How Leaders Can Transform Overworked Teams Into Productivity Powerhouses

Time management strategist Kelly Nolan shares how business leaders can transform unsustainable workloads and expectations into a more viable work culture.

Everyone seems overworked right now. Some companies struggle to meet goals and deadlines with fewer team members. While the remaining team members are exhausted and disillusioned – all while still struggling to work with unreliable childcare.

Photo: Kelly Nolan, Time Management Strategist | Courtesy Photo
Photo: Kelly Nolan, Time Management Strategist | Courtesy Photo

As a leader, you’re likely also overloaded and may have found your empathy tank empty after years of accommodating the unexpected.

Here’s what to do instead.


Creating a more sustainable workload

While frustrating, facing the fact that time is limited is oddly effective.

Even incredible employees have limited capacity to work. To plan realistically and avoid employee burnout, you must realize people have limited time and energy – and only assign a workload reflecting that.

This can be frustrating because it forces your team to take on less work. But creating a more sustainable workload results in higher quality work product, projects that get done on time, and happier employees.

How do we do this?

By asking your colleagues two questions every time you assign them work.


“How many hours do you think this will take?”

This is an incredibly under-leveraged question. The question helps ensure you’re both on the same page in terms of the task’s scope, manages everyone’s expectations, and helps you build a realistic timeline for the overall project.

We, humans, seem to be better at estimating how long smaller tasks take than larger projects. To answer, your employee should identify all of the bite-sized tasks they can see now on the front end that will lead to the success of the project. They can then estimate how long each of those steps takes, which produces a more realistic estimate. You can give employees time to circle back with you on this estimate or work through it together. In addition, if there’s uncertainty, double the estimate – we’re all notoriously bad at estimating and grossly underestimate how long things take.

If your employee surprises you with “20 hours” when you were expecting to hear “5,” instead of challenging or dismissing them, get curious. Ask without judgment, “Can you explain how you’re getting there?” The conversation that follows will result in one of two things. On one hand, you might learn that your ask really was much bigger than you understood (which is common). This is great to know so you can manage your expectations and adjust your timeline – or shift course and narrow the scope of your ask. Either path helps avoid unknowingly overworking your employees.

On the other hand, you may discover that your employee misinterpreted your assignment and thought you were asking them to take on something much larger – and you can use this conversation to clarify your ask was much narrower. You’ll both be so grateful you figured it out now instead of next week after they completed an unnecessary 15 hours of work.


“When can you have this done in light of your other work?”

“When do you think you’ll be able to send me the final product given everything else on your plate?” This question will help you understand how employees are prioritizing their work. Better to find out now that they’re assuming Project B takes priority and, therefore, punting Project A’s deadline when you’d rather they prioritize Project A.

Getting realistic about our limited time WILL lead you and your team to focus on fewer projects, which can be frustrating. That said, you’ll be surprised at how it helps your team actually accomplish the projects with higher caliber work and with less scramble and burnout. This leads to happier team members, which has an impact on happier clients and a healthier business.


Open communication is key

Do you know every task on each of your employees’ plates right now and what they mean for each employee’s short-term and long-term workloads? No! Most managers generally know what work they’ve assigned but have no idea how all of those tasks stack up in terms of an employee’s workload over the course of the next month. This is normal.

The good news is your employees can speak up and tell you—but they need to feel comfortable doing so. Expressly say to your team:

“Look, I know what work I give you, but I don’t fully understand how it all stacks up each week. I don’t know if you feel like you could use more work or if you’re totally overwhelmed. I’m going to rely on you to tell me. If you feel overworked, please let me know and, if you can, propose a solution or two so I can help find a resolution that hopefully works for everyone. If I assign you a project or task with a deadline that will bury you, please let me know and propose a timeline that works better. I want to make sure your workload is reasonable, and I need your help to do that.”

Repeat this to your team at least once a quarter. Calendar a repeating reminder to do so. This allows you not to carry the burden of understanding everyone’s workload alone. And again, discovering you have a team capacity issue on the front end, while frustrating, is much less problematic than discovering it two months into a project after you’ve invested a ton of resources and time.


Calendar It Out

Once you and your team have decided to take on a project, encourage your team to use their calendars to actually block time to do the work itself. This will give them an objective sense of their workload, help them plan realistically, and protect time for each step along the way – increasing the chances the project is completed on time.

By facilitating these conversations (and taking supportive action for your team members), you’ll see less burnout, more retention of great employees, less stress, more realistic expectations – and the actual accomplishment of work projects in a knock-it-out-of-the-park way to help that bottom line. Plus, the conversations will help you get to know your team members’ working styles and thought processes better.


Kelly Nolan is an attorney-turned-time management strategist and mom. Using realistic time management strategies, she helps modern working professionals manage everything on their plate with less stress and more calm clarity. If you’d like to receive three strategies to get 20 minutes of breathing space in your day, learn more at kellynolan.com/20minutes.


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