In our current environment, people are either swamped or they have some free time for some or part of their work week. Some projects have been delayed or even cancelled due to our current circumstances. Some efforts are not needed anymore (at least for the near-term), such as those roles who support live events or travel.
Managing capacity is one of the hardest tasks a people manager has. It is a complex jigsaw puzzle positioning people to the projects they want to do and will excel at – the sweet spot for productivity and success. Much like a puzzle, getting the edges in place first – that is getting people anchored in the major part of their job helps – then, you can focus on other peripheral or unplanned projects in the middle that come up.
When someone feels they have capacity to take on more, they can be reluctant in sharing this with their manager. They may feel their job could be in jeopardy if they don’t appear busy or if they aren’t aligned to projects that matter. Here are more tips to help when a team member is afraid of losing their job. In times when no one is sitting next to one another anymore, it can be difficult for a manager to assess if someone has free time.
How do you know when someone has capacity if they don’t tell you? During one-on-one meetings I hold every week with each member of my team, we review status of current efforts, which usually gives a clear indication of capacity. I am always shocked to learn when I hear from professionals that their managers don’t meet with them. Or, they hold team meetings only and never talk to their team one-on-one until they have a performance review conversation required by HR.
In any time but especially in these times, one-on-ones are critical to staying connected and staying on top of capacity. I ask my team members to be Goldilocks and tell me about their workload. Is it enough? Is it too much? Is it just right? I don’t ask this every week as that would get old. But, when I get a sense that they are starting something new or more when they are tying something up, I ask the question.
When asked directly, most people will share the real picture. It is important for a manager to create a safe place for their team members to say that they may have some capacity to take on something else.
So, what do you do when someone says they have time on their hands?
- Understand current work.
If you’re not meeting with your team one-on-one, it is difficult to understand everything they are working in some detail. My team often tells me about requests that have come in, projects that are stalling due to various reasons – some in our control and some not, and times where work is getting to be too much. The first step is to know the current work your team is working on. Believe me. There is always something your team is doing that you are not aware of. I have also learned when my team member doesn’t have a lot to do. Seek to understand. Ask the Goldilocks question. You may be surprised at what you hear.
- Tease out other options.
When a team member tells me we are done with a project, this is the perfect time to review the scope that was originally documented to ensure everything has been accomplished. Most project-type work should have a start and end date. But, once the project is completed, there is always maintenance and continuous management and improvement efforts. Work with your team member to list these activities and determine who and how they can be executed. Nine times out of ten, I have found that when a team member thinks something is complete, it is not.
It can be effective to review the completed project with stakeholders to measure its impact – measurement is one of those areas I find can get skipped! Stakeholders will tell you when something isn’t completed or that a situation would be even better if we fixed “x”. To accurately improve and manage projects, products or processes, the work is continuous. If your team member feels something is done and dusted, challenge them and brainstorm what else is missing or can be accomplished.
- Get creative.
If someone is truly untapped or not busy, then it is time to think about how to re-direct their role. We just had such a case where someone was brought on to manage a project that has been delayed indefinitely. Instead of thinking about letting that person go, the management team is coming up with other projects this person can participate in and add value while the other project is delayed. Consulting firms are very skilled at re-deploying or maximizing people who are “on the bench” – not deployed on a project. They will align consultants to internal projects while new external business gets developed. The same principle could be true here. While other projects are on hold, what other internal efforts could be pushed forward. Now is a great time to focus inward.
The more people that know someone needs work, the more likely that person is to be engaged on something meaningful. For every team member that may not have a lot to do, there is a team member who is drowning. Looking at a broader department, not just your team, allows creativity in how to use someone. Sometimes, we become too siloed to think outside of our team but many people have transferable skills and getting creative about how they can be aligned helps to retain good talent and accomplish what the organization needs.
In these volatile times, it may seem counterintuitive to shout out when someone has capacity. As a manager, this is critical to keep someone talented on your team. To ignore the situation could ultimately to lead to that person leaving or even potentially being let go. As a employee, letting your manager know you have free time could open doors for you. You never know what project or opportunity can come from speaking up. It is time to be brave and ask for more opportunity.