Dear Elizabeth:

I run a product team that responds to seasonal demands, and our output fluctuates. We have times when we’re very busy and then a couple of weeks where it’s slow. There’s always work to be done, but when demand ebbs, people’s productivity and engagement does as well. How do I keep my team engaged and motivated during these slow periods? – Riding the Productivity Rollercoaster

Dear Riding:

Let me be a little bit controversial here. How much does it matter if your team has a slow period? If demand is down, and that’s affecting their engagement and motivation, unless they are being downright unprofessional, perhaps you could cut them some slack. It’s hard to remain 100 percent motivated every day of every year, and engagement wanes too.

Not having an interesting piece of work to do is naturally a bit demotivating but that doesn’t stop them switching to “motivated mode” as soon as the next big assignment comes in. As long as they aren’t using your resources to print out copies of their resume, then maybe you want to let them off. Think of it as time that they are using to recharge their batteries until the next busy period.

Having said that, I know why you want to keep the team engaged and motivated, so let’s get back to your question. The first thing to look for is whether there is a pattern. Can you predict when the slower times will be? If so, think ahead and start looking for activities to fill the gaps. These activities might not be what you might call true work but you could organize a staff conference, a team building event, or schedule some professional training for the team. It’s also a time for cross-skilling, where team members can teach each other their particular expertise. That way, you’ll have more cover for vacation and sickness, as well as a broader skill base in the team.

It’s hard to give a blanket recommendation for how to motivate people because everyone is motivated by different things. Some may appreciate the ability to take some extra time off in lieu of hours worked during the busy times. Others may find motivation in being asked to step up and take on more responsibility, such as helping to plan the next big push. Tasks that might take longer if someone less experienced did them would be good to schedule in the slow periods too, as a way of building confidence and leadership in the team.

Every month, project management expert, Elizabeth Harrin, fields readers’ questions about the challenges, risks, and rewards of project work on the LiquidPlanner blog. This selection is used with permission.


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