Less People, Same Amount of Work? Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I manage a department in a large manufacturing organization. Some parts of our business are going gangbusters, but my area is suffering from a slowdown due to the restrictions and economic impact of Covid-19.

We were able to redeploy some of my people to the busier parts of the business, but still ended up furloughing about 25% of them. The net loss is about 45% when you add up the people who were furloughed or redeployed.

Even though our workload is still reduced, and things should be balanced, my remaining people are telling me how overly busy they are. I am still trying to figure out why that is so. I am madly trying to balance workloads and hoping you have some thoughts.

Failing at Furlough


Dear Failing at Furlough,

This seems to be situation normal these days—but that doesn’t make it easier, does it? I can certainly relate. We are in the same boat and I’m getting a crash course in posting on our Instagram account—which is, frankly, hilarious. It turns out you can teach an old dog new tricks, but it’s a little painful.

It’s hard to think straight with all the high emotion, so that’s probably affecting you and your people. I would advise, first, to be kind with yourself and everyone else. Take the time to listen to everyone—the folks who moved, the ones who’ve been furloughed, and the ones in your department who are left with the work. Just listen. Breathe and listen. Reflect back what you hear, empathize, or cry with your people if that’s what makes sense.

You might feel like a therapist, but listening skills and empathizing are simply refined human skills. Using them does not make you a mental health professional. It just makes you a better human. People are sad, people are mad, and everyone is exhausted. Max Dupree, in Leadership is An Art, said “Leaders don’t inflict pain, they bear pain.” Maybe if people are allowed to express themselves honestly they will be able to think (a little more) clearly.

Once you have listened and everyone is on a more even keel, your next job (also according to Dupree) is to “define reality.” Sit down with your team, probably on Zoom, and take stock. Identify every task that each individual employee owned before, as well as all of the outstanding orphan tasks.

Make a whole list or whiteboard a mind map. Get it all down. Then, as a group, prioritize: what is absolutely, positively mission critical?

Now begin the big discussion, which goes like this:

  • What must we absolutely do now—or maybe even do more of?
  • What can we do less of?
  • What can we stop doing, at least for now?
  • What can we stop doing that we should have stopped doing it before this crisis anyway, but were in the habit of doing—because it isn’t working any more, producing a result, or adding value?
  • How can we change up the systems, processes, and workflows to simplify or streamline for the non-negotiables?

Duke it out. Argue. Hold on to your top priorities. But now is not the time to focus on B-list activities. Be prepared to go to your boss with a new list of what’s possible with your new team. Don’t be bullied into trying to deliver on goals you were once going after with your full team. That is simply unreasonable. It is fine to ask people to be heroic for a week, maybe two. But we are now 100 days in—with no end in sight—so come on.

You are the boss and your people are looking to you for direction. First, listen. A lot. Then, act. If you need to take the heat from above, so be it. That is why, Failing at Furlough, I say that being a manager is hard, and being a manager who cares is even harder. And you so clearly do care.

Love, Madeleine

About the Author

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is the co-founder of The Ken Blanchard Companies’ Coaching Services team.  Since 2000, Blanchard’s 150 coaches have worked with over 16,000 individuals in more than 250 companies throughout the world. Learn more at Blanchard Coaching Services.

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