One of the most important jobs of a manager is to control the natural ebb and flow of work to strike a balance between idle time and burnout. The notion that people cannot endlessly toil without a break is well understood. And yet, especially in high tech, there are countless organizations whose employees compare their work environments to sweat shops. Why does this happen, and what should you be doing as a manager to control workload?

Not all employees are the same

The first thing to realize is that not all employees are the same. I know most peoples’ first reaction to that sentence is to roll your eyes, but think for a moment whether most of your managers meaningfully adjust how work is doled out. Do they manage deadlines on a per-person basis? Do they even understand the individual differences in their employees’ capacity to get work done?

The vast majority of managers don’t really know how much load individual employees can shoulder. In the best case, this means that a lot of employees are under-utilized. In the worst case, managers find out at the worst possible moment that they have overloaded someone. But how do you gauge employee capacity for work?

Learning your employees’ limits

Over the years, as new employees join my teams, I tell them up front that I am going to load them up, task by task, until they break. I let them know that the expected outcome is that something will be dropped. There is no judgment in dropping something, so this is not an evaluation. I just need to know how far I can push someone before they break.

Over 6-8 weeks, I will assign individual tasks. There is usually no shortage of work to be done. There is always some hygiene work that you know should have been done months ago but went unaddressed because of more pressing issues. I assign these types of tasks, one at a time but overlapping in deadlines.

While I do this, I will check in with the employee everyday, but I tend to not offer a lot of proactive help in managing the projects. By chatting frequently, I get a feel for overall demeanor. Does the individual sound energized? Weighed down? Stressed? Fatigued? Focused? Nonchalant?

And then I start watching the deadlines. Are the intermediate checkpoints hit? Are the end dates on track? Is the quality of work good? Are there any gaps in execution? By paying careful attention, you start to get a feel for how many and what type projects can be done.

You also get a good view into whether the individual is someone who will ask for help or fail silently. A lot of people believe right up until they drop something that they will be able to pull through. It could be that they have never failed before, or maybe their ego won’t let them admit failure. Whatever the reason, this is the most dangerous behavior for a team. By sniffing it out early, you can intentionally foster a more open atmosphere where asking for help is not a sign of weakness.

By doing all of this in a controlled setting, you will be in a better position to predict how your team will perform under deadline duress. And by performing the same basic exercises for each individual on the entire team, you will understand with a lot more precision and certainty the differences between employees. This is instructive when balancing critical tasks on an already burdened team.

Putting this information to use

But how do you use this information to better manage workload for your team?

Most managers don’t really manage workload. Rather, they distribute deadlines. A project comes in, they delegate the work to someone. The challenge when operating in this type of environment is that your team is always under some kind of deadline pressure. You ever wonder why people talk about the proverbial treadmill or hamster wheel at work? It’s because there is always another deadline. As an individual, it means you are always running. Once you get on the treadmill, you never get off.

Burnout doesn’t happen when you have one deadline. It happens when you have one deadline after another after another. So when you expose your team to this kind of deadline-driven workload management, you are basically playing chicken with peoples’ burnout threshold. If you don’t know where they break, how do you know how far you can push?

The answer is that you can’t. You are basically flying blind if you manage your team this way. The issue with flying blind is that it works fine…until it doesn’t. And then it’s too late.

You need to be aware of how hard and over what duration you are pushing your team. It is ok to ask people to step up for key deadlines, but be aware of how those deadlines are stacking up. Are individuals getting time to recuperate? Or are they constantly moving from one project to the next? In cultures where PTO is not taken regularly (read: the entire US), people cannot be expected to regulate themselves. The desire in employees to serve is strong, and many employees will drive themselves to exhaustion. Your job as a manager is to help make sure that doesn’t happen.

Avoiding burnout

That is sometimes easier said than done. If you are not used to pushing work back upstream, you might not be capable of providing a break for employees. You have to develop the discipline and confidence to allow employees to catch their breath when they need to. This might mean leaving them without a real project for 3-4 weeks at a time. Our instincts are to keep our people working, but it is sometimes necessary to lighten the load.

All of this takes practice and communication. You need to be communicating bidirectionally with your team to get feedback on where people are mentally, emotionally, and intellectually. You also need to be talking to your boss so that you can throttle work at the source. Does you boss, for instance, manage his team deadline-to-deadline? You might find that opening this kind of dialogue has benefits for far more than just your team.

[Today’s fun fact: Snails can sleep for 3 years without eating. I think I have enough padding to do something similar!]