Learning & Development

Best Practices for Managing “Lumpy” Workloads

There is a stereotype about life in the broader workforce that suggests work is monotonous, boring, and routine drudgery—being paid to do the same thing over and over and over again. While that may be relatively accurate for some gigs, it’s generally too simplistic to capture the true nature of variable workloads in most jobs.

For example, a house painter might find herself extremely busy during the warm or dry months in her area but unable to work when it’s too cold or rainy. Or a catering company may have staff running around like crazy setting up for an event but then mostly standing around with relatively little to do during the event itself.

These are examples of what one might call “lumpy work”—meaning some times of the day, week, month, or year are crazy, while others are relatively normal. Lumpy work can be both inefficient and stressful for both employee and employer.

For this feature, we reached out to industry experts, employers, and HR professionals to get their insights into the best strategies for managing lumpy work.

What’s the Big Deal?

As an initial matter, let’s be sure we’re not making a mountain out of a molehill. Is it really that big of a deal if some periods of time are busier than others?

Some variability in workload is to be expected in any industry; but when that variability becomes significant enough, it can be very difficult to keep operations appropriately staffed. This means that the workload may very well be too much for available staff or that there are too many staff for the amount of available work. In the former situation, employees become stressed out and can make mistakes or cut corners; in the latter, employers are wasting money on unnecessary payroll.

Evaluating Available Options

There are many options for managing lumpy workloads, but for simplicity’s sake, we can think of them in three broad buckets.

The first option is to reorganize the workflow to restructure internal processes and priorities. Maybe the work is lumpy because it’s simply structured inefficiently with too many bottlenecks causing periods of unnecessary downtime.

The second option is to reallocate resources internally, such as through cross-training, described below. This assumes some lumpiness varies within the organization—i.e., there are periods when some workers are extremely busy while others have some downtime.

Finally, employers may need to look outside of their organization to hire new workers. The obvious risk here is that workers hired to address lumpy workloads will have little to nothing to do when the work is light, and the employer will be spending money on labor that can’t be used.

Externally or Internally Driven Lumpiness?

The strategy for managing lumpy workloads will necessarily depend on the source of the lumpiness. The options for smoothing the workload are relatively limited for a seasonal business, for example, compared to a business that simply has some inefficient organization and division of labor.

“If the uneven workload is predictable, plan ahead and ‘clear the decks’ as much as possible,” says Emily Sander of Next Level Coaching, LLC. “For example, if you are on an implementation team and you know most of your implementations come in at the beginning of the month, schedule other non-time sensitive items for the middle or later in the month. These items can include team meetings, special projects, admin tasks, etc.”

By contrast, some lumpiness is heavily externally driven. A great example is the work of tax professionals. The bulk of the work of tax attorneys and tax accountants is concentrated around the annual federal income tax filing deadline in mid-April each year. Outside of this mad rush period, there is still work to be done, but it’s typically not as voluminous or time sensitive. The fact that the lumpiness is driven by factors beyond the control of the business means there are fewer options for managing lumpiness by simply rearranging internal processes.

Cross Training

Cross training can be an effective means of smoothing out lumpy work within an organization. Cross-training simply means that employers are taught how to perform not just their own job-specific tasks but also the tasks associated with other roles as well. For example, a substitute teacher who specializes in math might also be certified to teach science courses.

“During these ‘lumpy’ months where the normal workloads of employees are doubled or tripled, it is seen that the majority of companies cross-train staff,” says Jim Sullivan, CEO & Founder of JCSI. “Doing so helps to lessen the burden and workload from employees and make their daily work tasks manageable.”

Cross training can also be an economical solution for employers because it can use existing staff to fill gaps in manpower instead of hiring more bodies. “Cross training is also much more effective in many cases than hiring new employees,” says Sullivan. “This is because the staff know how the business operates and are able to bring more skills to the table and learn quickly. And since these lumpy workloads do not always happen, hiring new employees could mean wasting money as you only need them for certain times of the year.”

In some industries, the best available option is to hire seasonal or temporary workers to help manage spikes in demand. For example, a landscaping company or summertime tourist business will typically staff up during the warmer summer months when they see most of their business and reduce staff in the offseason.

Temporary Workers

“In certain situations, hiring seasonal, part-time, and temp workers is essential,” says Laurie Chamberlin, Head of Recruitment Solutions at LHH. “While most people associate temporary staffing solutions with entry-level work, there is an emerging market for mid-level temp workers who can handle more complex work. As a result, workers are able to gain new experience across industries, and employers can address immediate and shorter-term demands while also building meaningful relationships with talent that may lead to full-time employment down the road.”

Lumpy workloads are a consistent reality for a wide variety of businesses. The nature of the industry and work will impact to what extent different options are really feasible. For example, some work may be so specialized or complex that it isn’t possible to have temps help pick up the slack. Or maybe the workload is driven by outside factors—i.e., the tax season rush for accountants. The key for employers is to find the right balance between efficiency, effectiveness, and employee wellbeing.

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a Contributing Editor at HR Daily Advisor.