Managing a bigger workload with fewer employees

January 21

Congressional passage of the $1.1 trillion government appropriations bill for fiscal 2014 and the elimination of many of the arbitrary, across-the-board spending cuts that hampered agency flexibility should give federal leaders greater leeway in allocating available resources and staff, but some big problems remain.

For one, the federal government shed 79,000 jobs in 2013, and there may be additional reductions in 2014 as vacancies go unfilled because of tight budgets. Even though the recently passed omnibus spending bill will provide some budget stability, it’s unlikely to result in staffing increases. This means many leaders will be managing programs and operations with fewer people than needed in the year ahead, while employees could face bigger workloads, increased stress and greater difficulties getting the job done.

How can federal leaders minimize the fallout from a heavy workload on a staff that has been, or will be, reduced in size? Here are a few ideas:

Assess what's necessary and what's nice to do. Managers typically add to rather than reduce employee workloads. If your team is feeling overwhelmed by an increase in work due to staffing departures, a good first step would be to look at your employees' individual responsibilities and your team's collective obligations to assess whether there are some legacy activities or tasks that can be stopped. Examine which ones are mission-critical and really matter, which ones are questionable or discretionary, and which ones were assigned years ago and are no longer necessary.

Look for different ways to get the job done. Simply asking employees to work harder and faster may not make sense. In many cases, they are already "turning the crank" as fast as they can. If the work still has to be done, look for more efficient ways to do it. Rethink business as usual, and consider eliminating or simplifying work processes that create choke points and lead to frustration. This may be an area where your employees can really help. After all, they know the work better than anyone else. Ask for their suggestions regarding ways to get the mission accomplished using less resources. It’s likely they’ll have some great ideas.

Get senior leaders on board
. Once you have determined which activities should get a lower priority and where you intend to focus staff time, have an honest conversation with your senior leaders to get their input and support, and to make adjustments as necessary.

Engage in some self-examination. As you ponder ways to help your team cope, consider whether you are personally making the work more difficult than it needs to be. Do you delay decisions or not give employees enough latitude to move forward on their own? Do you fail to follow up when issues come to your attention? Do you create an atmosphere that discourages employees, stifles innovation or contributes to their burnout?  It’s hard to change, but in difficult times, it is incumbent on leaders to rise to the occasion.

Be a good communicator and get feedback. Let employees know that you understand the difficulties they are facing and are concerned about the impact that unfilled jobs and increased work requirements are having on them. Keep them informed about the direction you want to head, the goals and timetables, and how you intend to help them meet the targets. Also let them know about progress being made and any changes that are in store, and get their input.

If you have any additional advice for managers coping with staff shortfalls, please share your stories in the comment section below. You can also email me at fedcoach@ourpublicservice.org.

Tom Fox, a guest writer for On Leadership, is vice president for leadership and innovation at the nonprofit Partnership for Public Service. He also heads the Partnership’s Center for Government Leadership.

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