my team’s workload is too high — what should I do?

When the demands on the team you lead are higher than your group realistically can get done, how can you tackle the situation without just throwing up your hands and saying “no, we can’t do all that” or expecting everyone to work 80-hour weeks?

Here’s the formula that I’ve used successfully with many managers to help them tackle this question. It sounds simple, but it will bring real clarity to what is and isn’t possible and really surface the trade-offs that you’re looking at.

1. Write out everything that your team is responsible for achieving. Be thorough – include everything that you should be doing, even if lack of resources means that it’s currently not getting done. (If you don’t do this, this plan won’t be as effective as it otherwise could, because you’ll be left with the nagging feeling that you didn’t actually consider everything you should have.) To each task or responsibility, assign a rough number of person-hours required to stay on top of the work.

2. Next, working from that list, write out a realistic work allocation for each person on your team.Pull items in order of priority from the list you created in step #1 and assign them to people. At this stage, don’t worry about fitting everything in (you probably won’t be able to); just worry about assigning responsibilities in order of priority, and stop when each person has a list that represents a full workload.

3. Analyze what’s left over. At this point, you’ll presumably have items remaining on your list that haven’t been allocated to anyone.These are things that your team doesn’t currently have the time or resources to achieve (unless you’re all going to work unreasonable hours forever, which is the problem that you’re attempting to solve). This is where the real work begins. For each remaining item, ask yourself:

  • Is this item more important than something you did assign to an employee? If so, do you need to rearrange your list? (Sometimes there might not be a clear priority winner; that’s fine if so.)
  • Is it truly important that we do this item, or – given limited resources – would it make sense to jettison it entirely? Plenty of things can be worthy uses of time, but not essential ones if time is limited.
  • If the item is important enough, would it make sense to bring in temporary help or contract it out in order to get it done?
  • Are there ways to dramatically reduce the amount of time this item (or other items on either list) would take? It might be that you could streamline or significantly shrink a particular task. For example, if you had planned to run a week-long promotion event, you might conclude that your current staffing dictates that it can only be two days.

4. Examine the trade-offs that your lists have revealed. If you conclude that your team can do A or B, but not both, or that it can do A and act as an advisor to another team on B, but not do the work of B yourselves. Write down the possible trade-offs you see.

5. Create a proposal for what to keep doing and what to stop doing or de-prioritize. You can also create alternative scenarios, like an “if we get two part-time temps approved” scenario or an “if the VP says it’s not an option to de-prioritize the Jones project.”

From there, you may need to share your plan with your own boss for input and/or approval (depending on the nature of your role and the types of things you’re planning to de-prioritize). You might also run it by your team members to get their input (especially around the question of whether there are ways to streamline or save time on certain tasks).

Overall, the idea here is to acknowledge that while it would be great to get everything done, when the workload is too high for that to happen (or the team too small), you need to make deliberate, strategic decisions about how time should and shouldn’t be used. Getting real clarity on everything that’s in front of you and what is and isn’t possible will help you figure out what that should look like.

I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 46 comments… read them below }

  1. Graciosa

    One thing to be careful of as a manager in this situation is assuming people can work harder to solve a staffing shortage. This should NOT be the solution – it’s just a way to make it easier for the manager to avoid making the difficult choices which are inherent in our jobs.

    This can pop up unconsciously if you don’t guard against it – that little voice that says “If I give it to Lee, I know it will get done” is a sign. Top performers often “go the extra mile” to get things done – which can translate into week after week of an endless stream of work.

    There is a line between relying upon a top performer to do a consistently great job and piling more and more on someone who just keeps shouldering an ever-increasing burden. Good managers watch for that line and try hard to avoid it. Occasional emergencies are one thing, but regular work loads over 50 hours a week are a big danger sign.

    If you want to keep your top performers, you will do your job as a manager to keep their work loads manageable. This means having the hard conversations with your manager and your internal clients. It also means paying attention to the possibility that a loyal, hard working staff is compensating for your failure to make tough choices that would lead to those hard conversations.

    The tough decisions and hard conversations are part of my job, and I should not – cannot – be protected from them.

    1. BRR

      Related story that I hate asking a certain coworker a question. Specifically because they are smart and a go getter. I have a quick question on how to make chocolate tea pot spouts, later I will get an email with 30 types of spout designs with instructions and maybe he’ll have made some. I appreciate his hard work but I want to limit his thoroughness. It’s adding on a lot of work to a full plate.

      1. F.

        When you ask, can you let your coworker know that you want the “Cliff Notes version” of the answer? My husband does this to me when I start getting into too much detail for a simple answer. I’m sure your coworker just wants to cover all the bases, but sometimes a simple answer is more than adequate.

        1. BRR

          We’ve made progress by me basically telling him to not do anything after the answer. I just feel bad because he does it because he’s a super nice person and he has so much to do.

          Formerly
          Me: What’s your recipe for soup?
          Him: Here it is and then makes soup along with other recipes he thinks I would like.

          Now
          Me: What’s your recipe for soup? Don’t worry about making any, I just need to know the recipe so I can go ahead and make it. I can handle it with just the recipe but thank you for your willingness to help me out.
          Him: Here it is and possibly offers a suggestion on preparing the soup or a bread stick (have I gone too far with this analogy).

      2. GlorifiedPlumber

        Interesting, I have a co-worker like this too. Smart and Go-Getter is not the word I would use to describe them.

        Our time is all billed to specific projects, and, a question about tea-pot engineering that results in 30 engineered tea-pot designs results in blown budgets.

        Learning to correctly gauge the need for your input that others are requesting of you is very important. A smart person wouldn’t do 30 designs without a request, and a go-getter would target their time elsewhere.

        Anyways… yeah I TOTALLY know exactly the type you are talking about. Too common in the engineering world. :(

        1. A Definite Beta Guy

          Go getter does not always mean efficient. The two are often counter-productive, for exactly the reasons you describe.

        2. ScarletInTheLibrary

          Yeah, some coworkers do these activities. Many people call them go getters and smart, but a lot of times I think it is done for show. For example, I might ask if the computers are down in another public area so I can determine if it is isolated or IT needs to be involved. Instead of answering yes or no over the phone, they have to send an email to everyone about the possible things that are causing the computers to be down. And some of the managers equates more information with smart, so they people keep doing it to seem smart and valuable.

      3. CMT

        If it weren’t for your last sentence, I’d wonder if this coworker didn’t have enough work to do. I very frequently don’t have enough work to fill my time, so when I get requests from other people I get really excited that I have something to do. It probably does result in me giving them more than they need at times.

    2. F.

      “There is a line between relying upon a top performer to do a consistently great job and piling more and more on someone who just keeps shouldering an ever-increasing burden. Good managers watch for that line and try hard to avoid it. Occasional emergencies are one thing, but regular work loads over 50 hours a week are a big danger sign. ”
      Very well put. I wrote in a few days ago on a thread about burnout because I was doing the work of 2-1/2 positions and was in very serious danger of a breakdown. I am one of those “top performers” who delivers a quality product no matter what I am asked to do, but even I have my limits.
      I am happy to report that our brand new Admin is ramping up to speed very quickly. I talked to my boss, and he has given all of the admin work to the new Admin with the admonition that I am to be a resource person for procedural questions only. She is to go to the Engineer with technical questions. Not having to do the work of that position has taken a large, time-consuming burden off my shoulders. I am now available to do my HR work (HR Dept. of One), which is a very good thing, since we are recruiting heavily.
      I was even able to take a day of PTO yesterday (with the phone turned OFF!)

    3. Workfromhome

      Your response reminds me of a comic I saw (Might have been Dilbert). Someone asks:
      “how do you reward your best performing employees”

      Bosses response:”Oh that’s easy we load more work on them until they become average employees”

      you do need to watch that you are not trying to accomplish an unreasonable workload by giving more to the best employees. what is even more important is to not use your best employees to cover off for poor employees. If Joe is great and can do 60 hours of work but John is a slacker and can only get 20 hours worth of production accomplished in a 40 hour work week what happens? In many companies including mine those 20 hours worth of tasks slacker John doesn’t get done get dumped on Superstar Joe. The manager says “It needs to be done and I know Joe will get it done.” Its the easy way out the work gets done and the manager doesn’t need any confrontation or hassle with Slacker John.

      what should be done is to fire slacker John and get a new worker that can produce 40 hours worth of results so Superstar Joe can concentrate on important things and things that interest him. Otherwise eventually superstar Joe gets fed up with not only working 60 hours a week but fed up with watching Slacker John get away with sitting around surfing the web while getting paid the same and leaves for another job where he’ll feel appreciated.

      Overworking people is bad but knowing that you are overworked because someone else simply isn’t pulling their weight is about the worst thing that can happen.

      1. Jennifer

        Hahahahah. I am so Joe in this scenario, and our John pretty much stops working at some point in the afternoon saying that she’s brain dead. (Which is pretty much true, really–she’s an EXTREME early bird and loses functionality, and she’s already bad at proofreading so you kinda don’t want her working when her brain is dead, but….) However, she’ll retire eventually, and it’s not like I can get another job in the first place.

        1. Cat

          Heh, and my office’s John posts a lot of articles about work-life balance on Facebook, which–not that I don’t agree with the principle, but man is that maddening.

    4. Sammie

      Boy, do I wish you were my EVP. It’s not politically advantageous for him to say, “no”—so he never does.

  2. Ann O'Nemity

    My husband and I are both dealing with this right now, but it has played out very differently.

    In my case, it was mostly a bunch of internal projects. So I prioritized the total list of work for my team and reviewed it with my boss. She shuffled some things around and even axed some time consuming work that I had thought was essential (but apparently is not). The result: we now have a manageable workload.

    In my husband’s case, his employer has completely over-sold their services to external customers. They are trying to hire both regular employees and contractors like crazy, and it’s still not enough. A lot of projects are now losing money because of late fees and the cost of contractors. My husband prioritized his team’s workload by due date and by $ and reviewed it with his boss. His boss just shrugged and said he should try to do it all. Meanwhile, the salespeople are still selling! The result: 80 hour workweeks with no end in sight. I’m not sure what else he can do, besides look for another job.

  3. BRR

    Also don’t assume others can take some of the responsibilities. I was at a conference and a director from other organization said she didn’t like how her dept was busy with A which spilled over from another dept when they wanted to devote more time to B and that Wakeen in other department could take on A. In reality she had no idea what Wakeen’s work load was and her manager knew both her dept’s and Wakeen’s workload so there was likely a reason for A going to her dept.

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

      Good point. I run into trouble with this because I work with some very, very helpful people who are quick to pull things onto their plate if a co-worker is overwhelmed. They really, really want to help, and have the skills to do so -but then they get overwhelmed because there is too much on their plate. I find myself asking a lot, “what would happen if we just stopped doing that, or just didn’t do it for 2 weeks?’

  4. Jesse

    I desperately need to do this. How do you decide the right level of detail? I could say that Trixie has “accomplishing x, y, and z,” or I could say it’s “working with A, B, and C clients to accomplish x,” or I could say “client A requires things 1, 2, and 3…”

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

      It really depends, but don’t get lost in the details. I try to put things into fairly big buckets, and then make the little stuff fit into those buckets. We do this type of planning a lot, and one of the ways we decide what is an “activity” is whether it has it’s own income stream or budget items. So, if we have a program activity that serves clients, we count phone calls to those clients, actually seeing the clients, keeping records about the clients, attending training on working with those clients, etc. as one bucket. For our agency, this means that we have around 30 different activities. You can break those down further if you need to (or if you aren’t looking at the whole organization but just the work done by one or two people) but I would not exceed a few dozen. Past that it’s too confusing.

      Also, it’s possible that you do need to break down a few of those buckets even more – but only break down the ones where it’s important to do so. For example, if Susan says x activity takes her 20 hours a week, and you think it should only take 5, break it down and see what’s going on. Or, if x takes 20 hours, but there’s only enough money in the budget to pay for 10 hours of this, break it down and figure out how to make it smaller piece by piece.

  5. Lou

    My manager just says it’s an excuse and that she can do it, (even stay after hours) so can everyone else. But she’s salary she isn’t hourly.

    Everything at work is quite depressing now. I need to branch out, find a different field.

  6. The Other Dawn

    Great list! I am new to managing a multiple-person team that are all in the same department–I was previously a Jill-of-all-trades and managed two people in completely different departments–so this is something I’m struggling with right now. Although we need a bigger team, we probably won’t get the OK for that for another few months, at least.

    So, what timeframe should be used when determining what tasks go to which person? We have daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly stuff that has to get done, so I’m struggling with how to break that down to a daily workload.

    1. pmk

      I share this question. I’m familiar with agile methodologies, but more on the two-week sprint side, less on the looking at a whole year side.

      I feel like one thing that happens with our team is that we sketch out a “typical week” and know we’ll have “busy times” and then make jokes about haha it’s always a busy time. We haven’t found a good way to actually reflect the busy times in the typical week planning. And the inability to do this seriously affects our ability to plan well, and, as seems to be a major lesson in this piece–figure out what we’re just going to have to say no to.

      Very grateful if anyone has any tips on translating the big batch of tasks to a clearer understanding of workload.

  7. Workfromhome

    One other segment that should be added for many jobs is time blocked or “allocated” for unforeseen, ad hoc or last minute requests.

    Things happen daily where something breaks or you need to put out a fire. Some days it sucks up 8 hours others 1. But just because its not consistent doesn’t mean you don’t need to allow for it.

    If you say hey Jane you have projects A B and C. A takes up 4 hours B takes up 1 and C 1…hey Jane you have an hour free every day. You should be able to take some of Joe’s work on D.

    Meanwhile Jane spend 2 hours on average a day putting out fires on unanticipated issues. Now Jane has 10 hours worth of work per day? Allocating hours to tasks is great but people are often reluctant to block off time as “time to answer incoming calls, fix unanticipated problems etc. Its seen as a cop out or unproductive time. “So you sit around and do nothing for 2 hours waiting for someone to call with a problem? What if there are no calls do you do nothing?” No one is 100% efficient and does work fro every second for 8 straight hours. Its not a reasonable standard and for planning purposes the amount of “available” time for tasks needs to be adjusted.

    1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

      You also have to take vacations, holidays, and sick time into account, unless the person has a job that just won’t be done at all if they are out (for example, some of my employees see clients one-on-one with most of their time, and they just skip that week with the client without making it up). My rule is to subtract 10 to 12% of the available time for stuff like that.

      1. AcademiaNut

        In my job we need to put together grant proposals for collecting data that include detailed calculations of the amount of time you need on the instruments – based on the quality of data you need, calibration data, time for setting things up. It’s standard to finish your justification with “including 10% for overheads”. That covers all the little things that are hard to calculate exactly, but you absolutely know are going to be there, including little details like “Not thinking fast due to oxygen deprivation”.

  8. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

    I have also used this process to address the reverse problem – figuring out why someone can’t get a very reasonable amount of work done. Let’s say the person does three things: make teapots, take teapot orders, and ship teapots. I will ask them to tell me (a) how many of each of those things they do each month and (b) how long they take. Then, I double the amount of time they gave me for each one.

    Let’s say there are 160 work hours in a month. They make 12 teapots at 2 hours each (double it – 4 hours x 12 = 48 hours), take 6 orders at one hour each (double it – 2 hours x 6 = 12 hours) and then ship 15 teapots at 1 hour each (double it – 2 hours x 15 = 30). For a total of 90 hours of work in a 160 hour month. Subtract 20 hours for meetings, sick days, etc., so you’ve got 140 hours left.

    It amazes me how many times I’ve done this and found that there is no way to get their tasks to add up to more than 80 or 90 hours (even when I double all their time estimates). Then we can start to figure out what else that are doing that they need to stop doing. I don’t know if this is somewhat unique to nonprofits, but people will take on all kinds of extra tasks and then do those tasks (joining community groups, spending excessive time with a client, etc.) to the point that they can’t get their job done because they are doing stuff that is not their job. And remember that I double the time they gave me for each item – so the problem is probably much worse.

    1. Weekday Warrior

      I see this as well and I think part of our problem is that the organizations hasn’t defined for itself clearly enough what is or isn’t “the job”. We say that people should focus on making teapots, taking teapot orders, and shipping teapots but then we write someone up in the company newsletter congratulating them for their participation in community groups and attentiveness to clients. So what do we really want?

      1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

        YES. That is often the issue – that the direct supervisor has been giving a lot of positive feedback about the extra stuff the person does since it seems “above and beyond” and virtually no feedback on their actual work. So this is often a two-level problem.

        1. Weekday Warrior

          And our best employees burn themselves out trying to do the core job AND the extras. This has been a helpful thread overall and especially your points re focus issues, Ashley tNE. My organization is looking at this and now I’m even more stoked to see/make some changes. :)

          1. Ashley the Nonprofit Exec

            YES. Yes. My best people do this too. And they usually say things like, “well, isn’t it up to me if I want to do x extra thing for this client and I work late to do it?’ or “shouldn’t I get to decide if I come in early to do y thing that’s not a priority but I really want to do it”. Well, yes. And no – because you will get tired and burntout, and then your supervisor will come to me saying that there is way too much on your plate and we need to hire someone to help you, which we can’t afford. What you can do is to stop doing a ton of things that aren’t your job – the job you have is reasonable and quite do-able in 40 hours a week.

  9. mka1450

    What if you have a pollyanna boss who refuses to acknowledge problems and manage low-performing employees?

    (Yes, I know the answer is to leave. Just needed to vent.)

    In a few months, when “the time is right”, I plan on having a conversation with my direct manager about my future at my organization, where I have worked for seven years. I am lucky to have an honest relationship with my direct, and I plan on diplomatically telling them that I’m starting to ask myself some serious questions about whether or not my current position—frequently skirting burnout—is “worth my while.”

    AAM always does a great job with providing effective language and terms for dealing with various workplace scenarios, and I plan on applying some of the language she uses here to my current situation. Words like “trade-offs,” “clarity,” and “de-prioritize” might sound like workplace jargon to some, but a good manager will know what you’re actually saying.

  10. _ism_

    What if you have the kind jof management that would laugh in your face for this kind of suggestion? At my place, management is spending all of their time putting out fires, delegating for last-minute problems and changes, and the rest of it is catching up on all the regular stuff. They’re often days behind in their emails. If I proposed this to anyone they’d chuckle or scream “We don’t have TIME to write a PLAN! Planning takes too much time? Oh you took initiative and wrote one? I don’t have time to look at it and you’re wasting all of our time! We are here to REACT!” (This is shipping and manufacturing, so it’s true that we have to react to last minute issues all the time, but it’s also true that planning is absolutely necessary and required)

    1. Jennifer

      My boss is very sympathetic, but pretty much everyone above her isn’t. Also, my group still has three people, which is technically more than every other work group, so it’s easier to throw things at us rather than anyone else.
      What I think is ridiculous is how much time we spend doing OTHER DEPARTMENTS’ work, like their proofreading. Why on earth are we doing their stuff? Because they have more power than us, is the only reason I can see for why they have delegated outside of their office.

  11. Broke Law Student

    Alison, I don’t know where to put this–every time I try to read the comments, there’s a video ad at the upper right of the page that will randomly start playing (it’s every single page and a different company every time). If I’m scrolling down, it will periodically make me jump back up to where the video is, and start playing again, even if I’ve paused it. None of my normal anti-auto-play attempts seem to be working. Is this something other people have managed to figure out?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I’m sorry that’s happening! Unfortunately, the only way for me to get these ads tracked down and removed is if I can supply the URL they’re linking to. If you can email me that, I can have it eliminated!

  12. Piper

    I’ve done this (prior to reading this article). I’m a team of one attempting (i.e, actively interviewing) one more direct report. However, that still doesn’t solve my problems. Just to get on top of the current workload of immediate, tactical projects, I’d need 4 people to work 40-50 per week. Right now. There’s also a big list of projects that are on hold for various reasons, but will likely come back at some time or another. That’s just for the tactical projects.

    I’m (and by extension, my team) responsible for strategic, long-term projects of varying depth and difficulty. There are also administrative things that need to be done to keep things working properly. The strategic initiatives and most of the administrative functions are not getting done, can’t get done, won’t get done until they allow me to hire more people.

    We had open positions in my overall team (I’m part of a larger structure). Four of them. Three of them were filled by widget makers. We already have 5 widget makers, several of whom spend a lot of time twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do. For weeks at a time. Meanwhile, I have 28 open tactical projects. I’m one person. And we’re only attempting to hire one more.

    I give up. I love what I do, but I’m tired of being ineffective, turning down projects that I know need my help, and cutting corners all over the place just to get something done. It’s really affecting my overall work ethic, drive, and attitude. But I think it’s definitely time to start looking because I really have done all I can here. It’s been almost two years of this nonsense and it’s not getting better.

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