So many strategic decisions depend on knowing your team’s workload: Do they have a volume of work that keeps them productive and engaged but not so much that you have nightmares of team burnout and turnover? Do you need to campaign to add a team member or drop a project?
Just asking your direct reports about how they spend their days can send you in the wrong direction. Most people don’t track what they do hour by hour. And you certainly don’t want to shadow them all day to find out. Instead, try these tips.
1. Consider implementing a team status update system to give you more transparency in the future.
Before launching into a full-blown analysis of how your team spends its time, it’s worth considering why you don’t have a grasp on this already. Do you receive consistent, informative, and regular status updates to help you understand what’s getting done (and what isn’t)? If not, consider starting an update system. You could set up an online dashboard that allows the team to publicly track goals, have weekly (or daily) email or internal-channel updates, schedule regular standup meetings where everyone shares obstacles and progress, or some other system.
2. Be clear about why you’re interested in learning more about your team’s workload.
Many direct reports faced with a manager questioning where their time goes will naturally default to worst-case thinking: “He doesn’t trust us” or “They must be looking to cut hours.” Plus, people tend to change their behavior when scrutinized — possibly making your findings inaccurate.
To alleviate direct reports’ fears and encourage them to act as they would normally, explain to your team what you’re hoping to find out and why.
“We’re being asked to take on two extra projects next year, and budget planning is coming up. I would like to get a clear sense of how everyone spends their time so I can decide whether we can handle the extra work without sacrificing quality or if I need to ask for more resources.”
“I would like everyone to feel engaged and challenged by our work, not like you’re just doing the same thing over and over. I’d like to get a sense of how everyone spends their time so I can determine whether we should push to take on new projects.”
And finish by reassuring them of what you’re trying not to do — for example, this is not about criticizing people who spend too much or too little time on a particular task.
3. Ask your direct reports to track their time for a short period.
Can you remember how much time you spent on email last week? Nobody’s very good at accurately remembering details like that.
Instead, ask your team to track their time for a period that’s long enough to give you a representative sample, but not so long that it’s burdensome. Try asking for a week where your direct reports set an alarm or calendar reminder to stop twice per day and record how they spent their time. For a more granular (and accurate) approach, you could suggest setting many alarms per day or use a time tracking app.
You could also suggest to your direct reports that seeing where their time goes could help them with their own time management and prioritization — for example, realizing the need to schedule more time between meetings or to spend less time emailing.
Caution: Monitoring employees with time-tracking software or by shadowing them can be a legal gray area, especially if it is nonconsensual and intrusive and/or targets employees in a protected class. Consult your HR department before using any monitoring system.
4. Ask your direct reports to add their level of effort and level of interest to their time tracking results.
Not all hours are equal: A sweaty-palmed hour to draft an emergency client report is far more taxing (and potentially engaging) than an hour spent compiling notes from a team meeting. In order for you to make good decisions about what, if anything, to change about your team’s current workload, you’ll need to know more about each hour. For example:
Effort. Try asking team members to rate the difficulty of each task (with 1 being little effort and 5 the most effort) or to list which ones they find most difficult and easiest. Interest and satisfaction. You should already have a sense of what work your direct reports like and don't like from your regular conversations (if not, start asking questions about engagement in your 1-on-1s). Still, it would be helpful to see it in this hourly context. Ask team members to rate how interested they are in each task (with 1 being boring and 5 exciting) or to list which they find most and least satisfying.
If you see large time and effort discrepancies between direct reports doing similar tasks, consider comparing how they’re doing things, especially before jumping to the conclusion that one person is more capable than another. Is one taking shortcuts (and sacrificing quality)? Or has one modified the team’s process so it takes less time or delivers a better result? You might suggest that one team member share his or her process with a peer or the full team.
5. Ask peer managers about their teams’ workload and output.
Benchmarking your team with others can be especially useful if your teams do similar work. Even if your team’s work is different, you still stand to learn a lot from your peers. For example, if a peer waged a successful campaign to hire a new direct report or shielded her team from an extra project, how did she measure workload and determine what was necessary? And how did she present that information in a compelling way? Some good peer questions:
“Have you measured where your team’s time and effort go? How did you do it?”
For a task that both your teams do: “How much time and effort does your team put into their work on X?”
“What signals to you that your team is overworked or underworked?”
“What workload adjustments have you tried in the past — shuffling roles, dropping projects, adding new hires or additional contract hours, and/or changing team processes? How successful were these attempts?”
6. Consider future plans and uncertainty.
Are executives planning a big project next quarter that renders last week’s time tracking a useless indicator? Did you factor in vacations — what happens when a key team member takes two weeks off? What’s coming up in your schedule — strategy sessions or onboarding a new employee — that may give you less time to coach your direct reports (and add time to their tasks)? What project is another team taking on that might require help from your team?
You won’t be able to predict every time-eating factor. But you can reduce some uncertainty by asking your team, your peers, and your manager what workload they see on the horizon.
7. Categorize your team’s tasks by importance and urgency so you can determine how to adjust priorities.
So, each team member spends an average of 1.3 hours per week on the phone with the quality assurance team. Now what? Even if you’re certain that’s too much, merely suggesting they spend less time doing that isn’t a good return on your investment. They’ve each spent a lot of time tracking their tasks, so telling them how to save 10 minutes would be demoralizing. Instead, cluster tasks along a broader dimension so you can suggest big-picture changes in addition to little ones. For example:
Tasks that are important and urgent. Working toward a tight deadline, handling a sudden crisis — these are things your team has to do. But sometimes you can help make them more efficient. For example, if a veteran direct report gets peppered regularly with questions about how to operate a new piece of machinery, it might be worth the time to create a machine training guide.
Tasks that are important but not urgent. Planning for new goals, improving team processes, even this project of assessing how your team spends its time — done well, these jobs can be huge time-savers in the long run and even prevent some crises from happening. The more time you and your team spend on these types of tasks, the better you’re likely to perform in the future.
Distractions and wastes. Compulsively checking email, compiling internal reports, reading articles online — some of these tasks are inevitable and even provide a mental break from more taxing work. But if you find some direct reports spending too much time in this category, dig further to uncover why. Are they using distractions to avoid tasks that they're not motivated to complete or find too challenging?
You may also discover that direct reports struggle with time management, in which case you may want to coach them on building better habits.
8. Add or remove a small task for individual direct reports or the whole team to test their workload.
No matter how accurate your team’s time reports are, you won’t automatically know whether people would benefit from having more or less to do. Try a small workload change, and see how people react. Consider one or both of these approaches:
Add an additional small task. Ideally, the task should take an hour or so over the course of a week and is large enough that it’s meaningful, but not so large that it forces people to drop other responsibilities. If nothing minimally disruptive comes to mind, could you delegate a task you normally do? Ask afterward what they did to make time for the extra work and gauge their reactions carefully. If the extra task was no big deal, they may have the capacity for more. If they seem frustrated, worked long days, or cut corners on other work to get it done, then they may not be ready to take on more.
Remove a small task. Maybe you cancel a standing meeting or give the team a week off from filling out the team dashboard. Then ask your direct reports: “What did you do with the extra time? Did things run more smoothly that week?” Their answers may tell you that it’s worth adjusting your team’s processes to give them the extra capacity or that the saved time went to waste (and the team could handle more work).
9. Act on what you learn about your team’s workload.
Share what you’ve learned with your team and start a conversation about what to do next. Chances are your direct reports have opinions and good ideas for adjustments after tracking their time. Some options to consider:
If the team (or an individual) is currently underutilized or bored: Be careful here. Your direct reports may be able to take on more, but you shouldn’t fill their schedules with just anything. Instead, talk with peers and your manager to determine where your department could improve — maybe your team could spearhead a new department initiative. Also, aim for each direct report to have a mix of tasks that align with the person's interests and strengths.
If the team (or an individual) is currently overwhelmed: Is there something you can do to keep the work but ease the burden — provide more instruction, coaching, and feedback or redistribute tasks among team members? If the current workload is really too much, talk with your manager. You may need to ask for clarification on your boss’s priorities (then pace your team’s work accordingly) or see whether it’s possible to add a new hire or contractor hours to help.
If the team (or an individual) is at — but not over — capacity: Let the team know that they are doing well on workload, but be prepared for how to handle future requests. You may need to shift priorities to accommodate new work or be prepared to say no because your team doesn’t have the time — which you now know because you’ve studied it!
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