Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
December 15, 2021 · 12 min read

Team workload management: How to avoid your team feeling overwhelmed

Team workload management: How to avoid your team feeling overwhelmed

On paper, managing projects seems like a straightforward process. Define your scope, break it down into manageable tasks, and assign them to your team. However, anyone who’s actually managed a project knows this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Instead, project managers are masters at juggling multiple priorities, personalities, and projects.

At any given moment, you need to know what matters most to your business and your customers? How do you get the best outcomes from your projects? How do you use your resources wisely without burning out your best people? How do you engage and get the most out of your underperformers?

Keeping your project machine operating smoothly is a challenge. So, what’s the secret to maintaining your heavy workload without your team feeling overwhelmed? Workload management.

In this guide:

What is workload management?

Workload management is the process of assigning a sustainable and fair workload across your entire team to maximize their time and energy each day efficiently.

Think of it like carrying water from a river. You want to fill each container up just enough, so each trip is effective without tiring your crew out too much to keep going. Not only that, but you want to pick the right people for each job. Stronger people can carry bigger buckets, while others might be more suited to keeping the path clear or tracking the work.

You need to similarly know each team member's strengths and weaknesses to maximize their time each day in the workplace. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

When you need water (or code) now, it’s easy to rely on high-performers or teammates you know will always say yes. But uneven workload management leads to burnout, resentment, and all sorts of other risks that can impact your project’s success and the health of your team.

Instead, effective workload management is an art and a science. It requires you to properly scope projects, break them down into tasks, estimate time and effort, and know which teammates are best suited and available for each one.

Workload management is an art. And sometimes art gets messy.

Why is managing workloads so important?

From a project perspective, workload management ensures you properly utilize your human resources, stick to your project schedule, and hit deadlines. Which is pretty much the essence of your job!

However, workload management also plays a vital role in defining your team dynamics and keeping everyone productive, motivated, and engaged for the long term. As productivity expert Julie Morgenstern explains:

“If you overwork your high performers, you will lose them because they start to resent the fact that they’re doing more. [And] if you’re taking away work from people who are slower, they’re going to lose interest.”

Finding that balance is no small task. However, the results are worth it. Proper workload management has several benefits, including:

Improved productivity. Research shows most people are only productive for around 2 hours and 48 minutes a day. When you properly manage workloads, you ensure your team is making the most progress with their limited productive time each day.

Increased likelihood of project success. Every project is limited by the triple constraints of time, budget, and scope. By properly managing workloads, you create more ‘wiggle room’ for your project’s time, which can help you reduce the budget and meet the scope.

Boosts motivation and creates a sense of belonging. Workload management can even bring your team together and reduce turnover rates. It’s well established that we feel motivated when our daily tasks align with our personal goals, needs, and skills (this is what HR professionals call job crafting).

Lowers stress. In an ideal world, we would all have the perfect amount of work and tasks each day to match our availability, skills, and personal obligations. Yet, a survey of agency workers found that 74% say they’re overbooked on projects at least once a month! Workload management ensures your team has a realistic amount of work and isn’t heading towards burnout.

Evens the playing field for team and cross-team collaboration. Time spent collaborating on projects has ballooned more than 50% in the past decade. Unfortunately, one study found that 20–35% of the value in collaborations comes from just 3–5% of the participants. An overlooked aspect of workload management is how it allows you to utilize the right people for each task, so they’re not stuck feeling like they’re picking up the slack.

Team vs. personal workload management

Workload management happens on two levels:

  1. As a manager, you’re concerned with how much work you can give each person on your team to hit your goals while also maximizing their unique skills.
  2. As an individual, you’re trying to hit your assigned goals while balancing everything else that’s going on in your life (and without burning out!)

However, too much advice treats these as separate issues. If you’re pushing the boundaries of what’s possible for your team, no amount of personal ‘productivity hacks’ will change that.

All this is to say that defining workloads can’t be solely a top-down function. You need constant feedback from the people doing the work to understand whether you’re taking on too much work, improperly estimating tasks, or pushing the scope.

For advice on making the most out of your day, check out our guide on How to Become a More Productive Software Engineer.

7 steps to master team workload management

Properly managing workloads can be overwhelming. When stakeholders send over a new project or a critical teammate gets sick when you’ve already got a full plate, it can feel like a gust of wind heading for your house of cards.

Yet, like all other aspects of running a project, workload management is a process.

By following a few key steps and utilizing your other project management skills, you can maximize your team’s time and energy while lowering the risk of mismanaging your workload.

1. Take stock of your team’s total workload

Managing your team’s workload starts by understanding expectations. Unfortunately, with work scattered across different briefs, project plans, tools, and even teams, it can be hard to know how much is really on their plates.

First, pull together a full list of projects your team is responsible for. Look through your shared project management tool to see the tasks your team is directly responsible for as well as any cross-functional ones they’re contributing to.

A project management tool like Planio is great for understanding expectations as everything is in one place. You can quickly view all active projects and subprojects, check in on your product roadmap, and check task dependencies on a Gantt Chart.

Overview of projects and sub projects

Then, it’s time to determine or update the scope of each project. Are these large multi-milestone projects? Or one-sprint feature updates?

If you’ve done the work to properly scope and estimate projects, this shouldn’t take long. However, it’s worth it to check back on your previous plans and make sure the timing still makes sense.

Now, break down each project into smaller groups of tasks, sprints, or packages of work.

With a big-picture view of your team’s workload, it’s time to break it down into smaller chunks. Think of this as a task hierarchy with your project at the top followed by each phase, deliverable, or milestone, and then groups of tasks underneath.

This is called a work breakdown structure and there are a few different methods you can use to visualize it:

  1. Work breakdown list: The simplest way to break down your workload is in list form. Start with your project and then use different levels of bullet-points to include deliverables and tasks.
  2. Gantt Charts: You can use a Gantt chart to view your work breakdown on a timeline and see any task dependencies. Gantt charts are a good option if you already have your tasks and projects in a tool like Planio as you can view them with one click!
  3. Work breakdown flowchart: Finally, for an easier-to-read method, use a flowchart visualizing the work hierarchy. A flowchart is a better option when you have multiple phases or deliverables where a list would be too messy.
    Work Breakdown Flowchart
    Source: Wrike.com

A work breakdown structure is a good way to visualize your workload. However, remember that this is for high-level planning. Don’t get too involved with planning and assigning individual tasks yet.

2. Set a buffer for more realistic capacity planning

Understanding your total workload shines a light on expectations. Now, you need to see if those expectations match your reality.

In other words: Does your team have the capacity and bandwidth to deliver on what’s expected of them?

In the most basic sense, this type of ‘capacity planning’ involves looking at your team’s available hours to calculate the maximum amount of work they can do in a given period. For example, if the total work breakdown from the previous requires 60+ hours a week per teammate, you’ve got a problem.

However, your team’s capacity isn’t just raw hours. You also need to consider:

  1. Regular availability: Is your team made up of full-time, part-time, or contract employees? Are there maximum and minimum amounts of available hours you can account for?
  2. Holidays and sick days: What about scheduled or unscheduled time off? Can you make an educated guess on how many days they might miss in a given period?
  3. Admin and unproductive time: How much of your team’s day is taken up by meetings, upkeep, and other time spent on non-core work?

Once you’ve added up all these factors, add a buffer to account for any unknowns. A good rule of thumb is to set your capacity at a maximum of 80% of the total available hours each week.

Of course, not all planning is based on time. If your team uses story points or an effort score to estimate tasks, you’ll want to convert your capacity into those metrics.

Personal productivity is no replacement for poor workload management. If you’re giving your team too much work to begin with, they’ll never be able to keep up.

3. Make decisions about conflicting deadlines and dependencies

At this point you know what’s expected of your team and their capacity. In 99.99% of cases, these numbers won’t match up.

Instead, you’ll need to choose what’s a priority and what you can leave for later. Here’s a quick method you can use:

  1. List work in order of importance. Use your prioritization method of choice and then assign the top tasks first. This way, you know your resources are going to the right work.
  2. Balance start and due dates for each task. With your list of tasks, you can start scheduling them. A tool like Planio lets you easily track due dates, estimated time, and assignee so you can visualize how your tasks connect.
  3. Use team feedback to assign tasks. Roles and job titles only tell you so much about what your team is capable of. Make sure you talk to each person to understand their strengths and the bandwidth they have. However, be aware of the planning fallacy–our natural tendency to assume we can get more done in the time we have.
  4. Shift tasks or projects based on workload. Sometimes the ideal teammate isn’t available for a specific task. Or, your entire team is in crunch mode when a new project comes in. While you can’t always make workload planning go smoothly, knowing your team’s capacity, priorities, and goals can help you plan ahead.

Lastly, don’t assume your team always knows what’s expected of them. As software engineering manager Matt Schellhas writes:

“As your bag of stuff to do gets full, it becomes harder to pick out the best stuff to work on because you have so many options. Just keeping track of all that work is a continual cognitive burden.”

Use your project management tool to track deferred work, organize your product roadmap, and act as the single source of truth for what needs to get done.

4. Break down individual workloads

Only once you’ve gotten a clear breakdown of the big picture, priorities, and capacity should you start adding to your team’s workload.

This is where you switch from project management to people management.

Break down individual workloads

Dividing up responsibilities requires a purposeful plan. You know what you’re trying to achieve. Now, who are your players? What tasks are they best suited to? Who needs development or help in specific areas?

As Rebecca Knight writes in HBR:

“An important part of your job as a manager is making sure everyone on your team has the right amount of work. It’s tempting to give the workhorse more projects than others (especially if she’ll get them done the fastest) or to ease up on someone who is struggling, but you also need to be fair.”

However, allocating tasks isn’t just about being fair. It’s also about developing your team. If you’re only worried about hitting short-term goals and keep giving tasks to the same high-achievers, you’ll be in a bad spot when they’re busy (or leave).

Instead, use resource planning to find gaps in your team’s talent. If you end up with a task and no ‘best’ person to take it on, bring it to your team. Maybe someone has experience you weren’t aware of or a keen interest in learning that skill.

For more on how to break down projects and assign tasks, check out our In-Depth Guide to Task Management.

5. Check in with regular one-on-ones

Workload management is an art. And sometimes art gets messy.

Even if you’ve spent enough time planning and assigning tasks, there will come times where you need to make adjustments to hit deadlines or pivot priorities.

Regular one-on-ones are critical to understanding if your team is still motivated and feeling good about hitting their goals.

Here are a few example questions you can ask to help understand how your team feels about their workload, personal capacity, and team processes:

  1. Do you feel overworked, underworked, or just the right workload?
  2. What part of your job do you wish you didn’t have to do?
  3. What’s the first thing you do when you start work?
  4. How many hours a day do you feel you’re productive? How can I help you become more productive?
  5. What are the biggest time wasters for you each week?
  6. How could we change our team meetings to be more effective?
  7. When was the time you enjoyed working here the most?

And what do you do when you discover that someone is taking on too much (or too little)? Here are a few suggestions on how to deal with common scenarios:

Who it’s for
What to do
For the person who can’t say no 👉
Show them you recognize how much work they’re taking on. Explain why you’re assigning something to them and then ask them what else they have going on and what they feel can be dropped.
For the person who’s struggling to keep up 👉 Be honest about what you’re seeing and ask how you can help, whether that’s through coaching or reassignment.
For your star who always wants more 👉 High-performers often want more work, more exposure, and more opportunities. But to build your team’s capacity, you need more than just a select few. Explain why you’re not assigning them a critical role and ask them to support or mentor the person you have. Involving them in the project can often be enough to keep them happy.

6. Coach teammates to be more efficient and effective

Heavy workloads are the norm on most teams. And even your best performers need help managing and getting the most out of their days.

If you feel like you’ve calculated capacity and workload properly yet still missing deadlines, here are a few ways to help your team be more efficient:

  1. Try a time audit to see where their time is going. Distractions and ‘half-work’ can eat up your day if you’re not careful. Ask your team to spend a week documenting what they’re doing each hour to see if they’re spending enough time on high-priority tasks.
  2. Schedule ‘meeting-free’ days. Executives spend an average of nearly 23 hours a week in meetings. Give your team days where they know they won’t be interrupted and can focus on critical tasks.
  3. Ask what you can take off their plate. Are there lingering tasks that can be delegated or deleted? Check-in regularly to see what’s staying at the bottom of their to-do list.

Remember, personal productivity is no replacement for poor workload management. If you’re giving your team too much work to begin with, they’ll never be able to keep up.

7. Get visibility with the right workload management tools

Workload management is one of the best use cases for a project management tool. It’s impossible to know what’s expected of your team, who’s doing what, and if you’re on track to hit your goals if you can’t see everything in one place.

Planio gives you an overall view of your project either as an Agile board, Gantt Chart, or even issue list or calendar. This way you can get a quick view of everything that’s on your plate and needs to be assigned.

You can also filter issues by assignee, sprint, or even % done to see who is taking on too much work, whether you’ve added an unrealistic amount of work to a sprint or milestone, or if a project is being stalled by unfinished work and dependencies.

Gantt Chart showing issus filtered to meyself and their dependencies

For example, you might be checking your burndown chart and see that you’re not on track to complete a sprint on time. You can then filter all issues associated with that sprint to see which ones are open, who they’re assigned to, and what percent of completion they’re at.

This level of detailed information will let you pinpoint where you need to rethink your workload management process and unblock your team.

Understanding your total workload shines a light on expectations, so those expectations need to match reality.

3 best practices for managing workloads on remote teams

Managing your team’s workload is a challenge during the best of times. But, with more teams working from home, it has become a critical project management skill.

Checking in isn’t as easy as popping by someone’s desk for a quick chat. And work-from-home guilt can make teammates feel compelled to work longer hours, take on more than they can reasonably do, and sacrifice work-life balance.

As a remote manager, there are a few ways you can help:

While workload management is a process, when it comes to remote teams, it’s just as much about culture. Give your team the freedom to work when it makes sense to them, and make sure they know you recognize the work they put in.

Workload management is about more than just managing time

The easiest way to manage your team’s workload is to fall back on time management. Break down your sprints into individual tasks, estimate how long they should take, and then divvy up the responsibilities. But that’s too simplistic of an approach.

Your team is made up of individuals with their own unique strengths, weaknesses, and passions. The more time you take to understand how they fit into the intricate puzzle of your company and product, the happier and more productive you all will be.