The Essential Guide to Workload Management

Smartsheet Contributor Becky Simon on Nov 11, 2019 (Last modified on Sep 27, 2021)

When teams don’t work well together, problems occur. A vital soft skill of team performance is workload management. This article presents the most useful expert tips and downloadable templates to optimize your team’s workload management. 

Included on this page, you'll find a variety of workload management techniques, details on how to help employees manage their workload, helpful workload management tips, and workload management templates in Excel.


What Is Workload Management?

Workload management refers to assigning work to a team in a way that gets the most out of its skills and abilities and allows it to achieve the best performance and produce the highest quality deliverables. 

Through strong workload management, employees gain confidence in their abilities, take greater joy in their work, and become increasingly effective and productive.

Debbie Rosemont is a Productivity Consultant and Certified Professional Organizer at Simply Placed, a business consulting firm. She defines workload management as “having systems in place to ensure that teams or individuals get priority work done efficiently and effectively. Systems help people do their best work and get the best outcome.”

Andrew Stellman

Andrew Stellman, a developer, architect, Agile coach, and six-time O'Reilly author, connects workload to workflow. “From an Agile perspective, workload management is less about trying to figure out how much work to pile on each individual team member and more about understanding the flow of work through the project,” he explains. “An effective Agile team is self-organizing, which means that the team members assign themselves work from a backlog at the last responsible moment. This is different from the more traditional model, where a project manager decides how to allocate work to the team members.”

According to Stellman, the beauty of self-assigning work and improving workflow is that it alleviates the intermittent overworking and idleness that derives from waiting for decisions, ticket approvals, and dependencies. 

However you approach the practice, good workload management is a win for everybody — nurturing less stressed, happier, and healthier employees, happier customers, and a better bottom line.

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Workload Management Techniques

Customers and companies have high demands for service in today’s always-on society. A critical foundation of quality service is workload management. The techniques of managing workloads can serve project and team leaders as well as employees. The following are the major workload management techniques: 

  • Determine Team Tasks and Team Capacity: List all the projects, tasks, and processes that your team must complete. Organize your list from hardest to easiest. A work management platform facilitates this process by visualizing and clarifying scope and keeping records of past activity. You can only manage what you know about and can see. In order to implement this step, you must first achieve the following:
     
    • Understand the milestones and timelines for projects and tasks. Understand task duration and due dates.
    • Break down bigger efforts into tasks. Consider using a work breakdown structure that will detail work packages with the smallest components of work necessary for each effort.
    • Figure out the team’s bandwidth, taking into consideration any current projects and the expectations for new projects.
    • Determine any urgent or priority work. 
  • Assign Resources: Assign priority work first or exclusively. When that’s finished, you can assign the rest. Also, assign the hardest tasks first to ensure that you have enough time to complete them and to guarantee that your team is fresh when it tackles those tough tasks. Use a calendar or timeline to mark assignment start and end dates — doing so can help you identify overcommitted team members and conflicting due dates. In order to implement this technique, you must do the following:
     
    • One of the most important aspects of assigning work is understanding the people who will do the work. Make sure you know individual team members’ talents, skills, and temperament when assigning tasks. Assigning an equal workload to every team member may not always be the right solution. As Rosemont explains, “Someone who excels at something is going to perform those related tasks more efficiently and effectively than a person who doesn’t excel at those same tasks. The other person will struggle and find those tasks to be a burden. So, as managers, if we understand the strengths of our people, we can allocate work according to those strengths.” 
    • Put the assignment in context by explaining to each individual why they received it. When you assign work, ask the team or individual if it’s doable. Ensure that you aren’t burning out your top performers. Discuss assignments and capacity with the people who will actually do the work. They know best how much they can successfully handle, and they may have a better idea for addressing workload. 
  • Follow Up Regularly with Your Employees: Monitor project progress, but also observe your team for signs of stress or overwork. Team meetings can help everyone understand one another’s experience of the project. However, one-on-one meetings allow individuals to speak more freely. 
  • Enhance Tools and Methods When Workloads Are Heavy: When the pressure is on, reduce the number of team meetings and find other ways to share updates and information. Identify time and work management methods that are suited to each team member, and teach project and time management skills. Here are some ways to enhance tools and methods: 
     
    • For Andrew Stellman, with his Agile background, Kanban is the answer to workload balancing: “Kanban can be a very powerful tool to help identify and fix the root cause of workflow management problems. The idea behind Kanban is that the team first visualizes the workflow, then sets up feedback loops to experiment with making changes to limit the work in progress. Then, the team can measure the effect that those changes have on the flow.” 
    • You can also base your scheduling on the 80/20 model: 80 percent of an employee’s time should focus on projects, while 20 percent should comprise administrative tasks, breaks, and lunch. Ensure that the 20 percent is distributed evenly throughout the work week, so people aren’t rushed only to later spend an idle workday.
    • Managers and individuals can use the Eisenhower Priority Matrix to prioritize work from a long to-do list. The matrix contains boxes in which you can classify your tasks: important and urgent; important but not urgent; not important but urgent; not important and not urgent.


      You should aim to work mainly from the “important but not urgent” category. To learn more about using the priority matrix, see “A Detailed Guide to Time Management Skills and Techniques.” Below, we’ve included a downloadable matrix template
    • If you’re seeking other approaches for when your team or individuals seem overallocated, work backward to detect the cause. Were task breakdowns or resource analysis projections incorrect? Do individuals lack the skills or the materials to complete the job? If the entire team is having trouble, check for bottlenecks in the overall workflow.
  • Leverage a Work Management Tool: Work management tools can be analog (such as flip charts or white boards) or digital. Online tools in particular offer the advantage of consolidating information in one location and making it accessible to all team members. Tools help surface conflicting deadlines and priorities and provide visibility, overviews of resource allocation, and reminders of due dates, milestones, and more. 

    In a tool such as Jira, you may track actual tasks separately from the schedules and resources in a resource calendar. Resource calendars can flag issues such as employees with excessive overtime, no scheduled days off, or no scheduled vacation. In some circumstances (i.e., matrix organizations), team members may have multiple responsibilities, making it impossible for them to devote one hundred percent of their time to one project. Whether on paper or digitally, you need to track these details somewhere other than in your head.

Workload Management Tips

For all the different types of management frameworks taught in any number of programs, few courses teach workload management specifically. Moreover, primary schools, secondary schools, and universities don’t teach this skill either. 

“Schools don’t teach individuals how to manage their time,” Rosemont laments. “They hand out planners, but they don’t do an effective enough job of teaching students how to manage a project. Students don’t learn that planning is more than just putting in a due date; it is actually learning to work backward and put in some of the project tasks. That’s a basic component of time management — chunking down or planning.” 

Despite the lack of training, the soft skills of time management and prioritization are receiving more attention. Says Rosemont: “More companies are starting to understand that if they don’t do time management and prioritization well, then they won’t do the technical things well.” Time and workload management also influence employee health, which can affect a company’s bottom line as health insurance costs rise and productivity sinks. 

Both managers and team members can benefit from having good workload management skills. Managing your workload properly can increase your ability to help others and solve problems. Use the following tips to manage your own work as well as your team’s work:

  • Make it your priority to spend time reflecting on upcoming projects and tasks and the human resources — including skill sets — you require to complete them. 
  • Discourage long hours for the sake of long hours — quality and output are more important than overtime. 
  • List short and long-term goals to add clarity to team and individual workload management efforts. Review your long-term goals each month to determine if you are on track and what in your schedule needs tweaking.
  • Write a to-do list at the end of each workday to prepare for the next workday. As a manager, you can make team and individual to-do’s, and each team member can create their own daily to-do list.
  • Understand the difference between important tasks and urgent tasks, and determine which you have on your work docket. Be sure that small but urgent tasks don’t eat away at time that you should also devote to tackling important tasks. 
  • Make dates with yourself to work on important tasks. Big tasks, such as writing a speech for a company anniversary or documenting a workflow, can seem overwhelming, which makes them easy to procrastinate. Schedule time each week to work on big projects, and be like the ants who move the sugar pile one crystal at a time. 
  • The great can be the enemy of the good. Understand where perfection is critical and where good work is adequate, and communicate these standards to your team.
  • Keep social media and email distractions to a minimum. 
  • Set achievable deadlines. Missed deadlines and unrealistic deadlines can demoralize a team.

How to Help Employees Manage Their Workload

Team members need to be proactive in managing their own workloads. But, the right company culture sets them up for success. Here are some ways to help your employees manage their workload: 

  • Acknowledge the Limits of Time: “You can’t fit a gallon into a quart-size jar,” says Rosemont. “We are limited in our time — and more than that, in order to manage workload appropriately, we need to pay attention to our energy and our attention. I think that a lot of people say ‘yes’ too quickly. They may be people pleasers. They may feel pressure. But, I think if we take on more than we can reasonably do in the time that we have, we’re not going to manage the work effectively or efficiently. We’re going to let someone down, whether it be family, a client, or a team member. Again, we can’t fit a gallon into a quart-size jar. We don’t get 28 hours in a day. You only have the same amount of time as everybody else. People continue to take on more and say yes to more without thinking about the impact on their current workload.”
  • Cultivate Your Own Adaptability and Flexibility, and Teach These Qualities to Your Team: Sometimes, you and your team have to shift priorities. Help your team to learn from changes and not resist them. As a manager, listen to team-member ideas about work and be willing to adjust your direction to accommodate better suggestions. 
  • Discourage Multitasking: Once upon a time, multitasking was a desired attribute; today, it is seen as a path to inefficiency. Priority items in particular need complete dedication and focus. “We actually teach a class called ‘Multitasking Makes You Stupid,’” laughs Rosemont. “There are studies upon studies that prove that our brains cannot concentrate or focus on two thinking activities at one time. Multitasking actually wastes time. It takes longer to get work done and we make more errors and cause ourselves more stress. Multitasking messes with hormones and cortisol goes up. We need to focus on one thing, finish it, then move to the next.” 
  • Encourage Self-Care: “If we’re not taking good care of ourselves and we’re depleted, we’re not going to manage our work well,” Rosemont states. “Think good hydration. We are less effective at thinking, analyzing, and decision making if we’re dehydrated. Think good nutrition. Our brains need fuel to think, be creative, and fire at optimal levels. Think movement. We’re sitting at work, hunched over, click-clicking away. We need to get up, stretch, get exercise, and get our heart rates up, so we’re more effective.” She emphasizes that people need to take breaks throughout the workday and get proper vacations “where they actually unplug” and, thereby, manage their energy. 
  • Share Knowledge: Create a culture where team members want to share knowledge. That way, more staff can easily pitch in to finish jobs.

How Do You Manage a Heavy Workload Effectively?

Busy times present their own challenges, but you and your team can cope. Consider these approaches to managing heavy workloads:

Heavy Workload Tips
  • Know How to Spot Stress and Overload in Your Team: “It’s a leadership trait to know what it looks like when you’re getting the best from people,” says Rosemont. He advises that if something seems off, you should ask. Encourage teams and individuals to be honest when they are overloaded, but also look for clues yourself (for instance, individuals will probably ask for more work if they have extra time and reject new assignments if they don’t). Remember that some people won’t speak up if they’re overwhelmed or stressed, so check in with employees often. Watch for signs of stress and overload and encourage employees to gauge their own capacity and energy. Incentivize them to tell you when they are experiencing problems or are overwhelmed. Frequent or long illnesses can indicate burnout.
  • Ensure That Employees Work on the Right Things: Undertasked staff members usually find work to do, but it may not be work that serves the project, company goals, or priorities. Your team may not know how to prioritize. People may start with the easy tasks, what they do well, or what they enjoy doing. They may also pick the shiny tasks that have cachet. Perfectionists may never start at all. 
  • Check In with People: Rosemost suggests that regular or weekly one-on-one meetings provide the best venue for this type of discussion. People may not want to admit to being unnerved by work in a group setting. 
  • Pay Attention to Headcount: Rosemont says, “I see companies that will eliminate a position and not hire a new person. They’ll just reallocate those tasks. Now, you’re taking someone who already has a full-time job and you’re adding yet another item to their plate. That may work in the short term, but if nothing comes off their plate, that won’t be sustainable in the long term.”
  • Communicate Concisely: When on deadline, communicate clearly and concisely. If someone isn’t pulling their weight, tell them. 
  • Learn to Say Yes, and: “Most managers don't realize that they themselves are major contributors to the flow problems,” explains Stellman. “They also don't realize that, in almost all cases, there is a huge amount of waste causing those flow problems.” The manager may stop work so the team can work on something else or may accept assorted projects and tasks for the team without giving any clear direction or priority. “We've all had that boss who refused to tell us whether project A or project B was more important. The one who says, ‘Can't you just work on both of them?’" Stellman points out.

    According to Rosemont, one way around these issues is to learn to say, “Yes, and…” She explains, “You can say ‘Yes, I can help with that, and what of my current workload can wait?’ rather than just saying ‘yes’ reactively without considering the consequences. The same goes for a manager agreeing to an assignment on behalf of the team. You can say, ‘Yes, and I think we can get that done with our current workload.’”
  • Find Novel Approaches: When the team is stressed and overworked, it may be time to turn to them for guidance. “You might get an idea that’s outside the box — one that you wouldn’t have thought of on your own. For example, someone might recommend outsourcing or reallocating work at very little cost,” notes Rosemont. A manager might be thinking one thing, but an employee might come up with their own solution. Ask the team to be part of the solution.”
  • Encourage Self-Management: Worktime isn’t just about being online and doing things, but spending time on the right things. Train employees to manage their own to-do lists and discern priorities. Self-management can include involving others in tasks, delegating, or getting clarification from a manager.
  • Table Some Tasks: Rather than overburden fast and skilled workers, review what tasks or projects you can table for later. 
  • Fast Track: Is your project delayed? Add underutilized employees and then consider fast-tracking tasks. In fast tracking, some dependencies are worked concurrently rather than in sequence.

What Are Workload Management Tools?

Workload management tools, whether paper or digital, help managers and their teams understand and track assignments, deadlines, and resources. Workload management tools can support the team in the following ways:

  • Resource management tools can help managers see the big picture of resource allocations so that it’s easier to shuffle resources as situations change. 
  • Automation software can route tasks and tickets based on employee capabilities or capacity, and automation can increase back-office output and help with prioritization and tracking. 
  • A work and resource management platform can aid in anticipating problems by revealing historical patterns of peak activity for teams and for roles, such as extra staffing needs for e-commerce sites and delivery companies during the Christmas season. 
  • Data from a tracking system can show employee work patterns. When discussing necessary performance improvements with an employee, you can focus on the data to keep the discussion objective and professional.

Tools can be as basic as a paper diary or planner or as sophisticated as enterprise collaboration and work management platforms. But, tools are nothing without skills. “Tools can be helpful, but we can’t see them as a magic bullet,” explains Rosemont. “If someone is overwhelmed, we can’t just get them an app or a project management software license and expect that to fix everything.” She emphasizes that systems and habits, along with good communication, impact productivity: “Tools can help communication happen conveniently. Any project management communication tool can be helpful if it allows an employee to say ‘I’m overwhelmed’ or ‘My workload is out of control.’ But, the tool itself will not fix things. We still need good foundational time management habits, good behavior, and good people skills.”


Enterprise Workload Management

IT workload automation balances IT resources to prioritize and match service demand and business requirements. Enterprise workload management performs workload automation for arrays of servers and multiple platforms and provides overviews of performance across the enterprise.

IT workload management (also called server workload management) consists of processes for determining the proper workload distributions in order to provide optimal performance for applications and users. IT workload management gives an organization the capability to micromanage and control requests and maximize throughput. It aims to prioritize business goals, enable throughput through optimal use of IT resources in pursuit of business goals, and optimize response and turnaround time.


What Is Intelligent Workload Management?

Intelligent workload management (IWM) is an advanced application of IT workload management that models automation and workload organization for multiplatform, cloud, and hybrid systems.


Excel Workload Management Templates

Team workload management templates are available as workload management spreadsheets, lists, and matrices, and you can print them or fill them out online. The following customizable templates are free to download.

Agile Resource Planning Template

This Agile resource planning template is organized according to each project role. It displays each role holder’s name, whether their responsibilities are complete, and the start and end dates for their assignment. The information appears on a Gantt timeline.

Download Agile Resource Planning Template

Excel | Smartsheet


Human Resources Planning Template

Individual tasks may require more than one team member on different days of the week. The human resources planning template lists tasks, start and end dates, and the hours you require or can access from each resource. A pivot table totals the hours by resource for each month. 

Download Human Resources Planning Template - Excel


Project Resource Planning Template

With this project resource planning template, you can account for human, budgetary, and material resources. Use the timeline to track planning details on a monthly basis.
 

Download Project Resource Planning Template

Excel | Smartsheet


Task Priority Matrix Template

Leveraging the Eisenhower Principle of workload management, this template provides large spaces for each quadrant in the matrix. Print any of the formats to create rough outlines of your prioritization, or use the Word and Excel versions to draft your thoughts online. 

Download Task Priority Matrix Template

Excel | PDF | Word


Improve Workload Management with Smartsheet

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When teams have clarity into the work getting done and by whom, there’s no telling how much more they can accomplish in the same amount of time. Watch a free demo to learn more about Resource Management by Smartsheet.

 

 

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