A few years ago, I worked with a graphic designer named Vanessa. She was brilliant, creative, and outstanding at her job, which proved to be her undoing.
Vanessa was invariably a part of our higher-stakes projects because her work was of such a high quality that she made the entire team look good. She never said no, either: if someone needed her help completing a particularly complex interface or other graphics-oriented task, she burned the midnight oil.
Back then, our agency didn’t have a resource management system in place, other than a person’s direct supervisor. Vanessa was soon overbooked, which caused our agency projects to be delayed unless she was prepared to wear pajamas to work. One time, I worked all night with her to complete a marketing package for one of our biggest clients, and she joked weakly, “When I was a kid, we had sleepovers in my bedroom. Grown-ups have them at the office.”
No one realized how exhausted she was becoming until she started being anything but competent at her job. She tuned out during meetings, was unable to concentrate, and started making mistakes in her work. Finally, she had enough and quit.
What makes her story so unnerving is that it’s not unique. In a 2015 article titled “Being a Go-Getter Is No Fun,” the Atlantic cited a paper by researchers from the University of Colorado and Duke University, University of Georgia. It found that managers and supervisors regularly assign a bigger workload to highly competent people.
The logic is obvious: those with high self-control and a stronger work ethic have been proven to perform better and accomplish better-quality results. But, as one of the researchers put it, this competence can be a double-edged sword. Why should someone work a lot harder for the same pay or reward when their less-capable colleagues simply take it easy and evade the stress of higher expectations and more responsibilities?
Another experiment found that these managers also underestimated how much time and effort it would take to get the job done. One of the study’s co-authors pointed out that what looks easy from the outside may not be so easy in practice, resulting in high performers believing that managers and co-workers didn’t understand how impossible their task load was becoming. If they didn’t burn out, they left. In Vanessa’s case, they did both. It’s a challenging situation that can be mitigated and overcome by proper resource planning and management.
What Is Resource Management?
The textbook definition of resource management is the creation of processes that allow your resources to be effectively managed. For the purposes of this article, the types of resources I am referring to include your people (both in-house staff and freelancers).
As a project manager, one of my biggest stress points is when people are overbooked, like Vanessa was (which delays projects) or underbooked, which hurts the company’s bottom line. Resource management will make you a better manager for several reasons, namely an excellent record for project completion, improved cost control, and gratitude from teams who know that you care about them.
How Do You Start?
Some agencies use spreadsheets to track their resources. I prefer to use project management software because you get a proper overview of employee availability, costs, and other information that’s essential for keeping your projects on track. You’ll also know what’s possible and what isn’t, so that you don’t set your people -and yourself- up for failure.
Determine Your Team’s Capacity
Chances are that your team’s workload is spread across different projects. Start by creating a list of all tasks and processes that your people are responsible for. This includes project-specific work, cross-functional responsibilities, and their regular duties if they are on loan from another department. Then input all of that data into your project management software.
At my current agency, we use Toggl Plan. A browser-based visual resource planning and management tool, it is packed with features that enable you to effectively manage both in-house and remote teams. The tools I use most often include:
- A color-coded timeline that is easy to set up, change, and manage.
- A drag-and-drop functionality to task setup and assignment
- The ability to designate tasks in order of priority or any other standard
What I really like about resource planning tools (many of which are free) is that everyone on the team can see how their input and output impacts overall performance. Everyone is more likely to stay on track because they are able to view the project from a perspective that’s wider than their own workload, and in my experience, these insights keep them more engaged. When they’re constantly aware of project status, their decisions tend to be more strategic and more effective.
What makes Toggl Plan especially valuable for project managers is that it gives you a bird-eye view of what everyone is working on. You can immediately see who is on the verge of being overwhelmed and who is available to help them out. An impossible workload has been identified as one of the top reasons why employees suffer decreased performance levels, and when your entire team is trying to cope, you can imagine the outcome.
When I’m preparing my schedules, I make sure that I account for recurring responsibilities, meetings, and vacations that could affect the availability of a loaned team member. I worked with one social media expert who was invariably called into duty at the front desk whenever the receptionist was on vacation. If the agency schedule indicated that Diana (receptionist) was out, I immediately made sure someone was available to help Kim with her social media strategies.
As the project manager, it is your responsibility to ensure that everyone stays on top of their workload. When they do, the team succeeds.
Once you have an overview of everything that your team needs to accomplish, you can determine who will be working on what tasks and when. This is actually a lot more difficult than it sounds, but if you follow the steps below, you’ll be able to keep everyone’s workloads manageable and balanced.
- Prioritize Tasks: Prioritize work based on urgency and importance. Unlike Vanessa’s supervisor, I know that each person’s capacity is finite, and by confirming what your team needs to tackle first, you can make smarter scheduling decisions.
- Assign Realistic Deadlines: After you decide who will be doing what, use your project management software to create a timeline that makes everyone’s workload easier to visualize.
- Match Tasks With Abilities: This one is a no-brainer, but I’ve seen some project managers be so eager to demonstrate progress that they don’t even take a person’s availability into account, let alone their experience and skillset. Always get the right person for the job. An important project with tight deadlines is not a forum for learning, except from your mistakes.
Adjust Responsibilities As Needed
If it hasn’t happened to you yet, it eventually will, guaranteed. Someone gets sick or encounters an unforeseen roadblock, and next thing you know, they’re struggling to keep up and you’re in danger of missing a deadline.
While I rely a lot on the project timeline to indicate how each team member is managing their current workloads, I prefer to be proactive by checking in with everyone for updates. If you’re dealing with in-house staff, you can drop by their office while freelancers who work remotely can be contacted by phone, email, or Slack. If these check-in reveal that someone is overloaded, I immediately go back to the timeline to see who can help them out.
One time, I noticed that two copywriters were consistently staying late at the office while one of the freelance web developers was sending me updates in the middle of the night (and we were in the same time zone!) I looked into where they stood with their assignments, saw a bottleneck in the making, and arranged for less-occupied members of the team to help them.
When you reassign tasks or provide a team member with help, make it clear to them that you aren’t questioning their ability to do quality work. In my experience, people can get sensitive about the fact that they need help with their workload, and making it clear that competency is not the issue will go a long way towards earning their trust and gratitude.
If you want to set your team- and your agency- up for success, proper resource planning will get you there. It’s all about being careful how you assign responsibilities (and to whom), having reasonable expectations of what can be accomplished, and changing priorities and workloads when needed. These tips, combined with a powerful resource management tool like Toggl Plan, will help you support your people effectively at all stages of the most demanding project and even result in a victory dance at the end!
Rose Keefe is an author and technical writer who has over ten years’ experience in supporting project managers in the manufacturing and construction sectors. One of her primary responsibilities was developing product manuals that supported efficient use of industrial equipment. She continues to write on the subject of time management and commercial productivity for trade websites and publications.