Overloaded at work? Here are 6 ways to push back to clients & coworkers!

Overloaded at work? Here are 6 ways to push back to clients & coworkers!
Written by: Karl Sakas

When you’re slammed at work, it’s tough to keep up with anything that’s not a top priority. But that doesn’t stop day-to-day inquiries from coming in. This can feel even more stressful, as you try to focus on the top priority while new things keep piling up.

There’s good news—”away” messages are your friend!

It’s all about expectations management. When someone knows you’ll be slow to respond, they won’t get annoyed that you haven’t gotten back to them yet. And if you give them a way to escalate (if it’s an emergency), they’ll have a workaround if they truly need to reach you sooner.

I’ve identified six ways you can manage client and employee expectations when you don’t want to be interrupted. As an agency leader, you need to put on your own oxygen mask first.

6 Ways to Push Back: Email, IM, and More

You can reclaim your schedule—let’s look at how to use “away” messages (and related tools) to fight back!

1) Email: Use Your “Out of Office”

You don’t have to be out of the office to use your “Out of Office” auto-responder. To buy time when you’re underwater at work, put up an Out of Office to say something like:

“I’m in meetings on Friday and Monday, which means I’ll have limited email access until Tuesday. Clients get first priority on responses. If it’s urgent, send your request to team@agencyname.com and the team can act on it sooner.”

Here’s more on the topic, including an expanded auto-responder template.

Try it—it’s liberating! (However, if you do this constantly, it may be a sign you need to fix the root cause. More on that later.)

2) Voicemail: “Limited Availability” or “Email X”

When you know you’ll be busy, update your voicemail greeting. If you’re semi-busy but are open to receiving texts, you can use a greeting like this:

“I’m in meetings on X and Y dates, which means I can’t return calls as quickly as usual. If it’s an urgent matter, please text me at 212-555-1212.”

If you want to turn your phone off complete, that’s okay, especially if you’ve updated your voicemail greeting to explain that you’re slower to respond at the moment. (But remember to update the greeting afterwards!) In that case, you can do something like:

“I’m unavailable for calls until Thursday. If you need non-urgent help, please email team@agencyname.com. If you need urgent help, please call our front desk at 212-555-1212. Otherwise, I look forward to following up on Thursday.”

3) Instant Messaging: “Away” or “Do Not Disturb”

If you’re using Slack, Skype, or other IM tools, you can set yourself as “Away” or “Do Not Disturb.” Here’s how to do it on Slack, along with your options on Skype.

If you use a Mac or iOS device, you can also turn on “Do Not Disturb” for a time range. This disables most notifications—but your status isn’t visible to others, which means you don’t get the expectations-management benefit of “Away” messages.

4) Calendar: “Heads Down” Time

Want employees to stop interrupting you—or stealing time on your calendar when you need to focus on something else? Add “Heads Down Time” appointments to your calendar, and train employees so they know they can’t schedule over them unless they get your permission first.

If you have an assistant, they can pre-schedule “Heads Down” time (and other time blocks) for your entire year. This is what I do.

5) Office: Traffic Cone

Fellow agency consultant Drew McLellan recommends a simple physical tool—put an orange traffic cone at your door when you don’t want to be interrupted.

6) Employee Retraining: How to Reach You

Technology alone won’t fix things—you’ll also need to “retrain” your employees. You want them to interrupt you when it’s truly urgent—but this may require iteration. After all, what’s urgent to them rarely is urgent to you.

Retraining includes how you want people to escalate. Maybe they start with email, then escalate to an IM. Or maybe they start with an IM and escalate to a text or visiting in-person. You’ll need to choose the protocol that’s right for you and your culture—but be sure people know it; don’t expect them to guess.

How I Use This to Help My Clients

When my clients are temporarily overloaded at work, I frequently recommend using “out of office” and similar tools to manage senders’ expectations. Saying your response time is slower than usual (for a temporary period of time) buys you time to respond after the busy time.

Of course, if a client is constantly overloaded, I’ll focus on helping them fix the root cause. For instance:

  • Are they saying “yes” to too many requests?
  • Should other team members be handling incoming client requests?
  • Should employees be “batching” their interruptive requests to the boss?

Question: What are you going to change based on what I’ve shared here?

Book cover: Work Less, Earn More (by Karl Sakas)

Are you feeling overworked and underpaid?

As an agency owner, it doesn’t have to be that way.

The solution? Read my book: Work Less, Earn More: How To Escape the Daily Grind of Agency Ownership.

You’ll get my step-by-step process to reclaim your work-life balance and get paid what you’re worth. And you’ll get access to an in-depth companion workbook, to cement your progress.