How to handle high workloads

10 May 11
Budget cuts mean that managers' workloads are increasing – and most of us need to stop and think seriously about what we are doing and why. Ann McFadyen and Brendan McCarron explain how you can improve your ways of working

1 May 2011

By Ann McFadyen and Brendan McCarron

Budget cuts mean that managers’ workloads are increasing – and most of us need to stop and think seriously about what we are doing and why. Ann McFadyen and Brendan McCarron explain how you can improve your ways of working

Managing work and time priorities is not just a matter of dealing with the volume of work you do and the time you spend doing it, you also have to deal with your own approach to work.

Many of us really enjoy our work and happily put in long hours. However, workloads have been getting larger in recent years. At some point all of us need to take stock and check that in the time we are working, we are doing the right thing and not mistaking activity for productivity.

Leaders especially need to make sure that their work habits, which will become the norm that their staff aspire to, balance work priorities appropriately. 

Below are the ten stages of change that work-addicts need to go through to adopt a more balanced approach.

1) Motivation to change is important

If you do not see that your workload is a problem, you will not change your habits. Add to your workload a temporary task of analysing areas such as: the time you spend working; the sources of work; who the customers are and what they want; and the impact of your work on the things you really like doing. Look for things that, if you saw them in your own staff, would concern you. For instance, you might find that you are mixing up activity with productivity; doing things that others could do; or putting things off until the last moment.

2) Keep an eye on your hours

Now you have got your own attention, you have to maintain it. Challenge any thoughts that things have to be the way they are, that you have to do what you do because it is expected of you. Look about you at senior colleagues who are respected and yet do not feel the need to be in the office at all hours. Hours worked is not an absolute necessity to have the respect of senior colleagues, so take time to think through why you keep telling yourself that it is.

3) See how other people manage their workloads

Look for examples of how other senior people manage their workloads – or do a search on Google or Amazon for information on systems and approaches for work and time management that might suit you. If you have not got the time to do this, go back to the analysis you did in the first place and remind yourself why you have to start changing.

4) Check what is needed and when

The best techniques are built on the principles of always knowing why you are doing a piece of work and what the recipients actually need from you. A lot of the work we do has a hazy purpose that tends to make us second-guess what the recipients need and, in doing so, over-engineer it. So, ask the people who expect regular work from you what they really need and when they really need it. Getting this regular work sorted will, at the very least, leave you more time for sorting the unexpected urgent stuff that always comes up.  

5) Make a plan

Start making a plan for putting the ideas you have picked up into action. Do make it easy to achieve your plan, give yourself plenty of time and do not create false deadlines (the cause of a lot of excessive workload in the first place).

6) Retrain your staff too

You will have to ‘train’ the people who you pass your work to and that send work to you to adapt to your new ways of working. For example, they might be used to receiving emails from you after they have gone home and having to respond before they get into work the next day. It will take some time for them to get used to empty inboxes after hours.

7) Don’t fall back into old ways

When you do start to change the way you work, you will find yourself tempted to fall back into your old ways. You might start telling yourself that your new approach will never work, that you will be laughed out of the top-table club or that people will think you have gone ‘soft’. Be prepared. Get ready to counter your own doubts: focus on the advantages to you of changing; keep in mind examples of people you respect who manage their work priorities better; and remind yourself that you have thought through new ways of working that will work for you and have a plan for putting them into action.

8) Be grown-up

Actually making changes to the way you work will be like what happened the first time you got on a two-wheeled bicycle – you fell off. Then there was a grown-up to kiss your knees better and encourage you to give it another go. Over a couple of days, you gradually stayed on longer and longer until, at last, you could ride properly. You have to be your own grown-up, constantly reminding yourself of why you are changing and that you are capable of doing it.

9) Acknowledge the changes you have made

After a couple of weeks, you will look back on the way you used to be as disbelievingly as you did when you looked back on your non-bicycle riding self. This is useful in that it means that you will probably not revert to your old ways (although, while it is hard to unlearn how to ride a bicycle, it is easier to gradually slide back to old habits of long hours of activity). You will easily forget how much thought, planning and effort went into your change of habit and the reversals along the way. This can be a problem if you then expect others to change the way they work as easily as your distorted memories tell you that you did.

10) Make the most of your new spare time

Once you are confident that you have embedded the change in your working habits, all you have to do is to decide how to spend all the time you have created in your working week. Of course, if you are a manager, this is a no-brainer. You should spend it helping your staff through the process you have just gone through and showing them that you do not expect them to work all the hours in the day and to mistake activity for productivity.

Ann McFadyen and Brendan McCarron  are respectively head of training & development and performance adviser at CIPFA Business Services. CIPFA runs various leadership courses and the CIPFA Leadership Academy programme

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