HOW TO BE PERFECTLY WHELMED.
We all handle different amounts of stress. Some of us are never overwhelmed. Others freak out with the smallest amount of pressure. When managing a creative team, you’ll probably have a mix of both extremes.
Perhaps you have someone on your team who can only balance a few projects before they get frazzled and throw their hands up in protest when you try to give them another project. They act stressed and note that they have those other two huge projects to do first (that are in reality pretty reasonable).
Then there are others who willingly accept any project you mention without any drama. They may even ask for more, when you know their workload is pretty huge already. But you keep giving them projects, hoping that they won’t crumble with the weight.
While it’s fine to tailor the load for each member on your team, at some point it isn’t really fair. Especially if the one carrying more weight is paid less than the senior person who can only manage a few projects.
By tailoring the load for each person, you may end up creating an unfair environment and causing poor morale. People talk. They know when someone isn’t carrying their fair share of the workload. When you allow this unbalance to continue, it could backfire and you could lose one of your harder working team members because they get frustrated and start looking for a different job.
As a creative director or manager of creative teams, you’ll find yourself in this position often. And more often, you’ll probably just avoid the topic as you don’t want to deal with the backlash of the stressed out lightweight. So you do what you can by giving gift cards to the hard workers and hope it all works out.
While struggling with this same issue for years at a past ad agency, I finally had an insight on how to solve it. It came down to transparency.
I decided to build a formal document that highlighted a reasonable workload for all members on the team. I called it the “Whelm Scale.”
The Whelm Scale is a type of decoder ring, where you can see how your workload stacks up to others on the team. Except you don’t have to get into the emotions of actual comparison with your teammates. It’s a self-selection scale.
Here’s an example of the Whelm Scale in action for an advertising agency creative department.
Certainly, you need to scale this to match the workload of your business, as this may feel too heavy or light. But at least you get an idea of what it can do.
As you can see, there are several metrics I used to establish if someone is overwhelmed or underwhelmed. The reason is that there isn’t one particular measurement that is universal. Some may think the number of projects is a perfectly fine KPI, but in reality, creative projects are so different and require a varying amount of time and energy.
What I’ve tried to create with the Whelm Scale is a way to generalize the workload. A creative person can look down the list and get an idea of how their load compares. Perhaps you find that most of your stats fall in the middle, but one of them, like the number of meetings, is on the light side. The intent of the scale isn’t a dashboard where you try to normalize all your stats. It’s a way to quickly see how balanced your workload is with the average standards of the whole team. Because your working style may have one or two stats that are always off. But as a whole, you get an idea of whether you should be under or overwhelmed.
Once people understand what an average workload looks like, they can quickly compare and see if they are carrying their share, or if they are over or under.
And it’s an easy story to tell. You don’t have to shame anyone personally. Or ignore all the backroom chatter. As a manager, you simply present the scale to the team and ask them to figure out where they land on the scale. If they are underwhelmed, they need to start carrying more of the team load. If they are overwhelmed, you can work on rebalancing the load. (Unless they are an overachiever and they feel proud to be at a level 10. Then just keep asking HR for more gift cards.)
Once you establish the average workload, you can then use this as a quick gage with the team to see how they are doing. “Hey Bobby, what’s your whelm-age look like today?” Or, “I’ve noticed you seem to be overwhelmed. What level do you think you’re at? Can we rebalance some of your projects?”
It’s a quick way to assess workload needs without getting out a spreadsheet or building a custom plugin for your project management system. And because it allows you to be transparent, you shift the load of accountability off you as a manager and onto the whole team. Now you don’t have to go from person to person, working out an individual workload plan. Every person will know if they are balanced or not. And it should be up to them to ask for more work or ask for help.
Even if it’s not a tool you use on a regular basis, just having one meeting about it will change the conversation, especially for those who are constantly light. Perhaps they had no idea that they were carrying such a light load. Without some comparison, we all think we are maxed out.
This may not change the level of stress each member on your team can manage. You may show the average workload and someone really freaks out, claiming you are a slave driver. Perhaps that’s a good opportunity for a growth plan. Or an honest conversation for a new career path.
Truth is, when you are underwhelmed, you may be bored. The job is too easy, and most of us want a little bit of a challenge to keep us sharp. But not so much that we burn out and hate our jobs. You can’t change everyone’s tolerance for work. But you can at least balance the team so everyone does their part.
Because a happy work environment isn’t about being overwhelmed. Or underwhelmed.
Rather, a great creative team should be perfectly whelmed.