Dealing With Seasonal Changes in Workload

Planning for Busy and Quiet Periods

Dealing With Seasonal Changes in Workload - Planning for Busy and Quiet Periods

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Some business cycles are as predictable as spring or fall.

No matter what industry you work in, chances are that you'll experience some seasonal change in your organization's activity. For example, if you work in retail, you're likely to have a busy period before the holidays.

Your organization may need to work particularly hard during this time, so that it can generate the revenue needed to survive leaner months ahead.

However, busy periods can be difficult to manage – for you as a manager, and for your team. Unless you plan ahead, you may find that you're short on staff, or that your team members struggle to cope with their increased workloads.

Of course, in many industries, there are also quieter periods. These can happen when customers are on vacation, after major deadlines such as year ends, or after the end of the holiday season.

As a manager, you need to deal with the impact of these seasonal variations on your team. When you do this, you can ensure that you have the resources you need, that your people feel supported, and that you make the most of each person's skills.

In this article, we'll look at how you can manage seasonal changes in your team's workload.

Seasonal Workload Changes

Many businesses experience changes in workload throughout the year. For example:

  • The U.S. Census Bureau records that sales increased by an estimated 39.3 percent in U.S. department stores over the holiday season, from $18.6 billion in November to $25.9 billion in December 2012.
  • The U.S. National Retail Federation states that the busy season can represent up to 40 percent of annual sales for some organizations.
  • And, retailers hired 720,500 extra seasonal employees during the 2012 holiday period, which was a 13 percent increase from the previous year.

Prepare for Increased Workloads

Use the strategies below to guide your team management approach for the year ahead.

Understand the Bigger Picture and Create a Plan

When you start a new management role, it's important to understand how seasonality affects the organization. Look at the cash flow from previous years: think about how much you'll need to bring in during your busy season to meet expenses and to carry you through the quiet season.

In your planning, consider how you'll handle demand if it's unexpectedly high or if it's disappointingly low. Have contingency plans in place. (Cash management is critical here, but it's beyond the scope of this article.)

Next, forecast what your staff and resource needs are likely to be for the busy season, and plan ahead for this. For example, think about how you'll recruit any temporary staff that you'll need, work out how you'll secure resources and stock, and plan how you'll increase marketing efforts to maximize sales during your busy period.

Then, use risk analysis to explore how other possible issues could affect your team, such as supply problems or key people taking time off sick.

Communicate Your Plan

Next, communicate your plans to your people, and encourage them to ask questions and to share their ideas. Make sure that everyone has clear expectations: if you use a team charter, you may want to include a note of your plans for busy periods.

Your team members should understand that they will need to "pitch in" during busy times. This could involve staying late, or working during the weekends or holidays. Make new hires aware that this will happen, and include this information in their job descriptions.


Check your local employment laws to ensure that you provide enough breaks and days off during busy periods.

Support Your Team

You may want to offer training on time management and prioritization before the busy season strikes. Share your own time management tips with your team, and encourage them to explore ways that they can use their time efficiently.

Also, make sure that people know they can approach you if they're struggling with their workload. You may want to block out regular "open door" times when your team members can talk to you, or you may prefer to set up regular catch-ups or meetings. You might also find management by wandering around helpful during busy times, so that you can make sure that people are happy, and pick up warning signs of any problems.

Depending on your business, you may also need to provide refresher training to help your people cope with problems when they're busy. For example, call center workers might benefit from training in dealing with unhappy customers.

During your busy season, team members who work in emotionally demanding roles, such as retail or customer services, will need extra guidance and attention. Give people regular breaks so that they can rest and recharge: encourage them to take a quick walk outside, or to spend a few minutes alone relaxing.

Keep a close eye on your team during busy times. People can experience stress and burnout when work is hectic or nonstop.

Boost Morale and Engagement

Make sure that your team members have a healthy workplace. When people feel safe and comfortable, they'll be more productive, have higher morale, and be more engaged with their work.

Also, take time to celebrate people's accomplishments, to keep morale high during peak periods. Publicly recognize individual team members who meet goals or targets, and show your appreciation by saying "thank you" to hardworking team members.

Manage Customer Expectations

It might take you longer to respond to non-urgent customer requests or issues during busy periods. Where appropriate, communicate any expected changes in response time to your customers in advance, so that they know what to expect – this is common, for example, with accountancy firms in the run-up to a tax deadline.

Where you can, make sure that an increase in business doesn't affect service quality. Use quality management strategies such as total quality management, zero defects, or kaizen to keep standards and quality high, even during busy times; and automate work where you can, so that you can scale up more easily.

Manage Your Own Time

Remember to manage your own time carefully during busy periods. Stay focused and remain calm. Lead by example, and show your people how they can continue to reach goals, even when they're under pressure.

Keep a log of the problems you experience when you're busy, so that you can focus on them during quiet periods.

Strategies for the Quiet Season

When your organization slows down, it can be tempting to take a break and relax. However, it's important to make the most of this time.

Train and Cross-Train

Slow periods can be the best time to train your team. First, give your team members a training needs assessment to identify knowledge and skills gaps, then offer training or coaching to meet their needs.

Next, cross-train team members, so that you have a more flexible workforce. You'll then be able to move people around to accommodate future staff shortages or changing business conditions.

Consider Annual Hours Contracts

Depending on local employment legislation, you may want to think about transitioning your team to annualized hours. This can improve productivity and reduce risk if your organization has strong seasonal upswings and downturns.

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Annualized hours allow you to contract employees for a specific number of hours per year, rather than per week or month. You can then schedule employees to work longer when demand is high, without fear of violating their working contract, and then give team members time off when business is slow.

Fix Problems and Processes

Starting with your log of problems from your last busy season, look for ways to streamline processes, automate operations, improve equipment, and solve people problems for next season.

Use the McKinsey 7S framework to explore your issues, and list the problems, frustrations, complaints, or bottlenecks that you experienced. Carry out a cause and effect analysis to find the root cause of these problems. You could also brainstorm solutions with your team, and appreciative inquiry to build on the things that have gone well.

You may also want to use the Simplex process to find and solve problems.

Reassess Goals and Objectives

Review the goals and objectives you set for this season or quarter. How did your team perform? Did you meet your goals, or did you fall short? Along with your team, reflect on what happened, and what you could do differently in future.

Also, use this time to think about how you could develop your marketing strategy further. Are you taking full advantage of your busy season? Or, could you increase your marketing efforts to boost sales during your quiet period?

Key Points

It's likely that your organization experiences some seasonal fluctuations in its activity. As a manager, you need to plan for these changes, and support your people through them.

Take time to plan ahead for busy periods, and think about what you can do to help your team meet organizational targets. Then, create a robust plan to help your people through the busy season, and communicate it clearly, so that you manage their expectations.

Be ready to support your team during this time, and make sure that you keep morale high. Then, when the pressure eases, reflect on problems and your team's successes, and think about how they can be built into – or addressed in – the next busy season.