Say you’re the leader of a team of hard-working professionals who work in different locations. It’s crunch time, and pretty much everyone realizes they need to put aside their personal lives for the next few days (or maybe a tad longer) to meet a critical deadline. Trouble is, you discover that while some people are working feverishly to make sure the team meets the deadline, others are adamant that they are not willing to sacrifice their personal lives — again.
During your weekly team status meeting, the tension is palpable. Those who are working long days and nights are sniping at those who won’t. Meanwhile, those who put in their eight hours, and not a minute more, seem incredulous that others expect them to sacrifice their personal time. (“I never signed on for this,” says one. “I have a life!”)
Until now, your team has no explicit norms about addressing workload imbalance. Clearly, it’s time to create some before people leap across the virtual table in frustration. Where should a virtual leader (or any leader, for that matter) begin?
This is a challenge I pose to participants of my “Rituals and Rhythms of Virtual Teams” Virtual Leadership series. My classes have come up with so many great tips, that I wanted to share some of them with my readers. In some cases, I have paraphrased, embellished or otherwise built upon their terrific ideas, which I offer here:
- Set expectations right up front for all team members as to how many hours are realistically needed from each team member at the start of a given week (or at the end of the last one). Ask each person, preferably in a team setting, if they can make that commitment. If not, you may need to either rescope the collective work, or ask some people if they can pick up the slack left by those who can’t commit to working the needed number of hours at this time. Reward those who agree to pinch-hit for others. (See last bullet for more.) Of course, anyone joining the team needs a realistic appraisal of the demands of the job before signing on, assuming they have a choice.
- Reinforce the notion of mutual accountability. Since your team members are working toward a shared goal, make it clear that everyone is accountable for contributing their fair share. If some team members feel they cannot (or will not) step up to the plate in equal measure during peak times, you need to determine whether this is an exceptional situation, or perhaps, whether the true demands make this job a poor fit.
- Ask people to make every attempt to address their concerns with other team members privately, as a first step. Encourage honesty and clarity as to how the behavior of the other person is affecting one’s own work. For example, John may not be aware that if he leaves his piece of the project undone as of Friday at 6 PM, Greta will have to work an extra four hours this weekend to finish up John’s work, before starting on her own. Conversely, they may discover by talking it through that if John puts in just a half-hour extra time on Friday to complete a key task, Greta will be able to get her work done over the weekend, and John can finish up his Monday morning.
- Recalibrate the overall work of the team to make sure that working excessive hours is not the norm. Scope creep is inevitable, especially when resources are constrained and pressure to deliver is high. If you find that any team members are continually expected to work overly long hours to meet the demands of the work, as team leader, you need to make some decisions to change the dynamic. For example, you may need to renegotiate the workload with your manager or client, or request additional resources, even if only for crunch time. You might also consider how best to reallocate the overall workload, either by shifting tasks, or by shifting the sequence or duration of activities.
- Give team members a say in determining how best to balance the workload. Most people like to feel they’re pulling their own weight, and few people will knowingly inconvenience their teammates. Set up regular team discussions to proactively review goals, deliverables, workloads, interdependencies, and likely stress points. Encourage team members to decide how best to work together to meet current demands. For example, it might be possible to break up deliverables into smaller chunks, or to skip one task and cycle back later. Which processes can be streamlined? Which work can safely be omitted? Left to their own devices, team members usually do a remarkable job coming up with equitable solutions that restore harmony.
- Build in a “workload assessment” conversation into every 1:1 meeting. Some people just aren’t willing to speak up in a team setting, especially if they fear they’re alone in their struggles. Remind yourself to do this with a list of questions on hand to start off or end each meeting. Examples: To what extent do you feel confident that you can complete X by Friday without having to put in crazy hours? Is there a way another team member can take a piece of your work? Can we figure out how to rescope or reschedule at least part of your work so you can avoid putting in an unreasonable amount of extra time? How important is this work in the scheme of things? Encourage team members to come to the table with options to explore with you when the workload threatens to become untenable.
- Separate the “urgent” from the truly important. Many people classify requests as “urgent” simply because they haven’t managed their own time well, or because they have an inflated sense of the relative importance of their work compared to others’. Encourage team members to examine which work is truly important in the scheme of things, and which “urgent” matters can be safely put on the back-burner until the important stuff is attended to. Make sure they know you have their backs if they must defend their priorities to those making the requests.
- Examine work habits. This is easier said than done when you can’t observe day-to-day routines firsthand. If you suspect that someone is putting in extra hours needlessly due to inefficient work habits or a lack of understanding about how to use certain tools, have them walk you through the aspects of their work that seem to be eating up the most time. Brainstorm alternatives together as you go along. Sometimes it just takes talking it through with another person to reveal “a-ha” ideas for saving time or short-circuiting protracted processes. It may also be the case that this person simply has a problem with time management in general, which can be addressed a number of different ways.
- Define what “out-of-office” means to your team. Be clear about what issues warrant intrusion during regular off-hours and weekends. Under what circumstances can someone be interrupted when taking personal time off, or on vacation or home sick? Set up a “triage” system within your team, so other team members are able to pinch-hit for those who are unavailable, whether planned or unplanned. Keep a shared calendar that shows major deliverables by person, as well as planned time off.
- Cross-train and cross-pollinate. Enable team members to stretch into other areas by giving them the skills, tools and knowledge they need. Encourage frequent conversations among members most likely to share tasks, and set up periodic “lessons learned” sessions to make cross-pollination and informal cross-training easier.
- Reward and recognize those who consistently go above and beyond. For starters, make sure to bestow genuine gratitude, both privately and publicly, for heroic efforts. Reward the hard workers with time off (with no interruptions allowed for work!) from time to time. A caveat: If there are one or two people who consistently stand out for their tireless work, it may be a sign that you need to load-balance the work across the team.
At any given time, some people may be called on to do more, or work longer, than others. Sometimes this inequity is unavoidable, due to the roles people play or a particular phase of a given project. In other cases, a thoughtful allocation of work up front might help prevent workload imbalance. Whatever the reason, when workloads are out of whack, it’s time to create some team norms to help apportion work across the team. It can do wonders to restore harmony, if not create perfect equity, and makes for a stronger, happier team.
See related past issues of Communique: Tilt Work-Life Balance in Your Favor in a 24×7 World, Drive Out Distractions and Reclaim Your Time, and Give and Get What You Bargained for with Clear Agreement That Make Sense.
Global Business Speaks English – Harvard Business Review, May 2012
Workers, Take Off Your Headphones – Anne Kreamer, Harvard Business Review blog – April 30, 2012