Manage work to deliver service and balance

My organisation has implemented a work-life balance initiative which limits the hours employees can work. In the next few months...

My organisation has implemented a work-life balance initiative which limits the hours employees can work. In the next few months I expect us to be busy working on new projects and the business has decided we cannot increase our headcount. How do I cope with the extra work and fewer staff ?

You need to manage both demand and capacity

It is a common theme for IT groups (and others) that demand is greater than the capacity to deliver. In one sense you are fortunate you now have the time to create the environment to deal with this. The actions can be split into managing demand and managing capacity.

When it comes to demand, the key is that projects should be prioritised with your business colleagues, not just by the IT department. New projects will compete, not only with each other, but also with existing work. In a large company this involves negotiating at different levels of management to ensure an appropriate order book.

You also have the capacity challenge of fewer staff hours to deal with. Linking this back to demand management and assuming there is a clear business payback from new initiatives, you should be able to justify investments in external resources to supplement your in-house staff.

The other area to review is increasing the productivity of your staff, and some organisations have achieved this through effective estimating and workload allocation. Higher output will also hopefully be one of the outcomes of your work/life balance initiative.

Sharm Manwani, Henley Management College

Can you wring extra productivity out of staff?

The short answer is that unless you can introduce significant productivity improvement techniques, you will not cope.

However, I think you must ask what went into the equation when this work/life balance initiative was devised and what were the benchmarks which were used when the balances were struck.

You may have a Machiavellian board - or maybe a naive one - but however anyone wriggles, given a defined level of productivity, then x hours of work need y number of people divided by the hours per week you permit them to work. It is ridiculous to attempt to say you want x hours of work but only permit x-z% hours.

What was meant by a work/life balance? If it means that employees can be more flexible about their work patterns, permitting more home working, then yes, the same output can be had with less hours at the workplace - travelling time savings is just one obvious one.

Maybe you were just caught short: maybe you accepted productivity targets when your workload was low, as you say it is, and this is now your benchmark. It just means you will have to get more out of your teams. They cannot expect to work at below optimum level when work is slack and then demand more resources when it picks up to more normal levels.

Organisations have to accept that if they are going to employ only on a permanent basis, and if they want a headcount that can handle high workload levels, then there will be times when these people are slack. A more sensible approach is the use of contractors to handle workload peaks or provide specialist skills needs only when they are needed.

Robin Laidlaw, President, CW500 Club

Look at outsourcing some parts of the new projects

There are two aspects to this: what is your company's IT sourcing strategy, and are you planning to use staff in the most efficient way given your total workload? New projects should not automatically mean more headcount.

Your sourcing strategy should clarify the principles you need to use to decide whether elements of your workload must be done by the company's own staff or can be provided by suppliers or partners. Where new projects need some of your own staff on them, you may have to reassign some of your existing workload to suppliers while also using external sources for the bulk of the new development work.

Before you do this, however, check that your staff cannot deliver at least some of the new developments by working out the most efficient way of delivering the entire project portfolio.

Chris Potts, director, Dominic Barrow


Consider awarding time off in lieu or annualised hours

When work/life balance is introduced properly it should be a win-win situation. A traditional approach is to offer staff time in lieu after periods of heavy activity. A better approach, for staff and management, is to anticipate the project lifecycle for demands on time so they can be planned in advance. This enables schemes such as annualised hours, where staff can work fewer hours in quieter times and longer hours when intense activity is required. This is common practice in car manufacturing.

However, the danger of such an approach is that it is input based. For many IT activities, such as software development, it is the output that should be measured. Increased productivity can be gained from other forms of flexible working. By allowing staff to work outside normal working hours or to work at home, they may achieve much more by getting away from interruptions and be better motivated through their improved work/life balance.

The other option often chosen in the IT industry is to employ contract staff. They do not increase the headcount and are a short-term commitment. But there can be a learning curve before contractors are up to speed and they are usually paid on time served rather than on their output. However, if you choose this route you need to move quickly as contractor rates are starting to rise.

Roger Rawlinson, NCC Global

The organisation cannot have it both ways

Your organisation cannot have it both ways. If it wants staff to work fewer hours then it must expect them to produce less output. You will have to set your project targets accordingly.

Having said that, it is undoubtedly the case that productivity drops off as excess hours are worked, so the loss in output should not be proportional to the reduction in hours. And the quality of the results may also improve.

If that offers insufficient relief for the problem you face then you need to consider other alternatives. If projects are causing a short-term increase in workload then perhaps the extra resources needed should be bought in anyway. If the work/life balance is making your staff costs uneconomic, then outsourcing may be the longer-term answer.

Roger Marshall, Elite

THE EXPERTS

Computer Weekly has put together a panel of experts. You can draw on their specialist knowledge to solve a problem. E-mail your questions (or your own solutions to this or the next question) to computer.weekly@rbi.co.uk

NCC Group
www.nccglobal.com

Deloitte&Touche
www.deloitte.co.uk

Cranfield School of Management
www.cranfield.ac.uk/som

Computer Weekly 500 Club
www.cw500.co.uk

Henley Management College
www.henleymc.ac.uk

British Computer Society 
www.bcs.org.uk/elite

Impact
www.impact-sharing.com

The Infrastructure Forum 
www.tif.co.uk

Dominic Barrow
www.dominicbarrow.com

Next question

I moved to being IT director for a distribution firm, having previously run IT for a small retail company. There my staff were motivated and enthusiastic but in my new job the opposite is true. I am struggling to change attitudes, which is demoralising. What can I do?

This was last published in April 2004

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