Since the pandemic began, my company has been doing about double the amount of work we were before. I’m new (as of February), and my team is currently half staffed (two people instead of four). We are currently remote and will be for at least another month.
The other person on my team and I have been working extra-long hours to keep up with the demands of our daily tasks and the constant emails from our business partners in need of assistance from us. However, the company has asked people to cut back on hours as much as possible, and we are trying … but it’s impossible to keep up with the demand in just a 40-hour workweek.
My only teammate will be on vacation next week, and we just received the instruction that we are only allowed to work eight hours a day starting next week. Even with others pitching in, this will be rough for me, and not being allowed to work late will be infinitely more stressful than if I were able to work at my own discretion. I’m pretty good about wrapping up by 6 p.m. most days (which is still a ten-hour day, but it’s not like I have any other demands on my time at the moment). I also get paid for overtime, which makes the long days more palatable for me but I’m sure is a concern for the company.
I know my manager is doing everything she can to help me out and lighten my workload, but it is just not realistic to think I can get a majority of my work completed with a tighter time constraint. I’m not typically stressed out by long hours, and I’ve been careful to do what I can to avoid burnout. But the idea of having to constantly reprioritize throughout the day and leave urgent tasks undone when I log off fills me with absolute dread.
How do I approach this with my manager, when the only solution I can see is to allow me to continue working longer hours (which has explicitly been taken off the table)?
So this is almost definitely about the fact that your company doesn’t want to pay overtime — and maybe truly can’t afford to.
In general, that’s not an unreasonable stance for companies to take. They’ve budgeted a certain amount for salaries, and blowing that budget with lots of overtime can be disastrous for their ability to meet their financial obligations in other areas. That’s just a business reality, and when you talk to your boss about how to navigate your current situation, you don’t want to come across as if you don’t understand that.
But it’s also a business reality that you can’t dramatically increase people’s workloads and expect them to fit it all into the same hours. Nor can you expect a half-staffed team to perform as if it were fully staffed. And if you do have extra work or fewer people (in your case, you have both), you’ll need your employees working longer hours (which you pay for) or you’ll need to scale back their workloads. Short of magical elves, there aren’t other options.
So where does that leave you? It sounds like you need to clearly lay out for your boss what you can and can’t get done in the amount of hours she’s willing to authorize. Run down everything that’s on your plate and how long it’s taking you to plow through it all in an average week. Then, get explicit about trade-offs and how to prioritize. For example: “If you want me to stick to 40 hours a week, I’ll be able to do A, B, and C but not D. Or if D is more important, I’d need to move A off my plate to make room for it. Or I could act as an adviser to someone else on A, but I can’t do A myself if I’m also doing B, C, and D.”
If your manager pushes back, you can say, “The other option would be to work more hours to get it all done, which I can do but it would mean working overtime. If that’s off the table, realistically it can’t all get done — especially while we’re short staffed — so I want to make sure I’m making the right choices in how I prioritize everything.”
You’ll also probably need to remain constantly vigilant. It’s pretty common for managers to agree to this kind of reprioritization but then start adding new work to your plate again soon after. If that happens, you’ll need to hold firm about boundaries — as in, “If I do X, it means that A and B will need to wait until next week. Is that okay, or should I hold off on X for now and keep prioritizing the other work?”
But what you shouldn’t do is to just continue pushing to work overtime when you’ve already received a firm no. That’s going to be irritating to your manager and make it look like you’re ignoring the company’s financial constraints. This will probably feel more intuitive if you imagine yourself in your employer’s shoes. Imagine you’d hired a contractor to remodel your kitchen, and you gave them a budget to work with. You’d want to know what could be done within that budget and would probably be pretty annoyed if they kept pushing to go over the budget when you’d asked them not to. Your situation at work is on a larger scale, obviously, but it’s not all that different. You’ve just got to keep being clear about what you can and can’t do within the time allotted and let your “customer” (your employer) decide how it wants you using that time.
There’s another piece of this, though, and it’s one that I suspect will be hard for you: your personal stress over having to regularly reprioritize and leave some work undone. Ultimately, your responsibility is not to get everything done, if your workload is greater than your hours allow. Your responsibility is to proactively communicate with your manager, so she knows what is and isn’t getting done, and then to carry out the plan to which the two of you agree.
Now, it sounds like you’re a conscientious person who wants to take care of the work in your realm, and having to operate like this might make your job less satisfying. It can suck some of the joy out of work when you’re constantly having to make compromises about where your time and attention can go and regularly having to negotiate priorities with your boss.
But you’ve got to recognize that, for whatever reason, your company is choosing to limit how much work it’s paying for. It gets to do that! It might have good reasons for doing that … or, who knows, it might not. But you can’t be more invested than the company is in everything getting done.
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: How to Navigate Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.