Managing your workload. Unit 11: Plan and manage your own workload

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1 11. 2 Managing your workload When you are given work to do, it will be necessary for you to manage your own workload. Although there will be others who plan what it is that you will be doing, much of the responsibility for actually managing the workload will be yours. Project work is a key aspect of public relations, and PR practitioners often work on more than one project at any time. In this section we will explore tools and techniques to help you manage your workload when juggling the conflicting demands of multiple projects. 1

2 1 What is project work? Projects can vary hugely in both subject and size. They can range from putting a man on the Moon to selecting a new coffee machine for the office. Projects exist in all sorts of different types of business, such as information systems, construction, finance, marketing, industrial research and local government. Moreover, no two projects are the same. A project to develop this year s model family saloon may appear very similar to last year s, but its objectives will be different, the circumstances will have changed and it will involve different people. In PR, projects are very broad you might be involved with the launch of a new product, an event to capture customer feedback or a stunt to create interest. The main characteristics of a project are that it: is an instrument of change has a clearly identifiable start and finish has a specific aim results in something being delivered is unique is the responsibility of a single person or body involves cost, resources and time uses a wide variety of resources and skills. Tim Geffry, project manager Tim works in the communications team of a large company. He is responsible for the smooth running of the communications projects and campaigns that he is assigned. A key constituent of any project will be the PR plan. It spans the entire lifecycle of the project from concept through to planning into execution. As a project manager, Tim is the person responsible for the successful delivery of an entire project, and he has to ensure that the project plan is designed, executed and controlled just like any other major deliverable. A lot of Tim s skills focus on managing the workload of the project team, ensuring their ability to control the project in terms of securing relevant approvals or sign off and subsequently implementing the project within the cost, schedule and quality parameters. Many threads need to be woven together and the importance of managing time through the appropriate use of project management tools within the project cannot be overemphasised. Key term Project specification an accurate description of what the project aims to achieve. First steps to managing projects and saving time A precise specification for the project needs to be agreed. Often called the project terms of reference, the project specification should be an accurate description of what the project aims to achieve. 2

3 Usually the account manager must consult with others and then agree the project specification with the account director or the client. This may involve several drafts. A project specification is essential as it creates a measurable accountability for anyone wishing at any time to assess how the project is going, or its success on completion. Project specifications also provide an essential discipline and framework to keep the project on track, and are concerned with the original agreed aims and parameters. A properly formulated and agreed project specification also protects the project manager from being held to account for issues that are outside the original scope of the project or beyond the project manager s control. Checklist Key elements of the project specification: 1 authority and project sponsor usually the account manager or director 2 the client 3 objectives 4 costs/budget 5 resources you and your time are included here 6 deliverables 7 project phases and timescales 8 roles and responsibilities. This is the stage at which special conditions or exceptions are agreed with those in authority. Once you have published the project specification, you have created a very firm set of expectations by which you will be judged. So if you have any concerns, or want to renegotiate, it is vital to address these issues at this stage. The largest projects can require several weeks just to produce and agree the project specification. Most normal business projects, however, require a few days of thinking and consulting to produce a suitable project specification. Establishing and agreeing a project specification is an important process even if your task is simple. Checklist A project specification will: ü describe purpose, aims and deliverables ü state parameters (timescales, budgets, range, scope, territory, authority) ü state people involved and the way the team will work (frequency of meetings, the decision-making process) ü ü establish break-points at which to review and check progress establish how progress and results will be measured. 3

4 Planning the project When planning the project, you may find it useful to work backwards from the end aim, identifying all the things that need to be put in place and done, in reverse order. First, brainstorming (noting ideas and points at random), will help you to gather most of the points and issues. For complex projects, or when you lack experience of the issues, involve others in the brainstorming process. You then need to put the issues in the right order, and establish relationships and links between each issue. Complex projects will have a number of activities running in parallel. Some parts of the project will need other parts of the project to be completed before they can begin or progress. Establishing timescales Over time you will be able to establish how long the variety of project tasks take to be completed and for fixed-term projects, such as a launch date, no slippage will be allowed. Always work with others experienced in project delivery to establish realistic deadlines and remember that even short tasks are rarely as quick as you might think. If you have been given a fixed deadline, plan to meet it earlier, and work back from that earlier date. Build some slippage or leeway into each phase of the project, even when the delivery date is fixed. Always err on the side of caution. Using different methods to manage your project time To plan and manage large complex projects with various parallel and dependent activities, you will need to put together a critical path analysis and a spreadsheet on Microsoft Excel or equivalent. A critical path analysis will show you the order in which tasks must be performed, and the relative importance of tasks. Some tasks can appear small and insignificant when they might actually be hugely influential in enabling much bigger activities to proceed or give best results. A Gantt chart is a useful way of showing blocks of activities over time and at a given cost, and for managing the project and its costs along the way. Various project management software tools are available, much of which is useful. However, before trying any, you should understand and concentrate on developing the pure project delivery skills, which are described in this process. The best software in the world will not help you if you cannot do the key things. The project critical path analysis Critical path analysis sounds very complicated, but it is a very logical and effective method for planning and managing complex projects. This is how to create a critical path analysis. As an example, the project is a simple one making a fried breakfast for vegetarians. First note down all the issues (resources and activities) in a rough order. Assemble crockery and utensils. Assemble ingredients. Prepare equipment. Lay table. 4

5 Warm plates. Percolate coffee. Grill tomatoes. Fry eggs. Make toast. Serve. Note that some of these activities must happen in parallel. That is to say, if you tried to make a fried breakfast by doing one task at a time, and one after the other, things would go wrong. Certain tasks must be started before others, and certain tasks must be completed in order for others to begin. The plates need to be warming while other activities are going on. A critical path analysis is a diagrammatical representation of what needs to be done and when. Timescales and costs can be applied to each activity and resource. Figure shows the critical path analysis for making a fried breakfast for meat eaters. Figure : Example of a critical path analysis Toast bread Fry eggs Start Prepare ingredients Prepare cooking equipment Assemble crockery and utensils Lay table Grill bacon Fry sausages Serve Warm plates Time minutes This critical path analysis shows just a few activities over a few minutes. Normal business projects would see the analysis extending several times wider than this example, and the timeline would involve weeks or months. It is possible to use a spreadsheet to create a critical path analysis, which allows you to plan and track financial totals and time totals. Various specialised project management software packages enable the same thing. However, be aware that spending weeks on the intricacies of computer modelling may be a poor use of time. In the early stages especially, a carefully hand-drawn diagram which requires no computer training at all can put 90 per cent of the thinking and structure in place. Gantt charts Gantt charts are useful project management tools. They are a type of bar chart used to show a project schedule. You can construct a Gantt chart using Microsoft Project, Microsoft Excel or other spreadsheet software. There are also online tools available. 5

6 In a Gantt chart each activity has a separate line. The duration of an activity is shown as a coloured time block on the longer project timeline. The timeline is usually divided into days or weeks. You should remember to schedule review and break points as activities. At the end of each line you can show the cost of each activity. Using more sophisticated software, Gantt charts can be set up to show the interdependence of related and parallel activities, in the same way that a critical path analysis will do. You can also use a Gantt chart to keep track of progress for each activity and ensure that costs are not exceeding the budget. You can move or extend time blocks to show deviation from your predicted or scheduled dates and costs, and the dates and costs you actually achieve. 2 Managing project workloads Key term Contingency in this context, this refers to an alternative plan which will take a different route but will not negatively affect the original planned outcome. Record keeping Project documentation is a key feature of project-based working. This records decisions made at meetings, allocates tasks to individuals and informs the team of any updates to the project schedule. Some agencies keep a log of in-house time spent on clients so that the agency can make a realistic assessment of the amount of profit they make from the account. If you work for an agency that does this, you will need to update a time sheet on a regular basis to indicate the time you have spent working on the project. Your workload records may be independent from the formal whole-project plans. However, they are a useful point of reference and should consist of your planned order of work. This should include: the parties involved for example, in-house colleagues, a client, or freelance support the timescales allocated to each task, including an indication of the contingency built into the timescale the deadlines and the actual dates when tasks were completed. Inevitably, some tasks will take longer than expected, and others will take less. Keeping a record of how long your tasks actually took to complete will help you allocate time more realistically in the future. Sharing plans and records A project team usually consists of a number of different people from different functional areas of an agency, with at least one member from the client organisation and possibly a number of freelance suppliers. It is important that the different members of the team are kept appraised of progress against the project s goals in order to manage their own workloads and monitor progress against targets. 6

7 Project plans and records are shared among the project team in a range of ways. Core project team: the in-house team with day-to-day responsibility for and involvement with the project will meet on a regular basis to discuss progress and make sure tasks are completed on schedule. Depending on the urgency of the project, meetings may be daily or weekly. Wider project team: beyond the core in-house team, there will be other people within the agency and freelance suppliers who are involved in smaller aspects of the project. These team members are either updated informally with progress, or invited to a less regular whole-project reporting meeting (which may occur fortnightly, for example). These members of the team will need to know when the parts of the project that directly affect them are going to happen. Project sponsors and stakeholders: these are the high-level decision makers who do not need to be involved in the day-to-day execution of the project, but steer the strategy behind the project. This group may include the client and senior colleagues, and may meet on a less frequent basis (fortnightly or monthly, depending on the urgency of the project). High-level developments will be discussed at these meetings for example, if the end date was to move, but not if a deadline was missed that will not affect the end date. Resources available to achieve plans At an early point in the project, the core and wider project team should agree the meeting structure and frequency for the project. Generally, if a project is urgent, the meetings will be more frequent as the status of tasks on the project are likely to change more rapidly. Within the project initiation phase, the project team needs to identify and agree the resources needed to deliver the project. Resources, in this context, can include time, money, equipment or software. The key resources are usually money and time. A project can have very little time available, but this may not be a problem if enough money is allocated to it, since freelance support can be bought in. Similarly, a project may have a limited budget but plenty of time available, in which case more tasks are likely to be completed in-house. Collective time management Within a project team with interdependent tasks, individual time management becomes a key group consideration. The timescales allocated to tasks need to take account of the task owner s workload and other commitments beyond the project. For example, a task within a project plan may be estimated to take a day s concentrated effort, but it will actually be allocated five days in the schedule. This acknowledges that the task owner has other work, which may take priority, so the window of five days provides enough time for the person to complete this task without putting other work and deadlines at risk. The time allocated for tasks is generally agreed at the core project team meetings, but will be confirmed in the project documentation after the meeting. 7

8 While the project is in progress, core project team meetings will largely consist of task list management (e.g. identifying tasks to be completed, updating on tasks in progress) and identifying priority tasks (these are usually tasks that will affect the project s critical path). Minutes from the various project meetings are sent to the different members of the project team via . It is common practice to create a mailing list for a project to make sure that s reach every member of the team. Adapting plans Project plans change on a regular basis. There can be a variety of reasons, from the inevitable shifting of interim deadlines to try to make up for time lost here and there to the fundamental shift in project focus caused by something beyond the project team s control. Key term Slippage when a date in a project plan is missed. When a change occurs, it is important that the project team is flexible and able to rework their priorities and workload plans around the change. This may mean: shifting priorities, either within the project (for example, if one part of the project needs to be brought forward) or between different projects that you are working on working to tighter deadlines to make up for slippage on another part of the project in order to keep the same end date rethinking ways of completing tasks if the budget changes can it be done in-house? Is there any way of achieving the same effect without spending so much? Communicating and negotiating changes Projects should have a change control process built into the project management approach. The project specification defines what the project consists of, and while regular minor changes should be avoided so that the project team is clear on its ultimate goal, a process is needed to adapt the plan according to changes in circumstances. Change requests are usually agreed at project sponsor and stakeholder level, with input from the core project team in order to identify the impact the changes are likely to have on timescales and/or budget. However, changes are not always top-down. In the event that there are substantial risks to the end date or budget for a project, the project manager will need to negotiate with the stakeholders and sponsor to agree the change. Once a change has been agreed, the project specification should be updated to reflect this. Any subsequent changes will need to go through the change control process again. Resolving issues and problems Although action to resolve issues will vary according to the types of problem that occur, it can be generalised into several basic categories: applying genuinely creative solutions to problems using contingency time 8

9 applying more resources slipping the completion dates making sure it does not happen again. Note that there is no do nothing option. Problems will not go away without action being taken, nor will they become more tolerable with time. They should be identified and resolved at the earliest possible opportunity. Apart from the first and second approaches given above, resolving most problems implies a degree of compromise on your objectives of cost, time or quality. We therefore need to consider adapting plans by reprioritising workload depending on changes (including budget changes) and slippage, while keeping stakeholders informed at all times. Normally this will not involve the junior members of the team, but you must be aware that your workload will fluctuate due to the changing demands of the project and that your seniors will need you to be flexible in your ability to prioritise work. Key term Finish-to-start dependencies activities which depend on the completion of another in order to complete the next (a simple example is putting on trousers before putting on shoes). Genuinely creative solutions This is the ideal way to resolve a problem, but also the hardest. Re-examine the plan and particularly the planning assumptions. What may have appeared to be the only way to do something when you devised the plan might now be one of a number of ways, some of which may be better (and possibly cheaper and faster). Resource constraints may have forced you into doing things at certain times and in a particular order. Check if these resource constraints still exist, as it might be possible to change the order of some of the work. On particularly long projects you may find that emergent technology or new techniques allow you to review your estimating assumptions. Look again at the dependencies that are built into the plan. Ask yourself if they really are finish-to-start dependencies, or if the second task can actually start with an incomplete input. (Apply caution here as this may impact quality, and running tasks in parallel that are ideally done one after the other requires very careful management.) Applying more resources Assigning more people to an activity that is running late is the most common means of preventing a potential slippage. It is less desirable than applying creative solutions as above, but it offers benefits in that it should not adversely affect your objectives of time and quality. It will, of course, affect cost, but in the majority of projects, time and quality tend to be considered more important. Dealing with competing claims on your time As the project management examples show, you will have a range of different tasks being undertaken at one time. Working in a busy agency and being junior, you will regularly be asked by other colleagues to undertake a task that they may claim will only take a few minutes. If this task is not directly related to your personal objectives and you genuinely feel that you are being given work that it is not fair to expect you to do, it is useful to consider how being more assertive can help save you time. 9

10 3 Workload management Being realistic Realism is of fundamental importance to managing your own workload. Although you may be filled with enthusiasm for the complex, creative and challenging projects that your agency is working on, and keen to prove yourself to your colleagues, you should think carefully about what you can realistically achieve. If you have spare capacity and can help on more projects, your employers will probably be very glad to take you up on the offer. However, before you volunteer for more work, ask yourself the following questions. Do I have capacity now, but not in the short-term future? Can I genuinely commit the amount of time that a new project would require for me to give my best performance? What are my priorities, and would they clash with a new project? The real work environment Plans on paper often look very different from their execution in the real workplace. Make sure your workload plans account for time in meetings, telephone calls, answering s, etc., and do not assume that you will be uninterrupted when you are working. You can optimise your workplace to help you be more effective. This means spending time gathering the resources you need before starting on a task, Similarly, computer problems can hold you up and make tasks take longer to complete. If you find you are having problems with your computer, ask for it to be looked at sooner rather than later. Competing claims on your time In a PR environment, you are likely to work on more than one project at any one time. Sometimes these will be complementary, and busy periods on one project will fill the gaps left by lulls on another. Sometimes deadlines and pressures will come from multiple projects at the same time. When this happens it is important to make sure the competing claimants either the project managers or project sponsors are aware of the pressures on you. They may be able to agree that one task takes priority over the other, which may also involve shifting the deadline for the lower-priority title. Before you discuss the competing claims, though, you should consider the alternative options available. It can sometimes be helpful to think about solutions from different perspectives for example, looking at the options that work out best for each project. 10

11 Table : Compromise options Table shows an example of how to identify the most palatable compromise option. Win Lose Win Lose Project A: Second priority, move date back a couple of days but make up time elsewhere. End date unaffected. Project B: First priority, keep task date as stands. End date unaffected. Project A: Attempt to meet date, but unlikely to succeed and quality likely to suffer. Project B: First priority, keep task date as stands. End date unaffected. Project A: First priority, keep task date as stands. End date unaffected. Project B: Attempt to meet date, but unlikely to succeed and quality likely to suffer. Project A: Attempt to meet date, but unlikely to succeed and quality likely to suffer. Project B: Attempt to meet date, but unlikely to succeed and quality likely to suffer. Evaluating your work plan It is important to consider whether your work plan is really working, and whether you are achieving your maximum output. Are you finding that some tasks are taking longer than you had planned? What is causing this? Did you underestimate the amount of time it would take, or have workplace distractions affected your ability to be effective? Is your work plan well suited to the way you work? For example, you might have planned a full day focusing in-depth on a specific task, but find it difficult to do this without being distracted. In this case, you may find it more useful to break the task into smaller tasks and make these more varied by mixing them with tasks on other projects. Reappraising workload Your workload is likely to shift and change as projects develop, even with the best possible planning. It is important to be flexible to manage the fluctuations in plans, but it is also important to regularly reappraise your workload and whether it is manageable. If you find that your workload is becoming unmanageable, ask yourself why. How successfully have you been prioritising tasks? Are you spending your time on important tasks, or are you being distracted by s and constant meetings? If you find that the cause of the problem is beyond your control, and you are unable to negotiate revised time frames on your projects, speak to your line manager. The value of workload management Effective workload management, both individually and as part of a project team, carries a number of benefits for you and your colleagues. These include the following. Working to agreed timescales: if the whole team has a unified understanding of timescales and focuses on the overall goals, then the whole project is more likely to meet its deadlines. 11

12 Keeping up-to-date records: this will help you to keep track and remember what you have done and what you need to do. Updated project schedules are useful for sharing information and providing evidence of progress to stakeholders and clients. Keeping others up to date: project work involves a range of different colleagues, some of whom will need you to complete your task before they can start or complete theirs. By keeping colleagues up to date, they can factor the time required into their schedules and you can access their skills and knowledge. Portfolio activity , Part of the assessment for this unit requires you to demonstrate that you understand workload management and that you can apply this understanding to manage your work. To prepare for this part of your assessment, complete the following tasks. Gather together evidence from your workload and make notes to show that you can: 1 explain how you identify the resources available for your work 2 describe how to select the resources that are needed for your work 3 clarify the purpose and value of working to agreed timescales 4 clarify the purpose and value of keeping records of your work 5 explain the purpose and value of keeping colleagues updated with progress on the projects you are working on 6 clarify the purpose and value of being flexible, and of being able to adapt and reprioritise your work plans to reflect changes 7 explain how to accommodate changes in your plans and how to negotiate new deadlines 8 clarify the purpose and value of reflecting on your plans and whether they were successful or unsuccessful. What can you learn from these? Produce a report on a piece of work you have completed. Use the report to show that you: 1 made sure you had all the necessary resources 2 allocated time frame estimates to each activity 3 kept records to monitor your work and made the records of your work available to others 4 liaised with and updated people who were contributing to or depended on your work 5 resolved problems when necessary and re-prioritised your work plans to reflect changes 6 reviewed and reflected on the outcomes of the work, the effectiveness of your plan to complete it and identified learning points to use when planning future work. 12

13 Further reading Adair, J. (2010) Decision Making and Problem Solving Strategies, London: Kogan Page. Forsyth, P. (2010) Successful Time Management (Creating Success), London: Kogan Page. Credits Produced by Pearson on behalf of the Skills Funding Agency. The publisher would like to thank the following for their kind permission to reproduce images: Zwola Fasola/ Shutterstock.com, Ventdusud/Veer/ Corbis. About the author of Topic guides 11.1 and 11.2 Bill Moir coaches individuals to achieve full potential in their chosen field of work and has also implemented tactical learning and development programmes to assist PR organisations achieve their goals through their people. As a learning and development specialist his work is underpinned by best practice and relevant theory gained from many years experience within various sectors including PR. His writing and delivery is, therefore, informed by the expertise of working crossculturally with an impressive portfolio of organisations. Originally an Education graduate Bill has recently been awarded a Doctorate in the field of Human Relations. 13

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