Help with basic management skill
November 27, 2020 11:22 PM   Subscribe

How do you make sure employees have enough to do without being a jerk?

I have been given a job at work of figuring out when we can accomplish work on time and when we need to go back to the customer with a delay, for several projects. I basically have no one to help me figure this out who isn’t either pushy or prone to throwing up their hands and asking for everything to be pushed back.

I am supposed to find the middle ground between these two approaches, by getting people to accept work when they truly have time and honestly saying no when they don’t. Some people are not accepting enough work. Others are cheerfully taking too much. Still others are behaving ambiguously.

I honestly have no idea how to sit everyone down and make sure that everyone gets a full amount without too much, especially when someone tells me something but they might not be right about their own workload. I have no idea how to follow up to that without seeming rude.

This is for work to be planned out over the next couple months. It is a sustainably-paced company so no one is being asked to take on more than about 30 hours a week of their time. I’m also conscious of being on the other side of the table as far as bargaining as I want to see my field unionized some day.

Thank you so much for any help or resources. I am so lost and yes, I realize it means I should probably have a different job, but that isn’t an option for me yet.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (10 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
At my work, they make every consultant submit an excel list every Friday. We write down, sorted by client, what tasks we expect to accomplish next week and how many hours we expect each task to take.

Client X
Check-in phone call with client / 0,5 hr
Draft of X Text / 3 hrs

The bottom cell adds the hours. If one person has more than they ought to (overtime) and the other one has less, the team lead will ask the first one to name a few tasks they can redistribute easily.

We've had that system forever, but I imagine it would be hard to introduce it completely out of the blue, because people would resist that amount of control. But it's really helpful to figure out my own workload. And the redistribution works.

I remember being new and used to independent work and so hating the concept. Until one day I had, like, 10 hours of work too many on my list, and my team lead redistributed the tasks I had named and my coworker, who was between tasks, cheerfully took them on. "We're a team, we're in this together", everyone assured me.

I think it would be useful for everyone, especially the ones who do to much, and you, to have their work load written out in black and white. Also, it gives you a good idea where problems arise. Consultant believes they need only an hour to write complicated 5 page text? No wonder they're always late in delivering!
posted by Omnomnom at 12:25 AM on November 28, 2020 [3 favorites]

Do staff know the priority of the different tasks on their plate? Do they feel like they have the authority to push back on the time line on the tasks already assigned? If the answer is no to one or both of those questions, then it will be difficult to pick up new assignments.

Once staff know the priority of the different tasks, then it is fair game to ask them to reprioritize work.

You might also want to schedule one on one meetings with staff to get a better understanding of their work load/ work flow.
posted by oceano at 1:10 AM on November 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

So I would start by making a base assumption of how many working hours you have from your coworkers. I always assume 80% of the time-- 20% usually gets occupied by HR, vacation, sick leave, meetings, etc.

Then calculate some standard assumptions for tasks. This would be something you could do as a group and might be a good way to get buy-in for making changes to the way you work.

Then when handing out work, start with the clean assumptions and work from there. "Joan, I see you are only 60% occupied after Wednesday. Can I hand you this Widget for LittleDogInc? It's basically just a Dweeble and then the standard package." It should be on your coworker to highlight while planning if they see anything which would make this Dweeble more or less complex than normal.

Then ask everyone for a weekly status report based on your scheduling sheet and if you can, you want to track:

hours used:
estimated hours to complete:
estimated total:

And then if there is a variance between the estimated total and the budget, it's a good idea to require they put in a bullet point or two as to why for follow up. Then I would have a weekly touch base on workload to see if work needs to be redistributed. Not a huge meeting, just a touch base.

This will take some time to get landed, but it should be a relief for everyone.
posted by frumiousb at 1:29 AM on November 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Be direct. This is both the kindest/most polite path and the most effective one, and is not pushy. If you believe someone isn't taking on enough work, then have a direct discussion with them in which you ask, directly but without accusation, "Given your workload I'd generally expect you to also be able to take on Projects B & C. Can you help me understand why you've turned them down?"Listen to the response with an open mind. Based on that response, your next response might be, "This is within the expectations of your role, you'll need to be able to take this additional work on, how can I best support getting you there?" or "Oh, I didn't know about that blocker! What can I do to help?" or "That makes sense, I'll tell the client we'll be delayed or ask someone else to do it."

Be similarly direct with the folks who are over-committing. "It's important to us as a company that you work at a sustainable pace, and I'm concerned you're taking on too much. How are you feeling about it?" And again, be open to hearing they're really okay with it (as long as it's not impacting the quality of their output, of course), but also to supporting them through reprioritizing or handing some projects off.

Adjust the wording based on your workplace culture and your own style, but don't adjust it so far you're waffling, sugarcoating, or otherwise being indirect and unclear. Even if your workplace expects managers to be more like servant leaders/empowers/coaches than traditional directive managers, it's still your job to help your team achieve the goals of the business, whether you tell them exactly how to get there or you tell them they have to get there and offer whatever support they need, if they ask for it.

All of this is not only crucial input to your decision about what work to prioritize and take on, but also (as you've noted) a foundation of effective management, and the sooner you get comfortable with it, the better you'll be at it.

This comes from my own management experience, which included years of having discussions with people about why they weren't meeting the throughput and quality metrics they were accountable for and still being well-liked by the team, but also I'm kinda channeling MeFi favorite Ask A Manager here. You might find it useful to either write in to her with this question, or read through the archives for similar situations from other letter-writers.
posted by rhiannonstone at 2:31 AM on November 28, 2020 [28 favorites]

I 100% agree with rhiannonstone.

In terms of tools though, do you have any kind of task or project tracking system going now? I don't necessarily mean a formal tool (I use Asana) but even just a whiteboard with sticky notes. You kind of stated two goals:

1. Knowing where things are at and when there might be delays - this is where a system might help.

2. Rebalancing work - this is where the individual conversations are critical.
posted by warriorqueen at 7:28 AM on November 28, 2020 [1 favorite]

Also what rhiannonstone said, except that the phrase “Can you help me understand why …?” almost always indicates irredeemable micromanaging jerk to me. It may shut down further cooperation. Maybe lead with asking about blockers.

Personally, I'd check on the folks cheerfully taking too much. If they're like those types I've worked with (and more than occasionally been, myself) their over-commitment can need lots of last-minute fixups from the rest of the team. And last-minute is absolutely not when you want to be dealing with that shit. Maybe ask them to check in on milestones so you can see how over-committed they are. They may be over committing just to be left alone (I know I do) so milestone checks may grate.

I'd also lead with the "The client has accepted a delay, but wants to quantify that delay, and since they are a (big|nice) client and we're a (conscientious|professional) company, how can this team deliver them the smallest reasonable delay?". It's difficult being a manager without coming across as the Big Boss.
posted by scruss at 9:30 AM on November 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

Yeah, you have to make this a team effort and ask for the help of the people involved, explaining what and why.

You are describing the number one primary challenge of consulting resource management. Part of the problem is that many people are TERRIBLE estimators - I am, I have 10+ years of managers cheerfully padding my estimates by 20-30% because I estimate like I live in a perfect world where nothing goes wrong and customers never make things complicated, no matter how hard I try to take those things into consideration.

But one of the other parts of the problem is that forecasting is imprecise, it just is, you can't make it not be. I can tell you on Friday to the best of my ability what I'm doing next week, but I can also guarantee you that a deadline's going to push (out of my control) or a crisis is going to arrive.

I just quit a job because we'd reached a point where the most important metric had become whether we matched THE FORECAST, all hail THE FORECAST, do not stick your fingers in the cage of THE FORECAST. So a) yes, forecasting is good and it helps you load balance b) the forecast will never be right because you're not using/working for robots, and a nimble organization is prepared for that.

Something you can also collect from your billable resources, even if only for your own data to use as ammunition later, is their gut-check on how solid they think those dates/hours are. A lot of the time you have a feeling, at least about stuff that's not really going to happen when everyone is planning for it to happen. You can't blame the resources for things changing.
posted by Lyn Never at 9:51 AM on November 28, 2020 [2 favorites]

There's great advice in this thread, I just wanted to add that the fact that you are asking this question is an indication that you might be a good person for this job! Doing this kind of thing correctly is difficult but a lot easier if you think about it the way you do and try to legitimately help your employees and organization. Basically no one knows how to "manage correctly" without being taught, and people who claim to be naturals at it are often horrible micromanagers. Good luck, you might find that you are able to learn quicker than you thought.
posted by JZig at 12:34 PM on November 28, 2020 [4 favorites]

(Lyn Never's anecdote about being in thrall to The Forecast sticks in my memories of dysfunctional office years.)
posted by ovvl at 2:13 PM on November 28, 2020

I think you have to be willing to be perceived as a jerk, because the people who don't accept enough tasks are going to think that when they get assigned more. Part of adulting, and a drag, but that's how it plays out.
posted by theora55 at 2:22 PM on November 28, 2020

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