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When you're understaffed


It's enough of a challenge for a fully staffed team to meet its goals and stay competitive. But in today's labor market, it's more likely than ever that teams won't be fully staffed. When turnover, budget cuts, or reductions in force leave your team short-handed, your resourcefulness as a manager is put to the test.

The good news is that when you're understaffed, that resourcefulness can help you not only get the job done, but get it done better. Here's some advice from the pros:

• Managing stress levels. We typically think of job stress as something to be avoided at all costs — and if there's one thing that's guaranteed to increase your team's stress, it's understaffing. But positive stress can also motivate your team to innovate and perform above par, which is what you need when you're shorthanded. After all, if you're understaffed and facing a heavy workload, do you really want your team to be 'relaxed'?

Encourage healthy stress by helping your team focus its energies when under pressure. For example, if your team needs to work hard on a deadlined project, could you move the group to an off-site workspace where they won't be distracted by day-to-day interruptions? The key is to make sure that stress doesn't turn into distress. To keep stress levels from being constantly high, eliminate any sources of stress above and beyond the challenges of the work itself.

Though it may feel like there's always too much to do, try to manage workflow and create intervals when people can afford to catch their breath. You can use these windows to do stress-busting activities as a team, or to allow team members to relax as they see fit, or to give people a little time off, or all of these. Though the pressure may be intense when you get back to work, having time to breathe can help avert demotivation and burnout.

• Working with your own manager. Naturally, you need your manager's support if you want to lobby for the staff you need, or if you want to implement new approaches, or if you need to adjust your goals to reflect your short-handed reality. But how do you ask for support without sounding like you're whining, especially when things are tough all over your enterprise? Start by documenting and analyzing the actual effects of your understaffing.

With your current workforce, which tasks take priority, and which tasks must be left undone or incomplete? How has productivity changed? If it's stayed level, what have you done to keep it up without a full staff — and what have those measures cost, financially and otherwise? How do these effects compare to those on other teams reporting to your manager? It's easy to just say "Well, of course we're not getting everything done, because we're understaffed." But that blanket statement may not be true, and even if it is, your boss may not be convinced.

Aim to show how understaffing is a problem not just for you and your team, but for your manager as she aims to meet her goals. Before asking your boss directly for her help, provide enough information and insight for her to formulate useful strategies for dealing with your current problems. Get that input, and you'll give your manager an even greater stake in your team's outcomes — and make her an even better advocate for your team's needs.

• Daring and choosing to innovate. By definition, being understaffed means not having the people you need to do the job the way you've always done it. Of course, it may be that you've been doing your work in the most efficient and effective way possible. But few teams, no matter how sharp and well-managed, attain that level of perfection on every task.

One of the critical steps you need to take when you're understaffed is to secure a commitment from the team to innovate. Ask the team: How much do we really want to change our procedures and processes? How much do we want to consider changing each member's roles and responsibilities? And are we willing to implement any changes permanently, even if we regain our full staffing? You can try to persuade the team to give different answers than it would otherwise, but unless the team dares and chooses to innovate, a program of change will not help you.

Help the team see the difference between not wanting to change and not needing to change. A team member may be committed to a certain work procedure because, though it uses up scarce time and energy, it's the only way of meeting customer needs. Or he may be committed to that procedure because he's never done it any other way and doesn't want to relearn his job now. As the team decides what are acceptable and unacceptable objections to change, it will set the parameters within which it can adapt to your staffing crunch.

Staffing shortages are a headache for many managers. But if you follow this advice, you may find that your workplace is less stressful, that you have a better partnership with your manager, and that you've found better ways of doing your work. That's a nice silver lining within the understaffing cloud.

Creative ways to meet staffing needs

Suddenly short-staffed? Here are some creative ideas that can help you get things done:

• Ask your former employees. They may be retirees, team members now working elsewhere in the organization, or even workers now at other enterprises. In any case, they may be able and willing to pitch in, perhaps outside of normal work hours. And they already know how your team works, which minimizes the training needs you'd encounter with a temp.

• Ask your suppliers. If you find yourself without staff to, say, operate specialized equipment, your supplier can put you in touch with sources of help. And if you spend time handling orders from vendors, work to streamline the process. For example, it may save you time if the vendor packs a shipment differently.

• Ask your customers. You may be able to find temporary help among users of your products, especially if you maintain user groups or customer forums. But also find out if your customers can help you out by changing their expectations. For example, could a customer live with you delivering batches of work once a week, instead of sending on each job as it's finished? You may discover that customers even prefer processes that save you time — and that the only reason you didn't hear about it before is that nobody ever asked them.

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