HR Management & Compliance, Learning & Development

Tips for Smoothing Out ‘Lumpy’ Workloads

Few companies are able to maintain a steady pace of work at all times and often experience various ebbs and flows of demand. Meeting that demand, without overtaking employees or paying too many people to work with too little demand for their time, can be challenging. But companies have found a variety of ways to smooth out their “lumpy” workloads.

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Finding Flexibility to Meet Varying Demand

At Futurety, a data analytics firm, about 30% of its work is project-based, says Bill Balderaz, the company’s president. The firm works with niche industries like health care, government, and higher education that, he says, tend to have strict budgeting cycles. Consequently, he adds, “We often have a flurry of data projects that chose and are due shortly before the end of quarters and fiscal years. In the past, during these times our consultants may have 50 or 60 hours of work scheduled. Other months tending to be slow, with our consultants billing 30 hours a week.”

To address these peaks and valleys, Balderaz says, his firm has instituted a couple of strategies. “First, we have shortened weeks during slow periods. We close up early on Fridays during off months so the team can start their weekends early. Secondly, for our retainer clients, we schedule the bulk of their tasks during the times when few projects are due. We also keep the team busy making content and working on internal projects during our slower times. Finally, we work with our clients to offer discounts or other incentives to schedule projects with us during historically slower times.

Balderaz notes these steps have allowed the company “to significantly level out the lumps and keep the team on a more consistent work schedule.”

Anticipating and Planning for Variable Demand

Certain industries also have natural peaks and valleys in demand. Real estate is one example.

Tyler Forte, founder and CEO of Felix Homes, says that his company is constantly striving to crate the most “financially responsible way to buy or sell a home.” Before starting the firm, he says, “I was a venture capital investor in New York where I was tasked with sourcing early-stage technology companies.”

The real estate industry, Forte adds, “has its peak seasons, generally between the spring and summer months.” Knowing this, “we’re sure to plan our calendars to stock up on extra signs, business cards, sales materials and, of course, additional realty agents.” By planning for peak demand, Forte says, agents are aware of and can prepare to handle a heavier workload. “Assessing our market and our customer patterns more accurately enables us to balance seasonal customer demands with the right number of employees,” he says.

Plan for It!

During their strategic planning cycles, organizations should be looking forward to and anticipating demand for their products and services, as well as cycles of demand.

Daivat Dholakia, director of operations for Force by Mojio, an HGPS fleet tracking resource for small businesses, says, “Senior leaders should consider employee workload when setting company goals.” For example, he notes that “if your business relies on seasonal sales to power through the rest of the year, allocate ‘down time’ to tasks like managing inventory, marketing, and smoothing out issues with customer service.” Less busy times can be “great opportunities to hire, onboard, and train employees or temporary staff to have on hand during the busy season.” He says that he has found “surge staffing to be a great resource when preparing for hugely increased workloads.” Even one or two extra people “can help reduce stress for your long-term employees.”

Dholakia adds that managers have an important role to play in ensuring employees have plenty to do during slow seasons and support during busy ones. Checking in regularly with employees, he says, “is critical to making sure they are staying motivated and productivity.”

Built to Scale

Devon Fata, CEO and founder of Pixoul, a “human-centric web design firm,” says that his company uses two key strategies to manage irregular workloads: “We develop strong procedures and routines, and we scale our workforce.” In many ways, he says, “the core job of our permanent staff is to manage these two things so that when a major project comes our way, we are ready.”

Fata adds that developing strong procedures and routines is “all about making major projects as simple and manageable as possible.” At Pixoul, he says, “we look for anything that can be done the same way form project to project.” Then, the company develops templates to help guide interactions with clients, design decisions, and backend work.

Scaling his workforce has been “something we’ve gotten extremely good at, especially since the pandemic.” Even with excellent routines, Fata acknowledges that “we would be caught between high overhead during downtime and high overtime pay during busy times without using freelancers to round out our workforce.” Over the years, he says, Pixoul has established relationships with several skilled coders, UX designers, writers, and graphic designers the company can call on when new projects come up.

“When we have a project coming up, we know we can bring in people we trust, pay them reasonably for their work, and let them round out their schedules with work for other companies during downtime,” Fata says.

Follow These Tips for Managing Flow

Ben Lamarche, general manager at Lock Search Group, a recruiting and talent management firm, says in his line of work, demand “comes in waves.” To address those waves, he has instituted important practices that he suggests for others:

  • Divvy up the work equally. This might sound simple enough, Lamarche says, but it’s far too easy to “push a huge chunk of the workload to one or two ‘star performers.’” There is “only so much that one or two people can do.” Managers are “responsible for ensuring that work is divided up equally so that each team member is chipping in as much as the next person is.”
  • Assign tasks based on each person’s capabilities. While striving for equality when distributing the workload, it helps to also prioritize the work and consider team members’ strengths, adds Lamarche. “For example, some of our team members are best placed to work on assignments with tight deadlines while others deliver better results when working on less time-sensitive tasks. This way, team members complement each other, and the project gets completed.”
  • Anticipate work waves, and plan accordingly. Over time, Lamarche notes, companies are able to anticipate workflows and make strategic decisions to bring in temporary staff, outsource, or reprioritize. “In our situation, with peak season comes a lot of administrative work so a few weeks as we head into the busy season, we lay out a plan for outsourcing some of this work to free team members to do high-priority work,” Lamarche says.

Finally, enlist employees in identifying demand trends and taking steps to establish policies and procedures to address the peaks and valleys. Working together, it’s possible to find the best solutions to both meet organizational needs and address employees’ needs for a healthy work/life balance.