The complete guide to resource allocation in project management

resource allocation guide

It’s 3 p.m., and your project suddenly needs both a design change and front-end implementation within three hours for a very persistent client. You check to see who’s available. Well, you have one UX designer in the wings, but not a single developer to implement the changes. You even have teams in multiple time zones—a model intended to support flexibility and rapid turnarounds like this—so you should have had someone available.

Even so, you’re left with your hands in the air and at least one dissatisfied project sponsor. Your resource allocation framework, as a part of your larger resource plan, failed you. 

So let’s take a look at what resource allocation for project management is, why it’s important, what some common challenges are, and how to do it right. This resource allocation guide will take you step by step through the process of allocating your resources correctly so that you can avoid the hair-pulling stress of being short-staffed. 

What is resource allocation? 

In project management, resources are the people and things needed to complete a project. Resources most often refer to people, but it can also refer to specific facilities, tools and equipment, budget, a team, or even time itself. 

Resource allocation is the process of managing resources to best meet a project’s needs over the course of its duration. 

Resource allocation is fluid. As a project develops, project managers need to adapt who is working on what under which circumstances. A solid resource allocation plan allows for some variability while outlining how resources can expect to use their time. 

Why is resource allocation important to project managers? 

Resource allocation to maximize utilization

Resource allocation with Resource Guru

Resource allocation is an essential part of any project—without it, project managers can make a timeline of when they want certain milestones completed by, but have no idea of whether or not that timeline is achievable with their resources on hand. In the worst cases, poor resource misallocation can lead to project failure.

Mishandled resource allocation can also frustrate team members, sometimes leading to increased staff turnover. So can underusing your resources.  

Before dedicated resource management software, project managers had to use version-controlled spreadsheets to manage and allocate their resources. Tools like Resource Guru have changed that once time-intensive part of project management and made it as easy as taking a few moments to breathe.

M&C Saatchi
Steffani Sabatinni

“Resource Guru is simple to use. It allows us to optimize our resources and keeps an eye on every project.”

Stefania Sabbatini
Digital Production Director

Common challenges with resource allocation

Resource allocation isn’t easy—I would guess that project managers most often run into trouble with this piece of project management, as consequences range as far as project delay, cost overruns, and even employee turnover. 

Below are six of the common challenges project managers face when allocating their resources, regardless of the size of their company.  

1. Resources have competing projects

It’s not uncommon for two projects to require the same resources. Consider a website design firm: most projects will demand attention from the lead UX designer. IT departments tend to rely heavily on their senior developers regardless of which tasks they’re tackling. It’s up to the project manager to allocate their resources effectively to meet all project needs. 

2. The project’s scope subject to change

Some projects are predictably challenging to plan for in the long term, like software projects or content plans. Project managers can anticipate inconveniences like changing user expectations or Google updates and adjust their strategies accordingly (in my opinion, project managers should use Agile planning methods in these circumstances). Unfortunately, changing scope requirements aren’t limited to Agile projects. Even construction projects frequently undergo scope changes (like needing to retile a bathroom during a renovation), which pulls resources meant to be working on their original project onto another. The project manager has to ensure that there’s enough flexibility in the schedule to account for these scope changes. 

3. Team members take time off

Vacations: we want team members to have nothing in the way of taking them at the right time to stay sharp for their projects. Unfortunately, project managers often have to create a resource allocation plan months or even years before the project’s end date. In that time, team members will undoubtedly exercise their right to time off, regardless of if it’s time spent on the beach or sick in bed. 

4. Time zone differences

As companies expand, outsource, and adapt to COVID, resources often find themselves in different time zones from their team members and project manager. The trouble with time zone differences is coordination; what do you do if you have resources scheduled for a particular day but not available for the precise hours you need them?

5. Change requests

Change requests revise how a project will be implemented, often expanding the project’s scope or making significant shifts in requirements. When tasks change, so too do your resource allocation needs, especially if those new tasks create the need for more or fewer skills than what you have available on your team. 

6. Unrecognized Level of Effort

Wouldn’t it be nice if work was just focusing on production goals: coding, writing, and making firm decisions. Most workdays consist of much more, like checking and responding to emails, attending long meetings, and participating in code reviews. Given that the average American worker spends 3.1 hours refreshing their work email during the workday, it’s unrealistic to expect eight hours of uninterrupted project time day to day. Still, project managers often allocate resources with that expectation in mind.

5 best resource allocation tips you should know

Scaled-up PMOs rely on the most advanced resource allocation software and resource allocation best practices to ensure that their projects complete on budget and on time. The tips below will help you improve productivity, avoid delays, stay within budget, recognize new opportunities, and keep your team members in good spirits while working on your project. 

Curious about what those resource allocation tips are? Once you’ve nailed down your project’s scope, how long it will last, how much budget it will require, and what requirements need to be met, use the tips below to allocate your resources effectively. 

1. Identify which resources you have at your disposal

A screenshot of Resource Guru displaying resource availability

Using a visual tool like Resource Guru can help project managers determine how to allocate their resources appropriately

There are four major factors to consider when starting a resource allocation plan:

  1. Which skilled resources match the tasks that the project demands?
  2. Which of those resources have any availability in their schedule?
  3. At what time are those resources free?
  4. Which dependencies affect when a resource is needed or not?

Small companies with ten or fewer employees can probably get away with just using a shared calendar to sort most of these questions out. Still, larger companies with hundreds of resources need a dedicated resource allocation tool to do this first step correctly. 

Let’s use a front-end upgrade as an example. Simple tools might direct project managers to the IT team, but leave it at that for the project manager to further sort out. With a tool like Resource Guru, project managers can filter their resources by needed skill sets. 

In this case, they can filter senior resources with React experience to meet the project’s needs.

Resource Guru Allocation Filters

Screen your resources with filters like experience, location, and skills.

Resource Guru, as an example, also offers the ability to distinguish between time zone differences when calculating team availability. That makes it easy for time off to be appropriately managed.

For example, when you create a booking or time off event for multiple resources based in numerous time zones, you can choose whether the time/date of the event should be found on the resource’s local time or a specific time zone. Doing so would entirely do away with any of the confusion often caused by international scheduling mishaps.

Making sure resources are scheduled correctly across time zones with Resource Guru

Avoid time zone mishaps with the right software

2. Be sure to include your non-human assets in your resource allocation plan

While individuals make up the bulk of allocation planning, don’t forget your equipment, facilities, materials, and other schedulable resources as well. 

This step is essential for businesses that deal in physical assets. For example, a construction company wouldn’t simply book a concrete slipform paver for two weeks and consider the task of allocating it correctly complete. Instead, the project manager also has to calculate how much wear and tear the heavy equipment would undergo during that time and use that information to flag dependencies that may affect other resources (it’s kind of hard to paint a parking lot before it’s entirely paved).  

Back at the office, buffer time is particularly precious. While it might be tempting to book out one of two meeting rooms for a three-day project brainstorm, the savvy project manager might realize that eliminating half of all private meeting space for greeting new clients, informal office communications, and other meetings. Recognizing just how competitive those meeting rooms are, the project manager might choose to extend the brainstorm to five days so that the meeting rooms can be used more efficiently. 

3. Take time for resource leveling

Imagine a project’s workload like a piece of classical music—say Holst’s “Jupiter, the Bringer of Jollity.” Sometimes the project requires the orchestra to play in unison. Other times, the orchestra goes soft to allow a single instrument to solo over the rest. There are points in the piece when the music crescendos and decrescendos, getting louder and softer. You can plan for the piece to begin and end, just like a project, and allocate resources (the musicians) to the music arrangement’s demands. You can reliably churn out an outstanding performance every time.

The thing is: most projects don’t perform like an orchestral ensemble—nor should they! Consider just how much work the first-chair violinist (or your most senior architect) would have to put in to make the project “sound” right, while the poor second-chair flutist—an intern perhaps?—twitters in and out, barely heard by an audience member.

Resource leveling is the practice of smoothing workloads to a more even amount for the entirety of a project. Continuing with the music metaphor, it would involve stripping the music of its fortes and pianissimos, its solos and solis, and have play time and notes distributed evenly across instruments. The result would sound nothing like “Jupiter” as we know it now, but instead, like a steady chord held for roughly seven minutes (likely far less, given that leveling would do away with so much idle time between musicians).

While resource leveling is a terrible idea for music lovers, it can really help out a resource allocation plan.

According to the most recent Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) guide, resource leveling is “A technique in which start and finish dates are adjusted based on resource constraints to balance the demand for resources with the available supply.” 

As illustrated above, resource leveling involves balancing resource workloads throughout the project (and sometimes that means rebalancing the project’s duration, budget, or scope to accommodate). It’s also used to ensure that non-competing tasks are scheduled concurrently for optimal efficiency. Resource leveling is often applied to critical path calculations. 

4. Capitalize on modern resource management tools


“Resource Guru is simple to use with powerful permissions that allow us to manage the team the way we want.”

Stephen Crowther
Studio Manager

Resource allocation planning isn’t just for your team—it applies to the rest of your company too. 

When allocations are visible to everyone, the entire agency can see how pieces fit together and where their “quick tweaks” or internal projects align with the grand scheme of other allocated resources.

Whether you’re a small team using a shared group calendar software or a more robust office relying on more advanced resource management software, project managers that can visualize team availability have an advantage over those relying on spreadsheets. 

Further, tools like Resource Guru can significantly cut down on emails, facilitate conversations that would otherwise require rounds of meetings, and help project managers allocate their resources as efficiently as possible. 

For example, with features like reports, you can see just how over- or under-allocated resources are for any given period. And if you need to rush a project, you can always put in for overtime if needed (though I’m sure your team would prefer it if you didn’t).

Resource allocation report from Resource Guru

Why yes, the team can take on new projects!

5. Continuously monitor your allocation

Wouldn’t it be nice if when you set up your resource allocation at a project kickoff, it would just stay as you’d planned it? 

Unfortunately, businesses, and people, aren’t stagnant. You acquire new projects, one of your essential resources goes on family leave, and budget cuts force project delays; as your needs and your resources’ availability shifts, so too do your resource allocation plan have to adapt. 

One way to do this (other than using your resource allocation dashboard) is to emphasize continuous communication. Ask your teammates how they perceive their workloads; don’t just assume stress levels based on how much they are formally allocated in your project management system. And keep track of their tasks; unanticipated project completion speed can help you adjust deadlines up or down.

Finally, ask your team both during and after the project completes if they have any ideas to improve their own allocation or efficiency. While you can glean where each individual fits best in a project, it’s important to remember that you will always have imperfect information about their preferences and abilities. Regular retrospectives can help you continuously improve your existing process and make more significant changes for future projects. 

Resource allocation: conclusion

Finding yourself short-staffed during a project can lead to unnecessary anxiety, project inefficiencies, and even project failure. Conversely, having a solid resource allocation strategy can usher in earned confidence that your project will have the right people doing the right things at the right time for your project to succeed. 

Avoid the common pitfalls of poor resource allocation management with the tips provided above. Of everything advocated for, remember that robust resource planning software can help you achieve those goals without breaking the bank or a long onboarding period. 

To make things easy, check out Resource Guru. The team offers a free 30-day trial to show how easy it is to get your resources allocated correctly when you have the right tool.