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  • Steve Hulmes

How analytics teams can remain effective and sane during the Covid era




Speaking to various analytical teams during the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s clear that maintaining balanced workloads and keeping up stakeholder engagement have become even bigger challenges than normal. For many, the causes are a combination of having reduced capacity and having team members work from home.


However, temporary reductions in team numbers – either through furloughing or having people absent through illness – hasn’t decreased the pressure on teams to deliver high-quality reports, analyses and models.


On top of that, there’s the shift to remote working, which, although necessary, is still unknown territory for many organisations. Working from home can often exacerbate the communication silos that exist within organisations, leading to analysts feeling even less connected than usual – a problem that can further compromise an analyst’s ability to effectively engage with the rest of their organisation.


So, what can be done to help teams effectively manage workloads and at the same time maintain effective engagement?


Here are two key steps that a manager should take on their team’s behalf, as well as encouraging their individual analysts to take.


Quantify and communicate your true capacity


Covering for an absent colleague for a short period of time may be manageable, and is something that most analysts have to do at some point, but the team will start to feel over-pressured if the situation persists over several months.


This causes a spiral of behaviour where working late becomes the norm – but often to the detriment of work quality. If the analyst is constantly working to unachievable deadlines, oversights and errors will start creeping into their work, leading to dissatisfaction and even direct criticism from stakeholders.


As a result, the analyst may start to feel that their ramped-up commitment and hard work is going unappreciated. Obviously, this is not sustainable. Team morale erodes, stakeholder perceptions diminish and, ultimately, the organisation suffers as a result.


It’s common for teams to plough on and absorb workloads, but being able to quantify the change in team capacity, and then adjust workloads accordingly, is vital to ensuring that the team does not overcommit, over-promise and then ultimately under-deliver.


Regardless of the pandemic, many of the reports and analyses that the average analytical team provides are still key to the business – in some cases, now more than ever. But without a conscious rationalisation of priorities and workloads, the likely outcome is that all work is compromised.


As an individual analyst, it’s far better to acknowledge your reduced capacity and speak up about it, than to stay silent and trudge on. Having your revised capacity quantified and, importantly, shared can help both the wider team and your stakeholders to recognise that some lower-priority tasks will have to wait (or be tabled entirely). That is the only way to make sure that the truly important tasks are completed on time and to the right standards.


Quantifying your capacity can simply mean reducing your working-week capacity by the relevant percentage equivalent to the lost personnel time (e.g. one person down in a team of five would mean a 20% reduction in capacity). However, much benefit can be gained from a more in-depth investigation into where time is spent by the team, as this will highlight the burden of non-core activities – such as administrative commitments, attending general meetings, training etc.


In my experience, without this more granular estimation of activity, teams often overstate their capacity. I once reviewed the timesheets of one of the under-pressure teams I managed and found that when you took out the non-technical aspects of their roles, they actually only had three days a week available to undertake their technical analytical work . It was a real eye-opener and was the catalyst to reducing our commitments going forward.


Once you’ve got a handle on your capacity, then you need to be open and let stakeholders know exactly what reduced capacity you’re working at (e.g. stating clearly, “We’re at 75% of our normal capacity”) and you need to pre-empt potential bottlenecks. This is already a proven way to manage workloads effectively through any periods of reduced capacity or increased demand; it’s not just something for crises such as Covid.


Making your plans openly visible to stakeholders will also help in making them aware of the workloads you have. Developing a ‘war plan’ that is continually reviewed and managed throughout the ‘crisis’ period can be helpful to both team members and stakeholders. This plan should be at a high level (and simple!) to identify each project, its timescales and the analyst it’s allocated to. It’s a tool I encourage teams to use all the time but is especially beneficial in periods of ‘crisis management’, because it acts as both a communication tool and a workload management tool.


Teams utilising Agile methods will be used to this kind of planning, but much of the benefit in this approach comes from actually communicating the plans in black and white – by sharing current and planned deadlines with stakeholders. This has three advantages:

  1. Improves stakeholder awareness of team workloads

  2. Reminds stakeholders of the upcoming deadlines and what they’ve previously requested

  3. Provides a tool for stakeholders to prioritise their own requests, which in turn helps the analyst to avoid awkward negotiations, by keeping things transparent and fact-based

Stakeholders are much more likely to sit up, take notice and be more empathetic if your team’s capacity constraints are articulated in this way – compared to, say, an emotional rant about how busy your analysts are, without any supporting evidence.


Proactively communicate


Among busy analytical teams, defaulting to a passive way of working is common practice: the analysts bury their heads in their laptops and reactively deal with stakeholder requests. But nobody wins in the end – not even the stakeholders.


This is never an ideal situation, but is compounded further when teams are working remotely, with team members potentially feeling even more isolated.


Working in silos is a common issue for larger organisations, who may have offices geographically spread and/or have analytics teams that are based away from their stakeholders. These kinds of teams already have a hurdle to negotiate in terms of engagement with other departments, so it’s easy to see how working from home creates even more distant satellite silos – thus raising the risk of further disconnection and isolation.


In this instance, analytics teams need to recognise that out of sight can also be out of mind for stakeholders, and will potentially mean that stakeholders naturally start to communicate less with the analysts. That is, until stakeholders aren’t getting the deliverables they expect, or their timescales aren’t being met.


The danger of remote working is that the goalposts for analytics projects may well move without the analysts’ knowledge – leading to wasted time on work that has unknowingly become redundant. As any seasoned analyst knows all too well, there are few things more frustrating.


Analysts therefore need to recognise that they must communicate proactively, rather than waiting for stakeholders to get in touch with them. Keeping yourself ‘in the loop’ is key to keeping ‘on track’ – but this needs the analyst to proactively force their way into the consciousness of stakeholders by increasing the frequency of touchpoints with them, so that they are not overlooked when things change in the stakeholder’s world.


Make your analytics team more effective with soft-skills training


The shift to home working means that analysts now have to be more proactive than ever if they are going to deliver high-quality work that meets both stakeholder expectations and business objectives.


At Sophic, we provide live, interactive, online training workshops that are specifically designed to arm analysts with the soft skills needed to improve their impact and productivity through better stakeholder engagement.


Take a look at all of our soft-skills courses for data analysts here.

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