My Team’s Workload Is Too High! What Should I Do?

Person under crumpled pile of papers with help sign

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, depending on how much authority you have to make the sorts of decisions that need to be made here (like back-burnering or eliminating a project altogether, or hiring additional staff, or whatever other solutions you’re proposing) 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. But there’s probably a talk with your manager in here somewhere, one that’s framed as “here’s what I think we can do with the resources we have, and how I think we should handle the remaining workload.”

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.

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