International Journal of Project Management 38 (2020) 419–428
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International Journal of Project Management
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/ijproman
Working time in multi-project settings: How project workers manage work
ESG UQAM, 315 Sainte-Catherine East, H2X 3X2, Montreal, Canada
a r t i c l e i n f o
a b s t r a c t
Multi-project management is increasing as an organizing mode in the workplace. However, it leads to multiple
issues for project workers, such as intense pressure and work overload. This paper explores how project workers
experience work overload in a multi-project context, especially regarding practices that contribute to maintaining
or preventing it. It builds on a case study of a financial institution in which employees are assigned to many
projects at the same time. Findings uncover four practices related to working time (extending working hours and
managing boundaries) and prioritization (prioritizing emergencies and negotiating work and deadlines). This
paper exposes how issues such as work overload are both, framed by a larger context driving work intensification
and sustained through practices. It also displays the power and agency of individuals, who are not passive toward
work overload. As such, it contributes to extending perspectives and advancing understanding of project work.
“It cannot continue like this for long,” told me a portfolio manager,
referring to the high pressure and work overload in his department.
When asked how long this had been going on, he looked surprised by
the question, or maybe shocked by the answer he was to give: “I have
been here for eight years. It has been like this for eight years.”
More than fifteen years ago, Engwall and Jerbrant (2003) argued
that allocation of people on projects was the main issue of multi-project
settings. Other studies have illustrated the high pressure on workers in
multi-project settings (e.g. Cicmil, Hodgson, Lindgren & Packendorff,
2009, 2016). But years have passed, and the situation seems to be the
same. How, and why, are things not changing? The persistence of work
overload in project settings makes it a relevant topic for project management research since it represents a major shortcoming of this mode
of organization. But we need to go further to better understand the subtleties of this situation. Accordingly, this paper pays attention to practices leading toward work overload; and the research question guiding
this study is: How do project workers manage work overload in multiproject settings?
Multi-project organization, defined as “an organizational unit that
executes a substantial share of its operations as projects” (Engwall &
Jerbrant, 2003, p. 403), implies that several projects, drawing at least
some resources from a common resource pool, are executed simultaneously. Multi-project organization brings unique challenges, but surprisingly, despite the complexity associated with the management of
multiple projects, traditional project management literature has mainly
E-mail address: [email protected]
focused on the execution of a single project, overriding the difficulties
that occur when managing a multi-project setting (Jerbrant, 2013). Put
another way, there is a need to expand the research on “project management” to research on “projects” and to pay attention to multi-project
contexts, on which too little attention has been devoted so far (Geraldi
& Söderlund, 2018). This is especially relevant since this kind of setting
has many consequences. In the study by Engwall and Jerbrant (2003),
the central issue was the lack of resources, and the allocation of them,
resulting in a firefighting behavior and short-term problem solving.
Zika-Viktorsson, Sundström and Engwall (2006) also depict challenges
related to multi-project organization, such as lack of opportunities for
recuperation, inadequate routines, scarce time resources, and a large
number of simultaneous projects leading to project overload.
In order to understand these issues, a case study was conducted of a
large financial institution corresponding to a multi-project organization
in which employees were assigned to a large number of projects. Small to
medium-sized projects increase the problem of employee well-being and
intensity of work in organizations undertaking them (Turner, Huemann
& Keegan, 2008), which adds to the relevance of studying the actuality
of project workers in such a setting. A practice lens (Nicolini, 2012) has
been applied for this study, building on Whittington (2006) core concepts of praxis, practices and practitioners and adopting a structuration
Four practices related to two areas (working time and prioritization)
were identified: extending working hours, managing boundaries, prioritizing emergencies and negotiating work and deadlines. The results
revealed that work overload has a ripple effect on individuals, projects
Received 31 May 2019; Received in revised form 30 March 2020; Accepted 3 April 2020
Available online 14 June 2020
0263-7863/© 2020 Elsevier Ltd, APM and IPMA. All rights reserved.
J. Delisle International Journal of Project Management 38 (2020) 419–428
and the organization. Because it leads to individual exhaustion, workers
tend to make more mistakes, leading to future issues in projects. Furthermore, people under pressure tend to neglect some important tasks that
are not urgent, leading to a crisis mentality where workers always focus
on what has eventually become an emergency.
This research contributes to enlightening long-term issues of work
overload in projects. By depicting past and future of projects, it contributes to a better understanding of temporality in multi-project organization, as projects have impacts beyond their life cycles. But this has
not been much explored and represents an opportunity for project research, since the theorization of time and how to relate the temporary
to the more permanent are important avenues to advance literature on
temporary organizing (Bakker, DeFillippi, Schwab & Sydow, 2016).
This paper departs from a rationalistic assumption regarding multiproject management and offers an alternative view that follows recent calls that have been made (Clegg, Killen, Biesenthal & Sankaran,
2018; Martinsuo, 2013). Given that more and more organizations adopt
project organization as a mode of operation (Bakker, 2010), and because
this mode implies time pressure, a better understanding of how people
experience and manage the situation is essential. The next section provides a literature review covering the practice lens, work intensification,
and studies on projects and multi-project organization selected for their
relevance to the topic of work overload.
2. Theoretical background
2.1. Practice lens and structuration theory
Authors studying practices may adopt different theoretical perspectives. Seidl and Whittington (2014) present perspectives depending on
their ontologies (flat or tall) and empirical focus (sayings or doings).
One perspective presented, relating to a tall ontology that focuses on
doings, is the structuration theory (Giddens, 1984). According to structuration theory, neither micro nor macro analysis alone is sufficient; actors produce and reproduce the institutionalized social structures that
persist over time and that play a role in framing action (Giddens, 1984).
Jarzabkowski (2004) presents three contributions of structuration to
First, practice is institutionalized in social structures that persist
across time and space. Second, institutional social structures are incorporated in the daily practices that constitute action. Third, structures persist through the tacit knowledge and practical consciousness
of actors who choose familiar patterns because it provides them with
‘ontological security’ (Jarzabkowski, 2004, pp. 531,532).
In this vein, Jarzabkowski (2008) offers a structuration theory framework integrating both micro and macro explanations and treats strategy
shaping as socially dynamic. Structural context is defined as the administrative procedures and systems, such as planning, resource allocation,
and monitoring and control systems, which are also relevant for the
study of projects. In the same way, this paper posits that projects are
socially dynamic: structures such as plans and resource allocations are
constructed by individuals and influence their action at the same time.
Also adopting the structuration theory to study strategy-aspractice, Whittington (2006) presents three key components of practice studies: practitioners (actors performing the practices), praxis (what
practitioners actually do) and practices (what practitioners typically
draw on in their praxis). In the strategy-as-practice literature, strategy
is seen as a profession “like law, medicine or journalism… it is an occupational group with a collective identity and a set of connections that
goes far beyond particular organizations (Whittington, 2007, p. 1580).
In the same way, project could be conceived as a profession, representing a group with a collective identity which relies on specific
practices extending beyond the ones of a particular organization. Just
as strategy practitioners encompass a broader range of actors than the
senior executives, to include others performing strategy work, such as
strategic planners, middle managers, advisors and consultants, this paper proposes to adopt such a broad perspective for project practitioners,
to include actors implied in project work other than project managers,
such as project workers and functional managers in matrix organizations
(through the allocation of their employees). This contributes to extending the scope of project management research to include actors other
than the project managers, who have been far less researched (Hällgren
& Söderholm, 2011).
It is recognized in project management research that the actuality of
projects’ and practitioners’ lived experience of projects needs to be better understood (Cicmil, Williams, Thomas & Hodgson, 2006). Following the turn seen in other areas of management, project-as-practice has
started to gain some attention and momentum in project management
research (Blomquist, Hällgren, Nilsson & Söderholm, 2010; Hällgren &
Söderholm, 2011). Blomquist et al. (2010) propose a project-as-practice
approach to increase the relevance of project management research for
project practitioners in particular.
Many research topics in project studies could benefit from the practice lens, such as the one explored in this paper. Project work is known
to exert pressure on people, and the experience and practices of project
workers in that context deserve attention, as claimed by these authors:
The realization of a project involves many tasks, such as ensuring
sufficient funds, preparing plans, writing reports, and meeting with
contractors and steering committees. The amount of work can place
a significant amount of stress on the people involved, which can
lead to burn-out, family problems, or simply long hours at work.
The everyday work of project members, including managers, engineers, steering committee members, project contractors, and clients,
deserves serious attention but has not been the subject of a great deal
of research to date. (Hällgren & Söderholm, 2011, p. 500)
An exception can be found in the work of Gustavsson (2016), who
studied strategies used in practice for avoiding project overload. She
identified three narrowing strategies to avoid project overload: support
phone (assigning a member in charge of answering requests regarding
the project, to free the other members’ time), slot-time-scheme (being
present solely at a specific time where you really are required for a
meeting) and task-lists (working with task-lists instead of a global plan).
However, she characterizes these practices as narrowing, which are not
without consequences. This is a first and valuable step toward a better
understanding of the practices of project workers in the face of project
overload. Since project overload is a key issue for project workers in
multi-project settings, this study pursues the inquiry to better understand projects in practice and issues for workers.
In short, practice theorists aim “to develop closer connections between what goes on deep inside organizations and broader phenomena
outside” (Whittington, 2006, p. 617). This is what is intended in this
paper, by drawing on broader phenomena going on, such as the intensification of work. This will be the subject of the next section.
2.2. Working time and work intensification
When studying practices and adopting a structuration perspective,
it is necessary to cover broader societal phenomena than the micropractices at hand, which both influence and are created by this wider
context. Although project work is reputed to be intense and prone to
pressure, it does not happen in a vacuum, outside of this overall context. Work is becoming more intense for people. This section will cover
literature that addresses the contemporary challenges of work intensification facing a growing number of professional workers.
Many recent phenomena have been associated with the intensification of work, some being paradoxical. For example, work–life initiatives
and flexibility are increasing in the workplace. However, they bring contradictory results such as the intensification of work (Kossek, Lewis, &
Hammer, 2010). Other factors, such as mobile devices and technology,
have also been associated with work intensification, although a nuanced
J. Delisle International Journal of Project Management 38 (2020) 419–428
stance on benefits and costs of information and communication technology has been suggested (Chesley, 2014). In fact, causes of work intensification are manifold and can be attributed to many factors, such
as technological changes, new forms of work organization, human resources policies designed to encourage greater worker involvement and
commitment (e.g. incentives that link effort with pay), and the increased
use of temporary workers and contractors (Green, 2004).
This context of work intensification has seen the emergence of what
has been called extreme work, to depict the context of a growing number of workers not typically associated with extreme contexts. Hewlett
and Luce (2006) highlight some elements of what can be considered extreme work, such as working 60 h or more per week and holding jobs
with characteristics such as unpredictable flow of work, fast-paced work
under tight deadlines, work-related events outside business hours and
availability to clients 24/7. In their studies, these four characteristics
were the ones creating the most intensity and pressure. In their introduction to the special issue Extreme work/normal work: Intensification,
storytelling and hypermediation in the (re) construction of ‘the New
Normal’, Granter, McCann and Boyle (2015) mention that the notion
of extreme is starting to define more mainstream work and organizations. “Even in occupations not known for intense, dirty or risky work
tasks, there is a growing sense in which ‘normal’ workplaces are becoming ‘extreme’, especially in relation to work intensity, long-hours
cultures and the normalizing of extreme work behaviours and cultures”
(Granter et al., 2015, p. 443). The special issue “highlights the fact that
extreme work is damaging to human individuals, damaging to organizational cohesion and, more widely, counter to living and working in
sustainable societies” (p. 453). They conclude by arguing that this situation is not expected to stabilize or stop: “As stresses and strains within
organizations are reflected and amplified by cultural tropes of normalized extremity, this scenario develops its own momentum, and greater
extremity becomes inexorable” (p. 453). It highlights the relevance of
better understanding this growing phenomenon, which is expected to
become even stronger.
In a recent special issue of the German Journal of Human Resource
Management, regimes of excessive working hours, drivers, consequences
and attempts to change them were investigated. In their introduction to
the special issue, Blagoev, Muhr, Ortlieb and Schreyögg (2018) evoke
the consequences of excessive working hours, with their dispersed nature, high levels of persistence, and constitution at multiple levels of
analysis. These regimes of excessive working hours cannot be linked to
a single cause, but may be related to many factors, such as the reinforcement of the ideal worker schema (Moen, Lam, Ammons & Kelly,
2013), and to work patterns where actors are continuously interrupting
each other (Perlow, 1999). As such, to echo the structuration perspective
adopted in this article, causes are both macro (as technological change)
and micro (as actions and reasonings of actors).
But despite the growing interest in the intensification happening in
the workplace, much remains to be uncovered about the experience of
individuals evolving in this context. In their study of time worked by
professionals, Moen et al. (2013) assert that while we know the stress
and time strains with which they are confronted, how they respond to it
remains to be discovered. An exception is Cañibano (2018), who studied the individual experience of employees facing paradoxical tensions
related to workplace flexibility in a consultancy firm, “where they must
be accessible, responsive and flexible seemingly around the clock” (p.
1). This author highlights the lack of empirical studies of employees’ experiences of flexible working, and illustrates how workers manage paradoxical tensions in “different ways, including vacillating between polar
opposites and integrating contradictory elements” (p. 1). Thus, paying
attention to practices means that we could shed light on responses that
may vary widely between practitioners.
In sum, given the fact that intensification of work is a growing phenomenon, we need to know more, especially regarding practices in the
face of it. Consulting firms have been the context of many studies on
pressure and overwork, since they are the place of much intense work
(e.g. Hewlett & Luce, 2006; Kärreman & Alvesson, 2009; Lupu & Empson, 2015). However, project work is another illuminative setting of
these phenomena, which will be explored in the next section.
2.3. Projects and multi-project organizations
As seen above, work intensification is a growing phenomenon that
has been investigated outside the project context. A growing number of
workers are prone to intense work, which increases the relevance of this
topic for the study of organizations. However, the project context, more
specifically the multi-project setting, is especially suitable for this study,
given that its relation with work overload has been well recognized.
Some studies are very demonstrative of the impact of project organizing on work intensification. For example, Peticca-Harris, Weststar
and McKenna (2015) shed light on the video game industry through two
blogs, written by the spouses of game developers, about extreme and exploitative working conditions. In their own words: “The blogs and comments illustrate that the dominance of extreme work within the game
industry is shaped and perpetuated by the project-based structure of the
work” (p. 576). They illustrate that projects create extreme work conditions that are legitimized through neo-normative control mechanisms
and exacerbated by the imperative to meet project deadlines.
Another example is the study of Shih (2004) about the pace of work
of highly skilled workers employed in the high-tech industry of Silicon
Valley. She depicts how the organization of work through project cycles is a key factor shaping the erratic and quickened pace of work in
Silicon Valley, which negatively affects workers. As we can see, the issue of work overload has been raised for decades, but intensification of
work continues to increase and remains an issue for organizations and
Technology intensive firms are not the only ones leading to intense
work. Lingard, Francis and Turner (2012) depict the ‘long hours’ culture within a construction contracting organization based in Australia.
Their results reveal a strong inverse relationship between weekly work
hours and the quality of work–life balance experiences, and illustrate
employees’ experience of time poverty, which results in feelings of tiredness and frustration. Their study aims to answer a current gap of research on projects, since “little is known about the work–life experiences of workers in dynamic project-based industries, despite the fact
that project work is understood to have unique characteristics and demands” (Lingard et al., 2012, p. 282). Although work–life balance issues have been related to project organization in a notable way, the fact
that this topic remains under-investigated continues to be raised (Noury,
Gand & Sardas, 2017).
Other sectors such as public projects are not immune to intense work.
As illustrated by van Berkel, Ferguson and Groenewegen (2016) in their
exploration of coordination in public infrastructure projects, the context
of projects implies a sense of urgency and time pressure. In their study,
political stakeholders imposed demands and pressure for timely project
completion that reinforced the time pressure within project teams, resulting in a continual sense of urgency to finish projects on time. As
illustrated, project organization brings challenges that go beyond a single field.
Project-oriented companies have specific features such as managing temporary projects, dynamic boundaries and contexts, multirole
demands, and a specific management paradigm that implies empowerment, a process orientation, a customer orientation and networking
(Huemann, Keegan & Turner, 2007). This transient and dynamic work
environment can create additional pressures for the employees through
“peaking work-loads making it difficult to achieve a work-life-balance,
uncertainty about future assignments, including the nature of the assignment, its location and future work colleagues, [and] matching assignments to career development objectives” (Turner et al., 2008). As mentioned by Bredin and Soderlund (2006): “firms are undergoing something of a project intensification, i.e. more activities are organised in
projects at the same time as work in projects is intensified and com-
J. Delisle International Journal of Project Management 38 (2020) 419–428
pressed” (p. 467). As such, project management organization brings
changes for project managers, line managers and human resources practices (Bredin & Soderlund, 2006), and how these actors experience these
issues is a worthwhile inquiry.
Matrix organization—a mixed organizational form with vertical hierarchy overlaid by lateral authority, influence or communication (Knight,
1976)—and multi-project organization amplify these issues, since workers may be assigned to many projects at the same time. The fact that
matrix organizations lead to conflict over the allocation of scarce resources between functional managers and project managers, and between project managers, has been acknowledged (Laslo & Goldberg,
2008). Kuprenas (2003) has proposed solutions to issues brought by
matrix organization at the project and organizational levels, but individual practices, especially the ones of team members (outside the project
manager) remain unknown. Issues are worst for small to medium-sized
projects (Turner et al., 2008), which is common in multi-project organization, where people may be assigned to many projects at the same
time. Many issues have been raised to explain this, such as the difficulty to pace the work, tight timescales requiring intensive work and
underestimation of workload (Turner et al., 2008).
Despite growing interest for the topic of the intensification of work,
much is needed to understand the actual practices of actors. The context
studied in this paper differs from other project settings that have been
investigated so far, such as public projects (van Berkel et al., 2016), engineering intensive product development (Gustavsson, 2016), high-tech
industry of Silicon Valley (Shih, 2004), and research and development
based firms (Bredin & Söderlund, 2006). Furthermore, by relying on
the structuration perspective, this work allows us to consider micro and
macro phenomena without isolating them, since these are mutually reinforcing each other and both need to be considered if we want to go
beyond the identification of causes or effects as being disconnected. Finally, by exploring the experience of project workers and paying attention to a wide range of roles, this paper intends to shed light on project
practitioners who have been understudied so far.
The qualitative study is interpretative and builds on a case study of
a multi-project organization in which employees are assigned to many
projects at the same time, ranging from 2 to over 50 (smaller projects).
This study is part of a larger project research investigating temporal
tensions in multi-project settings. This paper presents four practices
that are more specifically related to work overload. The context of the
study was partially based on the use of planning software employed to
manage time (timesheets and time planning). This served as a pretext
to explore temporal tensions experienced by individuals working in a
multi-project organization. The design strategy incorporates purposeful
sampling, which means that cases and participants have been selected
because they offer useful manifestations of the phenomenon of interest
(Quinn, 2015). More specifically, the case at hand displays multi-project
allocation, and most project workers face high workloads. Interviews began with a few employees from diverse sectors of the organization and
primarily focused on the temporal tensions experienced in their work.
An opportunity arose to pursue case studies of employees using planning software, and an invitation to participate in the study was sent to
these employees. Snowball sampling was also used to identify relevant
participants to interview.
The organization is a large financial institution with around 50,000
employees. It operates retail and commercial banking, in addition to
offering other products and services such as insurance, real estate, venture capital funds and brokerage. The structure is a matrix organization,
with employees being under the authority of their functional managers
and assigned to projects led by project managers who have no formal
authority over them. Functional managers are responsible for human
resource management issues such as development, evaluation, promotion and administrative matters. Projects are delivered to internal clients
having the role of project sponsor. Because the employees studied were
dispersed throughout the organization, projects varied widely in terms
of duration, size and type, ranging from commercialization and process improvement to IT. Project workers not only have to handle many
different projects simultaneously, but they also direct operational activities. Requests may come from their functional managers, for example, or
from internal customers (in the case of employees giving support in the
commercialization group). Employees have flexibility over their working hours, which has been linked to the intensification of work, making
it an illuminative case to explore work overload in projects.
Data collection includes interviews, organizational documents and
observation of meetings. Interviews were conducted with 28 employees having roles ranging from project workers, project control officers,
project managers, portfolio project managers and functional managers.
As such, employees working in branches and doing customer relations
have been excluded since these are not organized in projects. Employees
came from different sectors of the organization, such as infrastructure,
IT and diverse business units (wealth management, commercialization,
marketing and innovation), which allowed us to explore a broad range
of practices and identify commonalities.
This article draws principally on semi-structured interview data.
Some could argue that in order to study practices, we need to rely on
observations and methods such as ethnography and shadowing. This
paper suggests, however, that individual practices can be assessed by
questioning people on what they do. Other authors working on very
similar matters have been able to uncover practices through interviews,
as Gustavsson (2016), who explicitly adopted a practice lens, and Borg
and Söderlund (2014). Although the latter did not position themselves
explicitly under the practice lens, they identified practices based on interviews: “following the distinctions made by Feldman and Orlikowski
(2011), we consider liminality practices from an empirical standpoint
where the identified set of practices signify concrete focal points for
understanding the daily activities and doings of project workers in this
particular context.” In both cases, data consisted solely of interviews,
which did not prevent them from revealing a rich set of practices.
Hence, semi-structured interviews covered questions about employees’ roles, what they do day-to-day, and what they do in certain circumstances; for example, when there are too many things to do for the time
they have. Interviews lasted an average of one hour and were recorded
and transcribed. Coding and analysis have been supported by NVivo
Data analysis was inspired from Gioia, Corley and Hamilton
(2013) and proceeds through progressive elaboration. Analysis started
with elemental coding (descriptive and in vivo) (Miles, Huberman &
Saldaña, 2013) to uncover the temporal tensions experienced by employees and observe how they respond to such tensions. Practices were
inductively discovered and refined iteratively. This paper presents four
main practices that have been selected for their relation to work overload. The observations of meetings have not been used as data for this
paper since they were not focused on workload or practices. However,
the interviews allowed us to grasp the practices of individuals, and the
meetings proved useful to familiarize ourselves with the context of the
4.1. An overloaded organization
The organization has been depicted as one in which people are
chronically overloaded due to “too many projects,” “too much ambition,” “unrealistic plans,” “emergencies and unpredictable work” and
“not enough resources.” Furthermore, a “no overtime” policy was in
place in the organization since a few months before the interviews. Before the “no overtime” policy, employees of some departments were
used to working a high number of hours in order to meet project deadlines. But for one department, already under high pressure, this measure
J. Delisle International Journal of Project Management 38 (2020) 419–428
acted as an additional constraint and increased the feeling of work overload. Even employees who considered that “in project management, we
do not count our hours,” seemed to realize that “there is a limit,” and
this measure appeared to act like a trigger that made some people more
aware of the high temporal constraint on them. However, as illustrated
with the introductory quote, this situation was long-standing.
Work overload has been widely mentioned by employees. Furthermore, when it comes to future orientations, employees are pessimistic,
as they envision the situation persisting and worsening over time due to
specific circumstances within the organization, undergoing a rationalization process:
We have issues. Everybody knows about it. We cut management jobs,
lately. We have to be leaner, more effective. We talk a lot about
productivity, about being performant. We have to find ways to do
more with less. Will they cut jobs here? One thing is sure: it will
not increase! [Laugher] Whatever happens, we will have fewer and
fewer resources every year. Workload will always increase, and if we
keep the same number of employees, we’re lucky. But the workload
will go up anyway. So this is an issue; we are already overloaded.
Work–life balance has been mentioned as an issue, especially at the
end of a project, when all that matters is to succeed in delivering on
Every month we circulate a questionnaire to the team to know how
it goes, and the weakest point is precisely work–life balance, which
is always very difficult. It is difficult, because you arrive at the end of
your project and you want to deliver, and everyone wants to deliver
well. (Project Manager)
Work overload seems to be ingrained in the organization, but it is not
proudly apparent: “It is a very political organization, so I think that they
do not want to show that employees are overloaded” (Project worker).
This employee was referring to an IT system that has been put in place
to manage capacity and ensure a realistic workload for people, in which
workers indicate the number of hours they plan to work on their projects
and activities. The IT system makes the workload visible by presenting a
dashboard that illustrates the assignments of people over their capability (workers planned to work well over 100% of their time on projects
in order to deliver what they had to). However, as mentioned by this
project worker and other employees, managers didn’t seem willing to
take this into consideration, neither taking action nor even looking at
it, which made them a bit cynical about the situation.
Projects put pressure on workers, but many mentioned that they
also had other activities to carry out which led to work overload, especially when they were not planned. “Unfortunately, we always exceed
the plans, because there are always issues. And you always have 20%
of tasks to manage in addition to the 100% time you’re assigned on a
project” (Project worker).
4.2. Practices toward overload
Four practices toward work overload are presented; they are related
to two areas: working time and prioritization. Regarding working time,
employees mainly tended to extend their working hours during periods
of intense demand—at times, managing boundaries very carefully, making sure working time was occurring at work and not spilling over into
sacred periods such as weekends. Regarding prioritization, employees
mainly tended to prioritize emergencies, causing a vicious cycle; they
sometimes actively negotiated work and deadlines (Table 1). The following table offers a summary of these practices, and each will then be
explained in light of the field study. Representative quotes illustrating
each of the practices are provided.
These practices are not exhaustive, but have been selected as a point
of focus for this paper, as they were the key ones related to work overload.
Definition of practices uncovered.
Working time Extending working hours:
Work more than expected in
order to face the high
Managing boundaries: Actively
manage spatial or temporal
boundaries between work and
Prioritization Prioritizing emergencies:
Work on what is perceived
as more urgent and
potentially neglect less
Negotiating work and
deadlines: Actively manage
expectations, work and
deadlines in order to handle
4.2.1. Extending working hours
The first practice related to the area of working time is the extending of working hours. Employees mainly tend to extend the number of
working hours during peak time. In some cases, it seems to be sustained
over very long periods of time, if not in a permanent fashion. But for
others, it occurs as an exception; at the end of a project, for example.
Employees didn’t extend their working hours in the same way, but
many mentioned working in the evenings during intense periods: “When
workload is intense, I can easily put three evenings of work in per week”
(Project worker). Many mentioned working at night to be able to accomplish what they didn’t during the day: “I often do at night what I was
not able to do in the day” (Project worker). The fact that this allowed
them to work with fewer interruptions has been mentioned: “I know it’s
not a good habit, but sometimes I connect at nights, because then I’m
not interrupted, there are fewer emails coming in, phone doesn’t ring.
So if I really want to finish something, I’ll do it at night. It’s not a good
habit, but sometimes it helps (laughter)” (Project worker). “My days
start at 8 am, and end around 6 pm. Sometimes it stretches beyond 6
pm if there is something I have to deliver” (Project worker). Another employee recalled a specific time where he had to work extensive hours:
“[Extensive working hours] are not systematic, but they occur during
peak periods. For example, last summer we had to deliver new commercialization tools. I was working until 10–11 pm, while everybody was
out partying” (Project worker).
Many employees preferred working at nights rather than during the
weekends, but some also mentioned working during the weekend to
catch up, or to alleviate the beginning of the coming week: “If I get
behind during the week and delivery dates are coming, I’d rather take
a few hours during the weekend and come back with a cool head on
Monday than carry all this” (Project worker).
For these employees, working hours extend depending on the workload: “If it takes 60 h, 80 h, I don’t mind. I’ll invest the time that is
needed to make it happen” (Project worker).
In sum, extending working hours is a practice related to people who
work more than they are expected to in order to face the high workload
4.2.2. Managing boundaries
Another practice related to working time is the managing of boundaries between work and life. Two types of boundaries have been evoked:
temporal boundaries (protecting personal time from work) and spatial boundaries (protecting home from work). As explained by this employee, putting in more hours on a regular basis, but avoiding doing it
from home: “I prefer to leave at 6 pm from here, even if I started at
8:30 am, than to get the ball rolling again at night. It can happen, but
it’s rare. And the weekend, hardly ever.” Another manager working a
high number of hours mentioned protecting her time, blocking time for
personal matters, “otherwise I would be dead, I would be burned-out.”
Managing boundaries has been seen as a way to protect one’s personal time or space, in combination with extending working hours.
For example, some employees mentioned working at nights (extending
working hours), but never working on weekends (managing temporal
J. Delisle International Journal of Project Management 38 (2020) 419–428
boundaries); or working more hours (extending working hours), but always at the office (managing spatial boundaries). As an example, this
employee extended work hours, but managed spatial boundaries: “I’d
rather leave work later, than start again at night from home” (Project
In sum, managing boundaries is a practice related to working time,
where people actively manage spatial or temporal boundaries between
work and life.
4.2.3. Prioritizing emergencies
The third practice is related to prioritization. It corresponds to the
prioritizing of emergencies, in which people focus work on what is most
urgent. By prioritizing emergencies, employees mentioned having to cut
somewhere and neglecting less urgent activities. “To survive, you learn
to manage your time and delegate [laughter], cutting corners, otherwise
you’re always in work overload” (Project worker).
Administrative tasks, maintenance, support and helping colleagues
were amongst the activities being neglected: “My days are rock ’n’ roll.
You have to cut somewhere. For me, it’s administrative work and planning. My boss would not like me to say that, but it is the reality [laughter]. I’d rather deliver the project on which I worked unpaid overtime
and cut corners on other stuff” (Project worker). “When we have time,
we can help colleagues, make sure everything is up to date, etc. But
when there are emergencies, it’s go, go, go, and we go by priorities”
What was worrying some employees was that the “quieter periods,”
where you can work on less urgent activities, were becoming scarcer
and scarcer. They were fearing the worst for the future, since “these
activities are still important, and you cannot neglect them forever.”
How people handle priorities and assess what constitutes an emergency seems to be largely influenced by who is formulating a request, as
demands from functional managers take precedence over project work.
Requests from clients (for employees having a support role toward internal customers) also appear as a priority to respond to. This seems
to relegate most project work to non-priority work, except in cases
where deadlines are considered critical (as in regulatory or marketing
In sum, prioritizing emergencies is a practice related to prioritization
where people focus work on what is perceived as most urgent, which
may bring them to neglect less urgent activities that may still be considered important.
4.2.4. Negotiating work and deadlines
Another practice related to prioritization is the negotiating of work
and deadlines, to ensure that all obligations are fulfilled. “When I’m
overloaded, I propose a prioritization of projects to my manager: considering this and that, I will work on this and then that, and usually it
goes well” (Project worker). In this example, the employee made it clear
that some activities should be postponed in favor of others. This practice
is more reflexive than simply working on emergencies, since it means
individuals assess their workload and make judgments on what should
be prioritized, or what would be realistic in terms of deadlines.
Another project worker mentioned negotiating deadlines, not with
her manager or project manager, but directly with her project sponsor:
You manage expectations with the project’s sponsor: on what you
must focus first. I’m lucky to have the same sponsors on my two
projects, even if project managers are different. But I’m working
closely with the sponsor, so I figure out with him what I should work
on first. So, he tells me if he wants me to focus on something more
important in the short term, and everything can be discussed and
negotiated! If everything is a priority, you negotiate [laughter]. We
always negotiate. We can’t be faster than time! (Project worker)
This extract not only illustrates the practice of negotiating the deadlines, but it also illuminates a situation in which the project worker negotiates directly with the project sponsor, although this practice could
be associated to the role of the project manager.
Finally, this practice may also include the negotiation of project content, as scope may be reduced in order to deliver on time.
In sum, negotiating work and deadlines is a practice related to prioritization, where people actively manage expectations of work and deadlines in order to handle their multiple priorities.
4.3. The vicious cycle of overload
In their paper aiming at establishing paradox perspective as a
metatheory, Lewis and Smith (2014) mention that “vicious cycles arise
when actors respond defensively to the discomfort of paradoxes. Applying defenses that provide short-term comfort, ironically, intensifies
the tensions and reinforces counterproductive thinking and behavior”
(Lewis & Smith, 2014, p. 136). As such, a paradox perspective views vicious cycles as defensive reactions to paradoxes involving “emphasizing
one pole, fueling pressure from its opposing force, resulting in a downward spiral” (p. 133). This is useful to shed light on the consequences
of practices uncovered and to understand why some seem to lead to
detrimental consequences in the long term.
The vicious nature of project overload has been evoked in multiple
manners. For example, on an individual level, project overload appears
as an endless cycle: “It has been a vicious circle, it’s like being in a situation in which you can’t get out, you’re overwhelmed, you have to
get your head above water. It’s what I’ve been through, and it’s why I
was unable to take action” (Project worker). Some employees extending
their working hours mentioned being more tired, and hence, making
more mistakes and producing work of lesser quality. Other employees
mentioned going through breaking points that led to sick leaves. Unfortunately, these employees mentioned that work overload was the same
when they came back, and they were worried the same scenario could
Furthermore, many incidents have been reported due to work overload. One portfolio project manager evoked the intense pressure on his
departments “because there are just too many projects,” leading to mistakes and omissions having “catastrophic consequences.” As an example, a license that had not been renewed almost caused a crash of all
the systems of the organization (including systems used by their customers). The license renewal was a simple task, and its omission had
been attributed to the intense workload placed on people by the portfolio manager. As mentioned by the employees: “We work on things when
they become fires”; “We’re always extinguishing fires” (Project workers). This situation exemplifies the long-term consequences of overload,
as it leads to future emergencies and more overload, fulfilling a vicious
cycle. In sum, people under pressure tend to neglect some important
tasks that are not urgent, leading to a crisis mentality where workers
always work on what has eventually become an emergency.
Adopting a practice lens under a structuration perspective, this
study has explored how project practitioners respond to work overload in a multi-project setting. Fig. 1 brings us back full circle to the
Whittington (2006) core concepts of practitioners (who), practices
(what), and praxis (how, what we have called practices in this paper). It
presents key elements from this study for each. Practitioners (project
actors, such as project managers, project workers and functional managers) rely on practices (praxis) to carry on specific actions (such as the
four practices presented). In this case, practices on which practitioners
draw in their praxis include the culture and policies around overtime
(which are ingrained in practice despite an explicit policy prohibiting
it), project and time management practices (including practices such as
planning, and norms such as delivering on time) and work–life balance
(including practices such as flexibility and norms regarding working
J. Delisle International Journal of Project Management 38 (2020) 419–428
Fig. 1. Core elements of practices.
As strategy is not something a firm has, but something a firm and
its actors do (Jarzabkowski, 2004), projects should not be envisioned
as things a firm has, but as things a firm and its actors do. In multiproject settings, practices extend beyond the actions related to a single
project, since people work on many projects and activities outside that
of a single project.
As presented in Fig. 2, managing boundaries, and negotiating work
and deadlines, represent two practices that feed into one another, since
negotiating work and deadlines enables managing boundaries; without
negotiating work and deadlines, one will not be able to reduce their
hours. These practices are what have been labelled adapting strategies,
since it implies changing something to make it work. The results suggest that extending working hours and prioritizing emergencies also fuel
each other, since prioritizing emergencies may lead to extending working hours, which in turn may lead to future emergencies through exhaustion and mistakes. As such, the practice of extending working hours
contributes to shaping structures that create increasing workload and
pressure. These practices have been labelled accepting strategies, since
they imply that people will accept and comply with the work overload,
without trying to change the situation.
This study highlights the impact of multi-project settings for the intensification of work, and how this occurs through practices such as
extending working hours and prioritizing emergencies. Since these practices lead to exhaustion and mistakes, they can have long-term consequences for the organization. As mentioned earlier, actors produce
and reproduce the institutionalized social structures that persist over
time and that play a role in framing action (Giddens, 1984). Impacts of
projects and overwork have been raised for decades, and this study contributes to shed light on practices that contribute to maintaining these issues. Again, neither micro nor macro analysis alone is sufficient—issues
such as work overload are both framed by a larger context driving work
intensification and sustained through practices that “only exist to the
extent that they are enacted and re-enacted” (Nicolini, p. 221). As such,
one of the contributions of this paper is to explore how specific practices
in face of work overload fuel each other and contribute to the overall
context that then maintains such practices.
However, the two practices uncovered (managing boundaries, and
negotiating work and deadlines) may hold part of the solution to work
overload in multi-project settings. While these practices have been used
here to deal with work overload, they offer potential to address the prevention of work overload, as they avoid the nurturing of conditions fueling it.
5.1. Advancing understanding of project work
The results show that project workers perform a range of activities, which goes beyond the scope of a single project, or even multiple projects. It is important to keep in mind the diversity of work for
individuals working in projects, as project work may represent a big
share of their work, but not the totality of it. As such, more is needed to
understand the interplay between project work and other activities. In
this case, project work was sometimes prioritized by workers, since they
had to meet deadlines. However, other activities not related to projects
were also considered important, and sometimes prioritized, such as requests by their functional managers or clients. In sum, people were prioritizing what seemed urgent for them, which could be project or nonproject work. It would be worthwhile to further explore what makes
tasks urgent for workers, and the role played by the individual in this
assessment. Because, as mentioned by many employees: “everything is
always an emergency.” However, workers had to assess many priorities,
all deemed urgent, in order to decide what to focus on first. As such, this
study sheds light on the important role played by project workers, who
are not just passively obeying project managers. In such a setting, they
also have a functional manager who can request work from them, in addition to administrative work and operations. How they handle all these
priorities remains to be further explored. Hence, one of the contributions
of this study is to display the power and agency of individuals (who are
not passive towards work overload) and to shed light on the practices of
actors in project management going beyond the project manager role.
It also contributes to illustrate that multi-project management happens
in a dynamic context in which roles are not fixed. Exploring the roles of
actors in project management is worthwhile, and too little attention has
been devoted thus far to individual project workers (Borg and Söderlund, 2014).
As exposed in this paper, project practitioners are active actors in the
face of work overload. Findings show that project workers not only play
a key role in executing project activities, but also in negotiating work
and deadlines directly with project sponsors. This is consistent with the
Borg and Söderlund (2014) study of liminality practices (how project
workers without a clear long-term belonging to a specific organization
or project deal with their situations) in which individuals can take an
active part in forming their context, or choose to be more passive.
The practices uncovered can be related to the narrowing strategies
(Gustavsson, 2016) seen before, and extends this work by illuminating
other practices (and consequences of practices) in a context of overload. This paper started by questioning why things were not changing.
The fact that overload leads to future emergencies may be part of the
answer. Work overload leads to a vicious cycle in which everything becomes an emergency at some point. As simple as it is, the counterpractice
of negotiating work and deadlines could be part of the solution to alleviate project overload. As such, the way this can be done in an efficient
manner represents a worthwhile path forward to explore.
The context studied is similar to other multi-project settings that
have been studied, as in the Gustavsson (2016) study of practices toward overload, where the “day-to-day work practice was experienced
as problem action based and filled with reoccurring ‘fire-fighting activities’ and ‘emergency crises’” (p. 98). Although only one organization
has been studied, this exploratory study contributes to illustrating the
diverse nature of multi-project settings and its consequences. Since the
focus in multi-project settings is on the short term, longitudinal studies of project settings could be useful to explore the consequences of
short-term focus. As demonstrated by the case studied in this paper, the
prioritizing of emergencies by employees has been linked to long-term
impacts, but more studies exploring the complex reality of multi-project
organization over time are needed.
J. Delisle International Journal of Project Management 38 (2020) 419–428
Fig. 2. The interplay of practices.
Most literature on overwork depicts the ideal worker image and the
expected identity as committed and available (e.g. Reid, 2015). In the
four practices uncovered, extending hours and prioritizing emergencies (sometimes to the detriment of personal lives) correspond to the
ideal worker image, which represents evidence of this expected identity. This is also a finding that is consistent with larger trends of work,
since working or being reachable for work outside the workplace is a
reality for a growing number of employees (Krause, 2018). However,
it was not absolute, and some employees did not mention any expectations of always being available or working a high number of hours.
However, these workers were having a greater percentage of their time
assigned to operations and functional activities, which may suggest that
the ideal worker image is fueled by project work, while jobs which are
less project-oriented do not imply such commitment. This goes hand in
hand with previous studies such as those of Peticca-Harris et al. (2015))
and Shih (2004), who claim that project organizing has consequences
on temporal strains lived by individuals.
5.2. Extending perspectives on practices toward work overload
The practices related to working time (extending working hours and
managing boundaries) bear complementarities with boundary management theory, which suggests that individuals manage the boundaries
between work and personal life through processes of segmenting or integrating the two domains (Bulger, Matthews & Hoffman, 2007). In other
words, individuals create boundaries around work and personal life in
different ways, ensuring work and life remain separate domains, or integrating the different domains. As such, boundaries can be more or less
strong, and may depend on a range of factors such as individual preferences or occupation types (Bulger et al., 2007). In light of boundary
management theory, extending working hours can be seen as a practice
of integrating work and life, and managing boundaries as a practice of
separating work and life.
In a review of research on boundary management, Rothbard and
Ollier-Malaterre (2016) propose that integration of work and life may
not be ideal, and they suggest to re-examine the value of segmentation between individuals’ various life domains. This paper moves in
this direction, given that the practice of managing boundaries (in opposition to extending working hours) is proposed as a potential solution to work overload. Management of temporal and spatial boundaries have been uncovered, although other types of boundaries exist,
such as cognitive (e.g. discussing nonwork activities at work) and emotional (e.g. socializing with coworkers outside work) (Rothbard & OllierMalaterre, 2016). Future research could more finely explore the different types of boundaries in a project context, and how people manage
The concept of coping, defined as “constantly changing cognitive and behavioral efforts to manage specific external and/or internal demands that are appraised as taxing or exceeding the resources
of the person” (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984, p. 141) would be a complementary theoretical lens to study how project workers respond to
pressure in the workplace. It has been used successfully to understand how project managers handle stress (Aitken & Crawford, 2007;
Haynes & Love, 2004), and could be applied to project workers as
well. In fact, similarities can be drawn between practices uncovered
in this study and coping strategies that can be situational (what people do) or dispositional (what people normally do) (Aitken & Crawford, 2007). Focusing on the former, these authors found that project
managers apply more active coping and planning strategies when dealing with stressful situations. In our case, active strategies (managing boundaries, and negotiating work and deadlines) have also been
uncovered. These could be tackled through the coping lens, and the
practices presented in this paper could be related to specific coping
This article took a practice lens to explore how project workers manage work overload in multi-project settings. This research presented a
multi-project organization in which overload, according to the employees studied, is a very salient issue for workers, causing vicious cycles
leading to unfavorable long-term consequences. Four practices related
to two areas have been identified: working time (extending working
hours and managing boundaries) and prioritization (prioritizing emergencies, and negotiating work and deadlines).
This study makes two key contributions. First, it contributes to work
overload literature in project management and allows for a better understanding of what individuals do in the face of a high workload. Second, it
contributes to the project-as-practice perspective by considering project
as a profession, a broader set of project actors, and micro and macro
This article has a number of limitations. Since it relies mostly on interviews, which provide accounts of practices from practitioners without
allowing us to explore the ongoing actions in situ, praxis (what practitioners actually do in their particular everyday activities) needs to be
further explored through ethnography, or other processual research designs, in order to confirm and detail these findings. The accounts of
individuals cannot fully reflect with richness, as observations can, what
people really do. Closer examination of praxis may confirm the practices
uncovered, or perhaps illuminate variations, since practitioners may exercise choices in depicting their practices. In the same vein, this study
examined people’s practices at one point in time; however, these practices could be explored over time to understand how and when people
perform which practice. Furthermore, consequences of practices should
be explored longitudinally, and the ones uncovered through interviews
could be further explored to enrich understanding of their development
Findings from this research are not aimed to be generalizable; they
reflect the experiences of individuals from a single organization. The
practices uncovered are far from being exhaustive. However, they represent an exploratory view of project worker practices in such a setting.
As such, studying practices of different actors in multi-project organizations, especially in the face of issues such as project overload, represents
a relevant line of inquiry.
This study has several practical implications for organizations. First,
it shows some of the long-term impacts of prioritizing emergencies,
J. Delisle International Journal of Project Management 38 (2020) 419–428
as revealed through the accounts of the employees studied. Second, it
proposes two avenues of resolution through the practices of managing
boundaries, and negotiating work and deadlines. These practices represent concrete areas over which people have control and can act to
alleviate work overload. They could be divided into micro-practices to
render their application by professionals even easier. For example, managing boundaries may imply different tactics, such as blocking time off,
avoiding work from home, etc. Since segmenting life and work may have
underestimated value (Ollier-Malaterre, 2015), this general strategy related to boundary management could have many benefits for project
This study contributes to understanding the consequences of work
overload and pressure in a project context, encouraging organizations
to alter the system, while at the same time depicting the potential of
some practices at the individual level. Based on these findings, we can
wonder: How can we formalize the practice of negotiating work and
deadlines in a more efficient way? The same goes for the practice of
managing boundaries, which could be institutionalized through training
As advanced by Moen et al., “innovative policy developments fostering time shifting or blocking out time may be insufficient without a
reduction in workload” (2013, p. 104). Hence, both macro and micro
changes are needed in organizations to really address the issue of work
overload. Work is becoming more intense in a growing number of fields
(Granter et al., 2015). As projects are known to exert much pressure on
individuals, it offers great opportunities for changes that will have big
impacts on the future of work in organizations.
Declaration of Competing Interest
I would like to thank Associate Editor Miia Martinsuo and three
anonymous reviewers for their precious feedback and suggestions.
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