Managing projects comes with its fair share of challenges. From difficult stakeholders to resource shortages, a project manager must know how to navigate tricky situations. What makes it even more challenging is the fact that project managers...
Mastering the subtle art of workload management is an important task for several project-focused roles in companies. Department heads or executives often tackle project allocation on a company-wide level, whereas project managers need to assign tasks to their project teams.
Regardless of the scale, the main strategies for successful workload management are based on the same principles: team visibility, data-driven approach and team culture. In this article, I will guide you through all of these areas and offer practical solutions to workload allocation challenges.
What is workload management?
Workload Management is a process of distributing work among employees and monitoring people’s utilization over time. The goal is to make sure the work is delivered within the planned time frame, but also to keep a healthy balance in terms of the amount of work every team member needs to do.
No wonder, then, that the stakes are high here: unfinished projects lead to significant financial losses and overworked employees are likely to burn out and, as a result, leave your team.
Of course, circumstances outside your control might still occur and cause project delays or longer working hours.
But without workload management you learn about the danger when it’s too late to prevent the consequences: usually when people hand in their resignation papers or when project’s progress is seriously impeded.
Monitoring workload helps you spot problematic trends and areas earlier, giving you a chance to solve issues before they escalate.
What are the most effective workload management strategies?
Visibility – key to successful workload management
Being in the know is the essential element of implementing workload management.
There are many potential causes of unbalanced workload (e.g. poor task allocation, inaccurate project estimates, underperformance of individuals within the team) and in order to fix the problem, you have to understand where it is coming from.
It’s best when you’re aware of:
- what needs to be done project-wise,
- who is supposed to be working on what,
- how does the actual workload compare to project estimates.
The “what needs to be done” part can be covered by project documentation or PM software. At Teamdeck, we use Jira to track all tasks in our backlog. This way, we know what needs to happen (and what is the time frame). Other popular tools for project and task management are: Trello, Asana or Podio.
For tracking the workload, on the other hand, I recommend setting up a resource calendar.
While some PM tools have some team management features as part of the product, many companies make a decision of using a dedicated resource management software. Its objective is to allocate the work among employees, track workload and manage absences.
Project management and resource management tools can often be integrated with each other so there’s no need to input data twice or worry about lost information.
Resource calendar gives you the much needed visibility into your team’s current, past and future workload. All of your employees are listed there, together with their allocated projects.
When browsing through your team’s resource calendar look out for:
- Differences between planned and actual working time.
- Employees with few or no vacation days taken (except for sick leaves)
These are the most common red flags that may prompt you to take some action. Some resource management tools will warn you about employee overtime or overutilization:
Teamdeck allows you to create a workload report, updated in real time. It’s more convenient than the calendar view when it comes to comparing estimated hours with actual tracked time.
What to do, when signs of unbalanced workload occur?
First, try to figure out what is the root of the problem. Sometimes the overtime happens because the project was underestimated in the first place, whereas in other cases it is one underperforming (or not skilled enough) team member that causes the delays.
When the workload isn’t distributed evenly across the team, check if you can allocate tasks to the less busy employees. It’s not always possible, especially when you have a conflict of skills/experience. In such case you may try to plug in freelance help or shift employees between projects. Keep in mind, however, that a new person, even a highly experienced professional, will need some time to get familiar with the project and its requirements, so it’s not always the fastest fix.
If the whole team is overworked and it’s not caused by a bottleneck within the team but rather a change of requirements or inadequate estimates, you might need to negotiate the schedule of this project. The deadline might non-extendable in which case you can try to compress project duration by e.g. fast tracking. It’s a practice of overlapping certain tasks that were initially planned as happening one after another:
Click here to find a list of popular resource scheduling techniques you can use to manage the workload.
There are ways to deal with workload issues as they happen, but it’s definitely better to prevent them in advance. This is why data-driven approach and team culture are such significant elements of effective workload management.
Prepare for challenges in advance
Reports with historical data are handy for predicting future workload challenges.
See, many companies observe seasonal patterns in workload spikes. For e-commerces it’s the holiday shopping period. Creative agencies are also rushing to prepare holiday campaigns on time. Other businesses may be more busy during the vacation planning season etc.
These are general patterns that are quite simple to uncover. If you dig deeper in your team’s historical utilization you might find some workload insight gold. A few weeks ago, I interviewed Iwona from Le Polish Bureau. She told me that analyzing historical timesheet data in Teamdeck allowed the company to spot trends regarding particular roles. Simply speaking, certain skills turned out to be in higher demand in particular periods. Based on this insight, they were able to plan new hires in advance.
Another way of getting ahead in terms of workload management, is to closely analyze your company’s production pipeline. This could be straightforward for companies that work on a product with a specified roadmap or much more complicated in the multi-project agency setting. Knowing what kind of projects are coming in during the next couple of weeks/months, can be a huge asset here, as you’re able to verify if your team’s current workload capacity is enough to deliver them all.
Don’t forget about your team’s culture
People don’t usually ask for help when the first signs of unbalanced workload appear. You often only learn about their issues when they’re underperforming, burnt out or even ready to leave your company.
This is why it is crucial to set clear expectations and communicate directly when it comes to employee productivity.
Praise strong performers (where performance is not measured by the amount of hours put in), encourage knowledge-sharing (your employees might have great productivity tips) and, first and foremost, react to issues promptly. This way you show that you keep your finger on the pulse and that you care about your employees’ wellbeing.
As for reacting to different kind of challenges with team culture in mind, I recommend checking out Rebecca Knight’s article on best practices for fair workload management.
Perfectly balanced workload is borderline impossible to achieve, but tracking your team’s utilization makes workload management much more effective. The right combination of PM and resource management tools, together with fostering a productive culture, helps you identify challenges early.
Ready to get visibility into your team’s actual workload?