I keep thinking of a guy on my team. If work was the high school yearbook, he’d have every extracurricular activity next to his name, but while maintaining a C+ average. Toastmasters, mentoring programs, yoga, arranging happy hours… you name it, this guy is in the middle of it. Each of these activities probably takes him away from his work an hour or two a week, which is just as arbitrary as standing around gossiping by the coffee when it comes down to it. But he’s the first to point out how overloaded he is and I’m having to help him prioritize his workload on a weekly basis.

        It’s not fun when you are working with someone to prioritize their work and you have to tell them to slow down on some of the opt-in type activities. They make work tolerable sometimes. But you nailed it – we need to be firm. Our companies exist for a reason, and that reason isn’t to give employees a social outlet.

      2. MaryMary*

        Thanks, guys! Jillocipator, I think #5 might be especially helpful for me. Don’t complain about how you can’t do it, tell me what you need in order to do it (and I’ll hope no one tells me they need a time turner or a clone).

  9. Lisa*

    Can managers realize how long tasks truly take????

    Just cause you think it only takes 1 hour to do something, doesn’t mean it doesn’t take 2-3 hours of prep/research before sitting down to do the tasks assigned. So 8 tasks that you think is a full day, is really 3 full days when you combine the necessary steps involved. So piling on work, and telling me that its my time management issue just makes me seeth as I stay late 4x a week to do everything you want to get it all done. Then you still complain or give even more on top of it, since I am technically achieving deadlines. It leads to burn out, and not caring if proofed my work before it goes out the door since quantity matters more to you than quality it seems.

    1. LQ*

      This might frustrate you, but if your boss doesn’t care as much about quality then you can shift that down. It might not be a great work environment for you, but sometimes it isn’t important that everything be perfect. (I’m personally of the mind that if you spend all your time trying to get the last 5% out to make a 100% perfect teapot you’ll never get any teapots out. Meanwhile I’m only making 95% perfect teapots and since they are being used as visual display and designed to melt then stop going for perfect and get it done!)

      Your boss may care more about quantity, then you need to shift so you aren’t burning out. If you make errors and your boss never mentions it but she often mentions that you need to get it done more quickly then stop proofing or spending as much time on that.

      You might also want to sit down with your boss and ask because she might not want you doing prep or research before the tasks or not as much as you are doing.

      1. Lisa*

        I guess quantity isn’t the best way to describe it, maybe “get it out now, fix it later”. As in do it fast, and just re-do it later. I never understood why you can’t do it right the first time vs. taking 2-3 more stabs at it over the course of another week. So it all looks like we gave more and performed the test and tweaked it, but the test takes more than a month to see if it really worked so it was busy work to do it without real thought or planning. Claiming more work (quantity), but its really the same task done 2-3x because we are told to get it done and fix it later.

        1. LQ*

          But that might be how your business works. I can’t speak to your business but I know that in some types of business this is exactly what you want to do because you have to change based on feedback. I’ve stopped proofreading my first drafts of elearning modules because the content always changes after the first draft, so spending time to have perfectly spelled words and correct grammar is a waste of time when chances are good it will get completely changed in the second draft.

          Even if your work isn’t like this if this is what your boss wants you to do, then that is a change in your work style. Stop staying a ton of extra hours late when your boss doesn’t care if the first draft has errors. (And if you really despise doing the work this way, look for something else.) But this is basically the last point on the list. Your boss is asking you for a different quality of work than you are providing. It seems like you know what your boss is looking for but aren’t willing to provide that.

          1. Lisa*

            I did go elsewhere, it was the best decision ever. I was the last of 6 to leave that manager in less than 6 months of her being promoted. I am hearing grumblings of more people looking cause of her chaotic management style of ‘slap it together, and fix it later’.
            I guess a better analogy is to write an article without verifying any facts and publish it anyway. By her thinking, you can check / fix the facts later. Versus doing it the first time. Or writing a forecasting report without using real data, and just add in the real numbers later. How can you analyze fake data? So essentially you are doing the work based on assumptions versus real numbers and facts without researching the meat of the work making it not valuable until you go back and do the proper setup / research. It turns into 2-3 x more work when you could have done it this way the first time. It’s not really about being perfect, but doing essential steps that really shouldn’t be broken up or skipped.

  10. AcademicAnon*

    If you’re a manager and can’t repriortize or change the project to as time allows or pay for overtime/comp time for salaried employees because of “business needs” be honest about it. And be glad when your people find a better job somewhere else.

  11. Brisvegan*

    Don’t be like a terrible manager I had a few years ago. This person was new to the organisation and refused to accept that staff were already badly overloaded (many were already working 6-7 x 12 hour days per week, for a putative 40 hour week job). Here are some of the more egregious attempts to overload us further.

    Don’t, when told that the C level people have instructed multiple staff, including me, that they must allocate 2 days per week to a certain type of work with public deliverables, say “that’s what the weekend is for.”

    Don’t threaten to retaliate with false negative performance reviews of multiple staff, in a staff meeting, when staff say that they feel that they must comply with direct instructions from C level. Especially don’t do that and then, in a meeting with staff and C level, claim to be supporting staff to do the very thing you told them to ignore under threat of false negative performance review. (Before anyone asks, yes, it was a blatant threat to falsely create a negative review as punishment if anyone complied with C level instructions.)

    Don’t hire a couple of your friends to allegedly take on some of the workload, allocate them on paper to certain work to assist other staff and then constantly tell the other staff that your friends are “too busy” to do the work. Basically, don’t cut workload on paper and then leave it the same or increase it in reality. The hiring was done after C level wanted to reduce everyone’s workload issues and instructed the manager to hire more staff to assist with the workload. The original staff ended up pretty much still doing all the original work, plus extra of the manager’s personal work.

    Don’t claim the new hires are ” too busy” to do their work when they are busy with lunches and coffee with you, that you are paying for out of our very restricted marketing budget. (This expenditure was totally against our organisations rules!) It probably also should not include your friends going to training and interstate conferences with you that has little or nothing to do with our work and never would. (Conferences, accomodation and training, paid for by our organisation.)

    Don’t start demanding that staff also do lots of aspects of your job in addition to their own very overloaded workloads. Don’t do this while appearing to do little or none of your own allocated workload and meeting very few of your own personal deliverables. Especially don’t do this while still running your former consultancy and claiming that it is not impacting your job with our organisation.

    Don’t demand that weekly work schedules and updates be sent to you and copied to C level, then privately demand that any completed work/achievements be removed from any document sent to C level. I think the manager was telling C level that we were not completing work. Manager was furious when we included lists of completed work and achievements, as requested by C level.

    Don’t allocate major new work to staff by copying them into emails to C level saying the work would be delivered that day or the next. This happened on several occasions to different people. (Manager had definitely not told staff about the projects previously.)

    Finally, don’t be surprised that you get fired when C level finds all out about all of this, plus various bullying. (The friends’ short contracts also didn’t get renewed. I felt more sorry for them, as they were often following the manager’s directions.)

      1. Brisvegan*

        I know! It was so bad that we couldn’t believe it was happening at first. Thhat kevel of wierdness makes you really doubt your own experiences.

        The icing on the cake was that the Manager’s friends had apparently been told that a couple of our permament staff were leaving shortly and the friends would move into those positions. They had been persuaded to resign other jobs to work with us. We know this because one complained when he was not offered a permanent place when his short contract finished. The permanent people (I am one) had never had plans to leave, but manager tried to bully several out/get us fired. Fortunately, our C level actually knew us and our work. They had our back once Manager’s behaviour was obvious.

  12. drives me nuts*

    I especially like the last two about the “too busy worker”. I have had the opposite problem of work pile-ons because my former manager was afraid of my “too busy” coworker to give us more to do. She would always stay late, work overtime, and be running around all day. If you asked her to do anything she would go on and on about how she didn’t have time and how it was a huge imposition to make her change her schedule. Our manager was intimidated by her reactions that he just stopped taking on extra projects for us to do. He didn’t realize that she had major time-management and work proficiency issues. This stunk for me because I was not too busy. It also stunk because I looked lazy when I asked for more to do because if my coworker was so busy, then why wasn’t I?

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