A Beginner’s Guide to Workload Management

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Experience improved productivity and quality output from your team by applying these key workload management strategies. This guide shows you how.

Many businesses have more work to do than the time and staff available to do it. Having supervised teams of various sizes, I’ve experienced first-hand how a team leader needs to carefully manage incoming work against the abilities of the team. Otherwise, you end up with stressed-out staff and unhappy customers.

It’s a skill to master your team’s task flow. You want to set the group up to successfully achieve your business objectives while maintaining a balance between too much and too little work. That’s where workload management strategies can help.

Overview: What is workload management?

Workload management is about assigning work to a team in a manner that effectively utilizes the group’s skills while maximizing productivity and the quality of deliverables. Trusted workload management principles can not only lead to greater output, they can also raise team morale.

It might be among your project manager responsibilities to manage a particular team’s workload. Let’s take a look at some helpful strategies you can use and how to implement them.

7 highly effective workload management strategies

These techniques for managing workload increase your ability to fulfill the project scope and help the team hit performance metrics. This guide walks through seven strategies for effective workload management.

1. Understand business priorities

Before delegating work, understand your business priorities. These priorities involve day-to-day activities as well as long-term strategic goals.

Trade-offs are inevitable since business resources are limited. When you’re making decisions about the work that needs to be done, you have to keep in mind your business’s priorities. That will help you determine which tasks move the company toward its most important objectives.

In a retail store, cashiers are important for processing transactions, but so is ensuring shelves are stocked with merchandise. In a business-to-business environment, it may be in your best interest to prioritize customer service for clients with higher budgets over those spending less.

That’s why many companies tier their client base and provide different degrees of service based on customer spend.

Understanding your business priorities allows you to make appropriate decisions about your workload management approach. These priorities can even affect the tools you use and processes you implement.

Tips for understanding business priorities:

Apply the following tips to incorporate business priorities into your workload management.

  • Use business acumen: Even if you feel confident in your business priorities, the daily challenge of running a business means workload management trade-offs change from day to day. An employee might call in sick, for example. That’s where a sense of business acumen -- being able to consider a number of factors, stakeholders, and possible consequences when making decisions -- can drive your workload decision-making.
  • Collaborate on daily priorities: Business priorities may remain consistent from day to day, but workload prioritization does not. This can lead to team confusion if tasks are shifted without enough communication, particularly across cross-functional teams. Work certainly may need to shift to accommodate daily challenges, but you should explain why you’re making such changes to the people responsible for the tasks.

2. Evaluate tasks

Deciding which tasks to address at any given time involves weighing a number of factors, including the following.

  • What is the scope of work? This includes whether the work necessitates special skills or knowledge to complete it (for example, the ability to code software), and if it requires multiple people to get the job done.
  • How long will it take to complete a task relative to others?
  • What are the deadlines associated with every task?
  • What is the priority for each task? Do some tasks need to be completed before others can start?
  • Who are the stakeholders affected by the tasks? Were some tasks requested by customers or business partners?

Weigh these factors against the business priorities to derive your task list. This is a summary of the work your team must complete.

Tips for evaluating tasks:

Make task evaluation easier with these tools.

  • Employ WBS: Use the work breakdown structure (WBS) to obtain a clear picture of every task required for project completion. The WBS is a technique used to capture all tasks necessary to achieve a project’s goals as well as the time required to complete those tasks. The WBS is particularly useful for large, complex projects, such as constructing a building or a software system.
  • Create a prioritized list: List your tasks from most important (or time-sensitive) down to least. When defining the order in which tasks must be completed, factor in considerations such as the difficulty of the task. If a task is urgent but very difficult to complete, talk to stakeholders to see if you need more resources to get the job done, or if deadlines need to be adjusted.

3. Align tasks to people

Assigning work requires two basic components: your task list, and people with the skills to complete it. However, workload management involves more than blindly matching up the two.

People must not only possess the skills to do the work, they must have the bandwidth to complete it within designated deadlines. If not, the staff member can feel overwhelmed and fail to keep up with the project schedule.

Consider your employees’ work styles as well intangibles such as temperament to assign each person to the appropriate task. For example, if a task requires collaboration with other groups, it’s best not to assign that task to a team member who prefers to work independently.

Tips for aligning tasks to people:

Sometimes the most complex part of workload management is matching tasks to the appropriate team members. The following tips can help.

  • Determine team capacity: Figure out each team member’s current workload to determine if any work requires completion or reassignment before you assign new tasks. Methods such as the work breakdown structure allow you to estimate the time and effort for each task, and you can use this information to determine which team members have too much or too little work so you can assign tasks accordingly.
  • Explain the work: After matching tasks to team members, explain what’s involved to each person, the expectations and deadlines, and why the work is important. Choose a communication strategy to use in these situations. Good communication can set the stage for the work to be delivered on time and with the necessary quality, as well as motivate the staff member.

4. Apply a process framework

Processes make workload management consistent, predictable, and quick. Any delay in a work assignment can put projects behind schedule, but a process framework prevents this.

Choose a process framework that facilitates workload planning and assignment based on what makes sense for your business. Many project management methodologies can apply to your task delegation process, such as kanban, where staff self-assign work. Another approach is to create assignments every morning before employees start their shifts.

Tips for applying a process framework:

Choosing the right process for your type of work has a big impact on workload management. Consider the following suggestions.

  • Opt for a self-regulating system: Implement a process framework that promotes a self-regulated system and minimizes manual involvement. Adopt software tools that automatically assign items, or an approach such as kanban that empowers team members to seamlessly grab more work as they finish tasks so they don’t have to wait for work assignments.
  • Keep evolving the process: Be open to changing the workload distribution process. Keep looking for ways to streamline and improve process efficiency while ensuring tasks are equitably distributed. Experiment with different approaches to find the one that works best for your team.

5. Adapt to workflow changes

One of the challenges of workload management is that work ebbs and flows. One day, you’re ahead of schedule. The next, you’re hit with more work than the team can handle. Your workload management approach should enable you to adapt to these periods of uneven activity.

Support your team by adopting techniques to address this challenge. Some useful techniques include the following.

  • Reassess. When new work comes in, reassess existing priorities and deadlines so that staff aren’t subjected to unrealistic expectations.
  • Be proactive. Adjust work assignments proactively based on your employees’ vacation and holiday schedules.
  • Discourage multi-tasking. Let the team know it’s best to focus attention on one task at a time to efficiently finish the work as well as improve the quality of the outcome.

Tips for adapting to workflow changes:

Additional tips to prepare for changes to workload include the following.

  • Perform cross-training: Cross-train team members wherever possible. The more widely team members are cross-trained on each other’s work, the more flexibility the team has in terms of adjusting to the ebbs and flows of work demands. If one team member becomes overloaded with tasks, a cross-trained colleague can jump in to help.
  • Confirm task priorities: When the team doesn’t have enough work, they may find tasks to fill their time. But do those tasks advance your business priorities? Share task priorities with team members so they’re aware what work to tackle next when they finish an item. Also, keep track of the tasks being done to ensure the team is focused on the right items.

6. Adopt workload management tools

Using project management tools can do a lot to facilitate workload management. A whiteboard where tasks are posted, specialized software, a spreadsheet, or other tools will streamline assignments and oversight of the team’s work.

Project management software simplifies many elements of workload management while automatically monitoring your progress towards project goals.

It can automate work assignments and provide reports that give insight into project status, team workload capacity, and other details to inform workload management decisions. The larger your team, the more important it is to employ software to manage the work.

Tips for adopting workload management tools:

When using workload management tools, consider these suggestions.

  • Give visibility to the team: Adopt a tool that provides your team with visibility on their assignments. This allows team members to quickly view the work they should tackle next without the need to track a manager down and ask about the next assignment.
  • Use the Eisenhower matrix: The Eisenhower matrix, a type of prioritization matrix, is a common approach to prioritizing incoming work. It divides tasks into four quadrants prioritized as follows: urgent and important, important but not urgent, urgent but not important, not important and not urgent. The Eisenhower matrix is a proven tool to bucket the prioritization of work in a consistent manner.

7. Leverage feedback loops

Implement feedback loops to enhance communication and collaboration amongst your team.

This process can involve informally following up with employees on their progress, or a structured routine, such as daily or weekly team meetings where team members provide updates on their progress and insight into challenges they might be facing.

For example, in the scrum process, teams sync up regularly for a sprint retrospective, a meeting where the team shares what’s working and what’s not.

Feedback loops also deliver insight into whether the current workload management process is working to balance tasks across the team. If some team members are routinely feeling overworked while others are finishing early, that tells you the current process likely requires re-evaluation.

Tips for leveraging feedback loops:

Strengthen workload management with these tips to utilize feedback loops.

  • Employ milestones: Use milestones for lengthy projects to measure if work is progressing appropriately toward deadlines. Milestones serve as checkpoints that allow time for you to course-correct to ensure your team achieves its project goals on time.
  • Combine different feedback: Feedback loops can be a combination of indicators. Software that measures team progress and capacity can be coupled with regular check-ins or status reports. Using a combination of methods delivers more insight to perform real-time workload adjustments.

The best workload management software for project managers

There are many software solutions available that can help you facilitate workload management. Here are some of the best options.

1. monday.com

One of the most comprehensive project software tools on the market is monday.com. It’s adaptable to many types of workload processes, including kanban, and it can present information in a dashboard view that meets your needs -- from its proprietary board system to a traditional Gantt chart.

monday.com offers all of the core features for workload management, such as tools to help you gauge capacity for each team member so work can be distributed fairly across the group.

Monday.com's Task Board

Color-coding in monday.com’s board system makes status tracking easy. Image source: Author

Color-coding on the dashboard allows you to review task status at a glance. The software also provides a range of reports from standard charts to a timeline showing workload over time.

2. Airtable

Airtable uses a visually appealing design approach to managing project work. You can also opt to leverage its set of built-in templates to match the nature of your project, such as templates for user research, a product launch, or a marketing campaign.

Airtable’s well-designed interface is intuitive, using image-based cards to represent tasks. The cards make it easy to track progress and reassign tasks to balance workloads.

Airtable’s templates

Airtable’s templates can help you get a jump start on your project. Image source: Author

The intuitive design extends to its customizable and programmable spreadsheets, which use color-coding to help you quickly view the status of each task as well as manage team resources.

3. Wrike

A flexible project tool, Wrike delivers many methods to manage your workload and build an implementation plan. You can use kanban boards, Gantt charts, or even simple to-do lists.

It provides the ability to manage task assignments, track team progress, and set task priorities, and its interactive Gantt chart makes it easy to make changes that cascade across all related tasks.

Wrike’s task-creation system

Wrike’s task-creation system is straightforward and easy to use. Image source: Author

Wrike integrates with a number of third-party tools, such as Slack, that extend the platform’s functionality. Its interactive reports make it easy to analyze how your team is doing, and Wrike even offers a free option for small teams.

A last word about workload management

Successfully implementing these workload management strategies includes improving your team management skills and keeping an open mind to assess how to continually refine and enhance your processes.

This continuous improvement is necessary as technologies and your own business evolve over time.

It’s a daily challenge to maintain the balance between achieving business objectives and ensuring even, productive work across the team. With these strategies and a willingness to adapt, you’ll be well-equipped to master workload management.

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