How to help overworked team?

Vidas Vasiliauskas ·

2019 - Present Co-founder and CEO @ Teamhood. 2015-2019 Head of software engineering department at Danske Bank. 2017-2018 Partner Associate Professor at Vilnius University. Lecturer of Software Architecture course 2011 - 2015 Managed numerous smaller IT teams at Prewise. Co-founder of RaveIT, Eylean, No Brakes Games Certified Agile product owner and practitioner. Managed large scale enterprise projects as well as launch of small startup products. MSc of Software Engineering at Vilnius University. Hobbies: Racing, MTB cycling, Windsurfing

overworked team

Overloaded, demotivated, tired, angry and many more tragic words can define how people in an overwhelming environment feel. In this post I will describe the path towards a high performing team from the one that is struggling. All examples and ideas are based on real practical experience and of course – mistakes.

Teams can be quite different in any way, yet all teams go through team development cycles and the only difference between them is how fast a team can go from forming to performing. A good sign of a formed team are well defined communication patterns. Read more about them in our asynchronous communication guide.

Symptoms of an overworked team

Sometimes we can make false assumptions that a team is overloaded, so in here I define a list which should not be limited to the symptoms described. Also we tend to think that it is only about people management, while in reality it involves all the fundamental building pieces of any team – culture, policies and tools. So let’s go through a symptoms checklist and see if we can recognize an overworked team?

Deadlines are rarely met

Simple one, but hurts the most when you need to deliver bad news to your peers, customers or partners. Just be careful here – missing few deadlines might not conclude that it is already a symptom of overwhelmed team. Constantly missing deadlines month over month is the true symptom.

People are stressed

If you ask someone for help or advice regarding your own work and they are stressed about it or instantly go defesnive mode – that could be another symptom of an overwhelmed team.

The loudest screaming things get done first

By observing team work backlog priorities, you might notice that they tend to jump on tasks which are screaming the loudest. This is quite unhealthy and a firm sign of limited control over work assignments.

Every day fire-fight

Not all teams which are fire-fighting are overwhelmed, but all overwhelmed teams are fire-fighting for sure. And it happens systematically month over month. Another clear signal is that overwhelmed team spends more time fire-fighting than doing actual work.

High attrition rate

Such teams tend to have significantly higher attrition rate compared to well performing teams. This hurts team performance and everyone’s else who are relying on the work the team does. It can even lead to significant business risks. Fixing this situation is also among the hardest ones.

Main root causes

Work arrives via multiple channels

This is the most common issue based on my experience. People call via phone, send emails, write slack messages, create tickets in support systems or just drop-by your desk to ask for favors, request new work, push for priorities etc. etc. This is the performance killer no. 1 in my list.

High number of interrupts

Team work cycle gets easily and often interrupted, which causes dramatic individual and team level performance degradations. You can read more about effects of synchronous communication.

No formal prioritization process

If you ask at least few people in the team how they priortize work and either no one knows the answer or everyone answers differently – it is trouble. It means there is no formal, well defined prioritization process which can shield the team from poor planning and external forces.

No formal work process

Same as above, if you ask few members of the team and no one can clearly describe how works is done, how they know that work is done, how they identify good quality of work spec versus bad quality spec – trouble.

No formal external communication lines and points of contact

This is heavily related to no. 1 root cause. If team cannot define who are the points of contact or means of communication with the team for all external actors – trouble. External actors will make that decission for you and use the most convenient method for themselves.

Non-existent capacity planning and SLA

If team cannot comitt and comply to service level agreements or if the team cannot define how much capacity they have for work, it is worrysome. This symptom might not be the big performance breaker. Though it can contribute to overall chaos and bad decissions / overcomittment, resulting in overworked team.

Common mistakes when trying to help

Hire more full time people

Seen this plenty of times and I must admit it might feel like it’s working for brief period of time. The sad part is that eventually things catch up and the problems are just bigger, because more people. Core problems of team management and process design are not solvable by simply hiring more specialists.

Hire more consultants / freelancers

Bringing external help because it is faster and maybe temporary is also quite damaging. The more external, the less context aware and involved the person will be. Even the best professionals can hit a brick wall in a chaotic environment which is already derailed.

Just say no to few initiatives

Dropping some comittments or nice to have initiatives can bring short term results. It is also a gamble, unless your team can firmly identify low value and high value work.

Replace the leader / manager

Firing the leader and hiring/promoting a new one can work. This is the most drastic solution. It requires clear picture of root causes. It requires the right candidate to cope with overworked team. It also requires buy-in from the team, that such move will fix the issue and there is a good opportunity to hire someone competent enough to fix it. Look for informal leaders in the team, this could be the best way out for efficient transition.

6 ways to help an overworked team

1. Centralizing work ingestion

Team leader and stakeholders must agree on standard communication channel (in worst case 2 channels) how work requests can arrive. All the rest channels are closed and if somebody tries using them – work will be treated as lowest possible priority. This will require good people skills and liasing with different types of stakeholders. It also requires clear explanation of benefits for stakeholders. Team output will become more structured, predictable, higher quality and trusted. I have hard time finding arguments why this should not appeal to any stakeholder. In my experience even tha hardest priority pushers agree to it if you sit down with them and explain why it is needed and what will be the end value.

2. Making prioritization process transparent and explicit

Every stakeholder who is putting work on teams backlog, must clearly understand how prioritization works and do their best to get quality requests. Also, everyone should be able to see how the work queue looks to operate more objectively while liasing for priorities.

3. Agreeing on SLAs with stakeholders / work requestors

Well structured and team shielding processes will not make stakeholders happy enouhg. service level agreements and general rules which are useful for stakeholders side planning must be established. It will push the team to think about capacity and throughput, while stakeholders expectations will ne moderated towards realistic ones.

4. Capacity planning

Once you have your SLAs in place and your process is running without hickups, you will see how much work piles up and how much of it you can consume. With well defined processes there are only three outcomes that can happen with work load:

  1. There is more work every week/month than team can finish – a lot of low priority work will pile up and will never be finished (might be fine if SLA allows that)
  2. There is a fine balance of new work every week/month and work that gets finished. It might fluctuate and have some seasonalities, but on the long run it should even out. That is a well balanced team with a well balanced work process.
  3. There is less work every week/month than team can finish – either you have scared off all your stakeholders or your team function is having less demand. Observe if this is temporary and investigate additional initiatives to contribute towards business goals. (not a good case, it can lead into similar team issues as overworked status).

5. Team performance analysis and continuous improvement

I am quite biased here but my favorite tool is retrospective for such cases. I would recommend doing one with the team and one with your stakeholders. Just make sure it is not too often and you can act on improvement points prior to next event. They must be recurring and must not be skipped.

Also make sure you run it as simple as possible and clearly define what can be in scope for improvements and what is out of scope. External stakeholders should bot bring points about your team internal mechanisms, but more on external contracts and delivery quality.

6. Fostering asynchronous communication

A good team leader should always seek to establish asynchronous communication patterns to boost team productivity. Also, this will define some work culture, leading to respect of other people’s time. Medium to easy effort with significant gains. We have prepaired a quick guide to help you on those efforts, read below.

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