How to Intervene When Your Team Has Too Much Work

What do you do when your team has been handed more work, but you don’t have the staff to do it all? With the Great Resignation and a struggling economy, more and more team leaders are facing this question. They need to do more, with less.

Fortunately, there are ways to get the most important items done and stay sane in the process. First, be honest with yourself; an overloaded department won’t get everything done. Second, prioritize consciously about what you’ll do — and what you won’t. Third, communicate your plan with your boss, including data, if necessary. Fourth, delegate projects to other teams or to external contractors. Fifth, reset expectations with stakeholders. Finally, request more staff. Even if it’s not in the cards right now, making the case early might put you at the top of the list when budget allows.

You’ve got a job and have been productively working away at it: doing what needs to be done to move forward the projects in your department. As a result, your department has done so well that it’s been “rewarded” — with more work, but no additional staff. You’re grateful for the demand for your team’s services, but also feeling overwhelmed. How can your department manage more when everyone was already at capacity?

This is a question that many team leaders face as the Great Resignation reduced companies’ staff while also decreasing the number of people in the job market. And with a recession looming, organizations are looking to tighten up their financial statements. The S&P 500 posted its worst performance in over 50 years. Companies aren’t eager to hire additional people in such an uncertain climate, but they still need to get new innovative work done. They need to do more, with less.

As a time management coach, I help individuals to navigate these tricky waters where you’re under-resourced but overly in demand. There are ways to get the most important items done and stay sane in the process. Here’s how to manage an overly heavy workload until you can increase your headcount:

Be honest.

One of the phrases I coined in my first book is “reality always wins.” Even if you think that your staff can just squeeze in more and more into an already full schedule, at some point, something has to give. Even with the best time-management strategies, an overloaded department won’t get everything done. When you are honest about that, you can make proactive decisions to adapt and adjust instead of reactive ones once things start to fall apart.

Prioritize consciously.

The best way I’ve found to visualize the interrelated nature of your priorities is something that I like to call a “dynamic priorities model”: Imagine that there is an infinity pool whose walls represents the outer limits of the time available. (In the case of department overload, that would equal the total hours your staff can work.) Then visualize a series of concentric circles within that pool representing the different ways in which your staff uses their time. When one of those circles expands — for example serving more customers — one of the other circles will need to contract or fall over the edge.

To maintain optimal effectiveness, you’ll want to choose where your team can reduce their time spent — or eliminate it completely — instead of that happening by default. Review the projects and services within your department and think about the annual goals. Based on where your team can add the highest value and what’s most important to the organization, make cuts from the lower priorities so you can focus on the top ones. You should not only communicate this out to your team, but also ask for their input on what they believe is realistic.

If part of the reason that the department’s workload is too high is that you’ve lost staff members, then team members will need to plan out their daily work differently than before. Instead of falling into their regular routine of how they organize their time, they’ll need to consider how to balance out the most important priorities from their current job as well as the most important add-on activities from the departing colleague. As a team leader, you can help by reassuring them it’s OK to put aside some nonessential activities from their current role so that the most critical items get done.

Communicate priorities upward.

You won’t just need to get alignment within your team; you’ll also need to communicate up to your boss. Proactively introduce the topic with your manager by starting the conversation from a clear, decisive point of view and listing your priorities. Without this information, your boss my have different expectations of your objectives. Being upfront at the start prevents misunderstandings — and reduces the risk of a negative response after you’ve already started down your team’s planned path.

You can come at these discussions from a number of vantage points. One is to present the plan you made for your department where you identified the highest-value activities and those that were most aligned with your annual goals. You can frame this discussion as wanting to make sure your boss achieves her objectives so you’re making strategic decisions to ensure that still happens. You can also explain that means deprioritizing certain items so that your team can focus on the highest impact activities.

Some supervisors will be less than enthusiastic to hear about projects you’ll have to stop doing or put on the back burner. In this case, use data to back up your argument. Ask your team to track which projects they’re working on, how long those activities are taking, and how much time it would take to get done the additional activities that they’re not getting to right now. Present these findings to support your push for prioritization.

Finally, once you’ve agreed on priorities, hold your manager to them. If your staff doesn’t increase, then you either can’t take on new responsibilities as a department or your boss will need to make tough strategic choices. For instance, if she brings up a new initiative, you can say something to the effect of: “That sounds like a great idea. If we take that on, which project would you like us to take off our docket for now?”

Delegate externally.

When you’re maxed out internally, another pressure release valve is to delegate to individuals outside your team. Think about whether your organization has any shared services that could take on some of the load for event coordination, travel, design, communications, deck prep, or any other items that currently take up the department’s time. Where you can hand off work, do so.

Another option is to see if there’s budget to bring on outside contractors. Could you have a contractor take on responsibility for a special project that no one else has the bandwidth to move forward? If one of your department’s capacity issues is a higher volume of customers, could you hire a contractor whose only role is to promptly respond to client inquiries and questions? Get help where you can, even if you can’t onboard a full-time staff member yet.

Reset expectations with stakeholders.

When your department has to make changes to their priorities or level of customer service, it’s important to communicate those expectations to all stakeholders, whether they are internal or external. Update the people impacted by the changes to let them know if projects will be delayed or stopped. For instance, if there will be changes in turnaround time, such as items now taking two weeks instead of one, let people know in advance so they can plan accordingly.

Not everyone will be happy with deferred projects or longer turnaround times. But it’s better to reset expectations upfront than to have to deal with angry and disappointed people when you haven’t met their expectations.

Request more staff.

Finally, if your department’s workload is up and will continue to have an elevated level, advocate for more headcount. It’s unfair to your team for them to constantly feel behind and like they can’t keep up — not because they’re not trying hard but because there is too much work. Even if a new hire isn’t in the cards right now, making a case early and often might put you at the top of the list when budget does allow it.

Evaluate what your department needs, whether it’s more team members to work on projects or more administrative support, and then do what you can to get the help in place. It’s one thing for the department to be understaffed during a short season. But perpetually having work overload is a recipe for burnout.

Finding yourself in a season where the work has increased but your staff hasn’t is uncomfortable, but it can be managed. Use the strategies above, and remember to take time to rest and recharge each week so that you and your team members can create a sustainable work schedule in a challenging work environment.

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