If you have an employee who tells you that her workload is too high or who can’t get through everything on her plate, in some cases you’ll know pretty quickly that she’s right; you’ll be able to see for yourself that the workload is indeed overwhelming. But in other cases, you might not feel quite so sure. If your gut is telling you that the workload should be manageable but your employee is insisting that it’s not, how can you figure out what’s really going on?
These steps will help you assess whether a team member’s workload is indeed unrealistically high or whether the issue might be something else (such as a need for better systems or more training or a performance problem).
1. Think about what you’ve seen other employees in similar roles do. If you have other employees in similar roles or have managed people in the role before your current employee came on board, looking at what workload they’ve been able to manage will give you an excellent source of data about what level of productivity is reasonable to expect. Of course, you should be sure to factor in any significant differences; the productivity of the person three years ago probably isn’t a good metric if the job has expanded significantly since that time. But looking to what others have been able to achieve in a similar context is a good way to inform your thinking about what you’re able to expect.
2. Pay attention to the pieces that you are able to confidently assess. You might not be able to get into the weeds on everything your employee does, but she probably has at least a few responsibilities that you are very familiar with. If you know from those projects that she has a strong work ethic, works efficiently, has good judgment, and is resourceful in solving problems, you can probably extrapolate from that knowledge to trust her judgment on the rest of her work. On the other hand, if those pieces seem off, it’s reasonable to conclude that the rest may be too.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Sit down with your employee and really dig in to what the workload looks like. How long does each type of project that she’s responsible for take? Why? How is her time getting allocated? What roadblocks is she running into? By asking these types of questions, you might discover that work is taking much longer because your staff member is dependent on another department that moves very slowly (and then you might be able to address that with them), or that there are excellent and unavoidable reasons that projects take longer than you thought they would, or any number of other insights.
Note that in having this conversation, you’ll get the best results if you don’t put your employee on the defensive. Make sure to convey that you want to collaboratively problem-solve; this isn’t a “gotcha.”
4. Ask about trade-offs. In talking with your employee, make a point of asking whether there are trade-offs that could allow work to be accomplished more quickly. For example, you might find out that 85% of a project can be accomplished quickly but the other 15% takes much longer, and it might be reasonable to handle that 15% differently (streamlining it, pushing it back, or even cutting it entirely). Or you might find that there are other shortcuts your employee could be taking, or that there are places where “good enough” would be sufficient and where perfection isn’t necessary, but that she didn’t realize that would be okay with you. Managers often assume that employees will point out potential shortcuts or ways to streamline a project on their own, but employees often figure that if those shortcuts were an option, you would have said so earlier.
If you do the four things above, you should end up with significantly more data to inform your thinking, and should be much better positioned to assess whether your backlogged employee is indeed facing an unrealistic workload or whether there are other issues to resolve.