Monday Mornings with Madison

Staffing and Service when Business Scales Back During Covid

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No One Wants To Hear “It’s not my job”

Flu season, vacation time or an unexpected rush of orders can cause any business to be overloaded with work and understaffed.  Usually that is a temporary situation that can be handled until the load eases or new employees are hired.  A simple shifting of responsibilities and emphasis on teamwork to get through the crunch will often suffice.  But what is a business to do if it has laid off 80% of its employees in the age of Covid?

After all, no customer wants to hear an employee at a business say “Sorry, I can’t help you.  I’ve already shut down for the day” or be told “Due to our abbreviated hours, we are unable to help you today.  Check back tomorrow.”   Likewise, no coworker wants to hear a colleague say “I’ve exceeded my hours and can’t help you today” or “That’s no longer a part of my job.”    The “It’s-not-my-job” response comes across like a lead balloon.  It is not a response anyone wants to hear when asking for help.

How does a company deal with a situation in which it might be understaffed long-term due to waves of illness, a lack of workers because of limited child care, and massive lay-offs?  Many businesses are finding themselves in exactly that predicament…. short-handed now due to massive layoffs three months ago.  And business owners are loath to roll back those cuts in case business doesn’t bounce back right away or there is a second wave of infection triggering another shelter-in-place order.  The result is that many business owners and leaders are finding themselves understaffed just as people are starting to need goods and services again…. But it’s hard to know how much help is needed and if it will last.  Here are some strategies to help get through the next few months until the dust settles and it is easier to discern true long-term staffing needs.

1. Ruthless Prioritization

As business revs up, companies may find that there is more work than staff at key times.  This is when it is important to prioritize.  In fact, tough times call for ruthless prioritization.  The reality is that some work will not get done on time… and some work will not be done at all.  At times like these, the key is to know what tasks can slide and which must get done.  For tasks that are directly for or involve clients, those issues are the highest priority.  It may mean allowing paperwork to slip a day or a few days in order to meet a client’s needs.  Client phone calls must be returned right away, but calls to vendors and internal customers may have to be delayed until the next day.  No one thinks this is good business practice, but it may be the only choice when making do with half the staff normally employed.  Short term, prioritization ensures that first things are done first and the rest is tended to in order of importance.

2. Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

Teamwork has never been more important than now.  Hopefully, companies have kept enough reliable, productive and loyal people to help carry them through lean times.  For the remainder of the year or however long it takes to be able to get on solid footing again, everyone in a company needs to pitch in to help where help is needed.  All hands must be on deck. That means staff members who can wear many hats are the most valuable.   When an organization is shorthanded, the available staff must be used in the most efficient and effective ways.  Workers must be willing to roll up their sleeves and perform tasks that may not necessarily be part of their duties.  This is when team members who are versatile and have a wide range of skills in their toolbox are most valuable.  Make sure to keep and utilize them to maximum capacity.

3.  Reward Flexibility and Scalability

Right now, many companies are unsure of just how many employees they need and are trying to get by with fewer people.  That requires taking a flexible and scalable approach to staffing.  This week, it may be fine to operate at 50% capacity.  But if business takes off and work starts pouring in, then management needs to be ready to ask employees to work more hours, if possible.  Those who are willing and able to increase their hours and workload at a moment’s notice are the most valuable to the organization.  Those employees who are less able to scale up and down according to the organization’s needs should be brought back later when things are more stable.

In order to know just how much staff is needed, upper management will need to keep close tabs on staffing needs and workload.  Upper management needs to be acutely aware when the work load is causing such a strain that business will suffer.  At that point, alternate resources will need to be tapped to support the workload until rehiring starts to make sense again.

4.  Rehire Past Employees

A blast from the past is not always a bad thing.  During a severe shortage caused by illness and issues that HR cannot control, one solution may be for companies to look to past employees for help. Employees who were previously a part of the department are key resources for handling excess work.  They already know how to do the job and may be available depending on their present circumstances.  For example, retired employees are a good source of support in crunch times. This is a short-term solution to a short-term problem.

5.  Hire Temps or Outsource Work

While temp labor may not be an optimal situation, especially if valued employees were laid off, sometimes there are positions that just won’t be reinstated.  In those cases, hiring a temp for a particular task for a finite period of time might make more sense.  Or that task can be outsourced if rehiring just doesn’t make sense yet.  It is important to have a good working relationship with an area temp agency or an outsourcing BPO.

The Problem with Long-Term Understaffing

Of course, no company wanted to lay off valued employees and no company wants business to be slow or demand to be unsteady.  But, Covid has made this a reality for most businesses.  Cutting back was a necessity to save funds and stay in business.  Beware, however, that prolonged understaffing can lead to a variety of issues that can also harm business. Company managers should be conscious of the problems that occur when the workforce is reduced in order to weigh the pros and cons of keeping the enterprise short-staffed.

Issue 1. Productivity Usually Declines

While there is a brief uptick to compensate for the shortfall, the level of productivity in a company will naturally suffer when staffed with fewer people than normal.  Even the most proficient employees will not be able to complete the amount of work that additional quality staff can do, and they will quickly burn out.  Streamlining work processes can help delay burnout, but eventually it happens.

Issue 2.  Errors Increase

Mistakes invariably increase when a company remains short-staffed for an extended period of time. Workers will tire under the extra burden and fatigue causes errors.  To prevent this, management must work more closely with staff to set up quality control measures to catch issues before they reach customers.  Barring that, customers will quickly become dissatisfied and might move their business to a competing company.  Having to monitor QC will cause management to burn out.  (Refer to Issue #1.)

Issue 3.  Staff Resentment

With unemployment high, right now everyone wants to work.  But if those who are working find themselves doing the work of two or three or more people, they will quickly become resentful.  Most employees are willing to pull together in times of emergency to do what has to be done to keep a business afloat, but too long a time without additional help wears on their nerves and tempers.  This will lead to more conflicts than usual between management and workers and between colleagues.  The stress level of employees increases over time due to the situation, which makes for a poisonous work atmosphere.

Issue 4.  Pressure on Management

Understaffing can put great stress on management. Supervisors must satisfy employees, customers, leadership and themselves.  They must prioritize work, mediate staff disputes, satisfy clients, and delegate responsibilities that would normally be assigned to additional workers. Staying on budget and profitable can become too much for many managers.  This will lead to declines in productivity, more errors and growing resentment.  In other words, all of the issues above combined.

As businesses look to service customers with less staff and more demands, it is important to keep staffing lean with an eye toward staffing up as demand reveals a consistent need.

Quote of the Week

“Even when you have skilled, motivated, hard-working people, the wrong team structure or size can undercut their efforts instead of catapulting them to success.  A poor team structure or an understaffed team can increase development time, reduce quality, damage morale, increase turnover and ultimately lead to customer cancellations.” Steve McConnell


© 2020, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.

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