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Work life matters: Workload challenges

I went to a Micky Flanagan comedy gig last night. His opener was “thanks for coming ‘out-out’ on a Tuesday. I guess you lot are all working from home tomorrow then”. Big laughs but it may have touched a nerve or two for some people.

People are sensitive when it comes to being questioned about their professionalism. Most will proudly claim they can deliver on their workload requirements irrespective of where they are doing that work. Trust me that I’m not skiving. Measure output not input.

The idea that people can carry out their jobs from home was almost unheard of 20 years ago. The pandemic changed all that of course. Being in the office isn’t essential for the completion of some key tasks any more. I’ll return to the hybrid working discussion in a future article. For now let’s go back one step.

This month, let’s talk about workloads.

Job design means that your employer has created a role and a job description which they believe keeps you busy for the duration of your day/week. How busy they want to make you is a choice. Some employers will drive a very hard bargain and pile up the workload to astronomical levels. Other employers deliberately build in some breathing space into the job description to allow time for thinking, innovation, and development. Some law firms who use six-minute time periods may also incorporate a code for this kind of activity.

What I’ve learnt from years of working with professional services firms is that when people moan about their workload, there are normally three key factors at play.

Hamster, Swiss Army Knife, Personal Butler.

  • Volume of Work – it’s not what they are being asked to do, it’s how much of that thing they are being asked to do. It’s just a massive pile of tasks which never seems to be reduced – a constant topping up. It never feels like you are making progress. It feels like a hamster-wheel.

The thrill of concluding a matter or finishing a piece of work is very short lived as you realise that the one thing you’ve just ticked off your to-do list has now been replaced by a brand new piece of (very similar) work.

  • Support – sometimes this is down to team headcount (“we haven’t got enough people in the right roles to do this work”). People are forced into taking up the slack and sharing the extra work around whilst the organisation recruits someone into the gap. And then of course, there’s the new recruit’s training period when they’re not quite up to speed. All of that additional workload takes its toll.
  • Support can also mean admin support. The ratio of support staff to fee earners isn’t quite right. People in roles who support the fee earners are just overwhelmed with workload themselves. The support staff suffer. The fee earner suffers by having to carry out tasks which would ideally be handled by the support staff. People are forced into doing tasks which they can do (they do have the tool/parts to complete the task), but just because they can be flexible and multi-functional doesn’t mean they should be.
  • Speed – this workload pressure comes from the rate at which work needs to be carried out (service levels). Sometimes this is poor job design with unrealistic parameters – e.g. me writing this article in five minutes (that’s never going to happen!). Sometimes this comes from internal or external customers who have unworkable deadlines. We’ve all met the client who think they are the only person you’ll be talking to today and their work is the only thing in your in-tray.

For them, their choice to instruct you (your firm) to work on their matter means that they feel they have some kind of ownership or first call on your services. It’s a tricky conversation to have with a new client to explain that you have another seven or 70 clients all active at the same time. You aren’t their personal butler. You’re there to serve their needs, but you have other customers in your restaurant too!

So, if you’re concerned about your workload, which persona is your biggest challenge? Are you Hamster, Swiss Army Knife or Butler? No doubt you will encounter all three gripes at some point, but my view is that people tend to have one default position. This will vary for people in different role types (and with different levels of experience).

Everyone will have workload ups and downs at certain times. This may be a regular seasonal thing in your role (e.g. month-end tasks mean you have a mad week). Or it may be less predictable. Either way, when people are under severe workload pressure, it’s not healthy. Their performance will suffer. Mistakes will be more likely. Their mental health may take a nosedive. People are resilient and can put up with workload challenges for a short period – IF they can see a way out of the woods. But if the workload challenges they are facing seem unlikely to subside, then we are in dangerous territory.

Two things you can do next

  1. For staff – start with being selfish. Ask yourself how long-term the current workload pressure will last. If you can see how and when this will be resolved, then make a judgement as to whether you can cope with the increased pressure for that amount of time. Whatever you decide, talk to your line manager about your thoughts. Tell them that you are feeling under extra pressure right now (talk about volume, support or speed) and explain that your view is that this will change by <insert date> because of <reason X>. You demonstrating self-awareness and that you’ve carefully considered the situation is important.
  2. For line-managers – don’t be too defensive. Yes, we know that you’re under pressure from above to deliver on both your own targets and those of your team. You’re trying your best to not overly burden your team with workload. You’re juggling requirements for volume, support and speed. It may feel like you can’t win. The natural response is to become defensive here. Whilst there is value in explaining your situation to your team, it’s vital that you keep them onside. Understand what their #1 issue actually is and do what you can to prioritise the challenges that this angle brings. Talk to the team. Get agreement as to whether you should be solving issues of volume, support or speed first. Make a plan together. No-one will expect you to have all the answers tomorrow. Take baby steps to make progress.

Rich Lambert is the founder of Morale Solutions Ltd. He specialises in helping professional services firms create brilliant workplaces through bespoke research and data-driven strategies.

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