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How to keep agency teams productive, challenged & above all, inspired

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When you need to keep your clients continuously happy and your team constantly creative, burnout needs to be avoided at all costs. Fatigued staff have nothing left to give, resulting in a drop in work quality, unexpected resignations and high turnover. Which means additional time and effort to fill posts and keep on top of work.

Instead of attempting a fuel injection when your team’s low on gas, the solution is to avoid exhaustion in the first place.  The strategies outlined in this article will help you deal with burnout today and eliminate it for the long-term, helping you to keep your teams productive, challenged and inspired

Are Your Staff Burning Out?

If you notice any of the following symptoms, it’s likely they are running on empty:

  • You have to battle to keep your own energy levels high as the waves of exhaustion rolling off your people threaten to pull you down.

  • Walls of cynicism have been erected; when people occasionally look at you, their eyebrows are usually cocked like a gun about to go off.

  • There’s a stench of resentment in the air as more work is piled on over-burdened shoulders.

  • People are slumped in a fug of detachment; breezy brainstorming sessions don’t cut through and ideas are in short supply.

If any or all of these apply, you need to act fast as they could be a sign your team is exhausted.

The only way to survive is to throw a lifeline and ease the pressure.

Ease the Pressure

In the face of burnout, you want to try and keep all the balls in the air; fulfilling commitments and keeping everything moving forwards.  One way to do this is to draft in freelance support for specific pieces of work.

To cover longer periods or broader responsibilities, temporary short-term hires can pick up some of the overspill.  Giving you and your managers time to sort out your workload.

If this isn’t possible, consider pushing projects back.  Nobody likes to disappoint a client but if your team’s performance has dipped to the point that clients will be disappointed anyway, this could be an option.

Don’t forget to communicate your plans to staff. This will help them hang on in there knowing change is coming.

Ensure the Right Staffing Levels

Now you’ve tapped the brakes, consider your long-term strategy.

If exhaustion has come about because you’ve tried but failed to recruit, you won’t have enough of the right people in the right jobs at the right time.  This could be caused by an ineffective recruitment strategy or a weak employee value proposition.

Work with an honest recruitment agency to understand how your organisation is perceived from the outside.  From reward to employer brand, once you know what needs to be fixed, you can begin to make your business more attractive.

You may have hesitated to recruit because of business uncertainty or a lack of understanding about whether the business can afford more staff.  Paul Barnes is Managing Director at My Accountancy Place, an accountancy business focussed specifically on supporting agency businesses drive growth and profitability.  Paul says:

“One of the greatest challenges in building a successful agency is in assembling an effective team.


New opportunities and problems present themselves on a daily basis and you are having to make key decisions quickly. Should I recruit now in anticipation of that opportunity coming off so I can get someone in and trained up in time to deliver? Or should I wait until it’s certain so we don’t risk being out of pocket if it doesn’t come off?

This is typical of the challenges agency owners are faced with, and it’s stressful. The route of the problem though is often that there is not a clear understanding of the capacity of the business.”

How to Calculate Capacity

The good news is that agency capacity is simple to calculate as Barnes details with his simple three-step process.

“Take one team member in your agency and follow these steps:

  1. Calculate the number of days per year that person will work, after deducting holidays, bank holidays and estimated sick days

  2. Multiply the number of working days by the percentage of time that they can realistically spend on billable work (from experience, this is rarely more than 70%)

  3. Schedule those available days into a 12-month rolling calendar so you can see the actual dates that each person is available to spend in work and on billable projects

Once you have applied this process to every team member, you will have full visibility of what skills are available and when. This will help you look ahead to plan your recruitment needs.”

Prepare for Recruitment In Advance

Whether you’re planning for growth or steady state, you need to determine:

  • the skill sets your business requires

  • how many people you need at different organisational levels

  • when you’ll need them

Consider your recruitment plans well in advance to ensure sufficient finance is available.  Having a clear vision for any growth plans is essential to bring in the money required to include the cost of new hires.

Cover ramping-up periods with fixed-term contracts to ensure you have sufficient person-power.  It’s a low-risk way to cover contracts: if they land you have people available to do the work. If they don’t, you’re not tied in to a permanent contract.

Talent Pipeline

Develop an external talent pipeline to help you fill roles quickly.  In agency land, it’s common practice to keep potential new hires on the back burner for some time, primed for when you need them.  Check whether your senior people have any useful contacts you can combine to create a talent pool for the business.

If your contacts fail to fill all the gaps in your recruitment plan, tap into a specialist recruitment agency’s huge database of suitable candidates.

Barnes says,

“Your sales strategy should  be built around filling the time of your people. This is how you maximise your profit margins. The alternative it to react to opportunities which means you continuously recruit new skills whilst existing skills are not being fully utilised and so profit is being poured away. 

If the skills that your current team have don’t fit in with your vision for the business and the opportunities that you want to explore, then you have 2 options:

  • Re-train the people you have to be able to deliver the skills that you need to fulfil your vision

  • Replace the people you have now with people that have the right skills

Once you have the team that you need in order to deliver your vision, your goal is to fill their time with the right work, at the right price. Providing your overheads are under control, you will then be maximising the profit potential of your agency. 

You now have a choice of whether to maintain, enjoying the healthy, profitable and controlled business that you have built, or to grow again. If you decide to grow again, you hire the skills that are required to exploit the next opportunity that you have planned out in your strategy.

This carefully planned approach to building a team is how the most successful agencies continue to deliver profit whilst growing their head count. “

Before you make any changes, check your profit margins to ensure you’re charging enough to maintain a higher headcount or increased salaries.  My Accountancy Place’s Profit Maximiser tool can help you calculate whether your day rate is too low, helping you to drive profitability and sustainability of your business.

Plan to Reward and Retain Your Team

Burnout isn’t simply about being exhausted.  Psychologist Herbert J. Freudenberger defines it as:

“A state of fatigue or frustration brought about by devotion to a cause, way of life, or relationship that failed to produce the expected reward.”

Which means recognition and reward are as important in keeping employees happy as ensuring workload isn’t too onerous.

Planning for pay rises – and potentially annual bonuses – is a mid-term solution for rewarding your team.

But if your people are at crisis point, a team party to blow off steam or a round of drinks at the end of a tough week can ease the burden of busy periods.  Recognising individual and team efforts with retail vouchers or smaller cash bonuses paid on project-completion also helps people feel rewarded.

Create the Conditions for Your People to Flourish

Stress-free, happy teams are likely to deliver their best work.

Create a more productive working environment with an employee well-being strategy.  Aim to combat stress and keep your people in tip-top form with at-desk massages, lunchtime yoga classes and subsidised gym memberships.

Combine wellness with employee benefits by providing cost-effective cash plans that cover every day health expenses like optical, dental and physio.  Some include Indian head massages and reflexology to further enhance your wellbeing plan.

Once you’ve got on top of the situation, keep up the good work by regularly revisiting your recruitment plan to ensure it reflects changes in workload.  Supplemented with good reward and well-being policies, your team should be well-placed to deliver quality work over the long-term.