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Try this NBA strategy to help manage hybrid work

The author notes that at its core, load management is really about building a hybrid workforce, which is different from a hybrid workplace, where some people work in the office and others remotely. This distinction is key. 

Try this NBA strategy to help manage hybrid work
[Source photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images]
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Up until a few years ago, load management was a little-known utility industry practice, a way for power plants to maintain output while reducing demand for electricity during peak usage. Then came basketball superstar Kawhi Leonard

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During the 2018-19 NBA season, the Toronto forward sat out certain games to lessen the risk of injury and maintain his stamina throughout the grind of the regular season and into the playoffs. Bench players took his place in the lineup during strategically picked games and kept the team in the hunt while he recharged. 

Leonard carefully managed his workload. He appeared in just 60 games for the Toronto Raptors that season, but he put up career-high numbers, led the Raptors to their first-ever championship, and was named MVP of the Finals.

Today, with health, safety, and caution at the forefront of everyone’s mind, load management is built into many basketball teams’ DNA. Coaches rest their stars frequently, leaning heavily on a deep bench to keep their most important contributors at optimal health all season long. 

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The MLB and NFL have also adopted load management techniques as they gear up to play longer seasons coming out of the pandemic.

Now, corporate America is catching on too.

Overtaxing their best talent is as much a concern for businesses as it is for professional sports teams. That’s because burnout is at an all-time high. Spring Health found that more than three-quarters of workers are feeling burned out. And, according to Eagle Hill Consulting, these workers are four times more likely to leave their jobs once the pandemic is over than colleagues who are not feeling the same strain. In fact, Eagle Hill estimates that one in four workers are already eyeing the exit. 

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Some people have blamed remote work for burnout. But research doesn’t reinforce that point of view; the biggest driver of burnout is a higher workload. People are putting in more hours than ever before, in part because many firms are operating with leaner teams due to hiring freezes and layoffs. According to AI-based research firm meQuilibrium, employees given increased workloads experienced a 400% rise in stress. And they were twice as likely to feel burned out. The good news for executives, though, is that higher workload is also the easiest burnout factor to remedy. 

This is where load management comes into play. 

The most forward-thinking companies are building a “virtual talent bench” to get ahead of workload issues and prevent burnout from taking hold. The bench consists of skilled remote freelancers that managers can tap again and again when workloads rise and core team members need relief. Remote freelancers on the talent bench are available at any time, for any role. They serve as an instant pressure-release value.

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Here’s an example: Right now, a technology company we work with at Upwork is preparing for a grueling season of near-constant product releases and updates. There’s no way the engineering team could handle all this development work without pushing people to the breaking point. 

A lot of the engineers’ time was being eaten up by things like code documentation, Q&A, and the need for explainer videos about new features. That made it hard for them to get in the flow and stay there.

So the company called on their bench of remote freelancers. They brought in documentation, Q&A, and video specialists to reduce the load on engineering. It’s been a win all the way around. The engineers can focus on coding, every important task is covered, and the entire team feels energized during a critical period for the firm. No one’s burning out by trying to do it all.

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At its core, load management is really about building a hybrid workforce of traditional employees and remote freelancers. That’s different from a hybrid workplace, where some people work in the office and others remotely. This distinction is key. 

When you think of how work gets done, not where work happens, you can be much more strategic. It doesn’t matter if the freelancers on your bench are down the street, across the country, or on the other side of the world. In today’s era of remote work, they can jump in from anywhere. The wider your net, the more likely you are to find the right players to load manage your superstars without the team missing a beat. 

Building a bench of on-call remote freelancers eases the strain before it becomes a problem. Individual workloads stay manageable, even when the overall workload spikes. Remember, it doesn’t take much to tip a team over the edge. Many are already stretched to capacity. Our research shows that 61% of teams currently lack the people or skills to complete all their work.

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To build an effective load management strategy and fend off burnout, keep these three things in mind:

  1. Think prevention, not cure. Leverage design thinking to approach burnout proactively. Burnout is like a serious illness—once you see the symptoms, it’s often too late for treatment. Assemble your virtual talent bench now, not when your team starts to show signs of wearing down.
  2. Build a bench you can count on. The members of your talent bench will be partners in your team’s success. Look to add players who can suit up in any situation. You need people who can help you win, not walk-ons you’re hesitant to call on for big plays.
  3. Be intentional with workloads. Like the company preparing for a string of product releases, give people work that gets them in the flow. Take tasks that drain time or energy off their plates. In some cases, give entire project components to the bench, the equivalent of giving your superstars a game off. With a strong bench of freelancers at the ready, you can easily move projects around so no one feels bogged down.

The Toronto coaching staff didn’t pioneer load management in the NBA. They simply harnessed it to win their first championship, making Leonard’s example a shining case study. In 2021, you’ll see it in play from the Lakers (LeBron James) to the Nets (Kevin Durant). Innovations work that way. They are adopted by teams that want to win. For many companies, a playoff season looms ahead. Some will win rings and others will go home early. It all comes down to your team’s fitness. Are you ready? 


 Tim Sanders is the VP of Customer Insights at Upwork.

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