Wednesday, December 23, 2009

How to Get the Work Done With Less People

If your company is like most businesses during these distressed economic times, you’ve been forced to layoff staff in order to improve the financial viability of your business.

What you hope is that the remaining employees will understand the business imperative for the layoffs and continue to perform at acceptable levels without adversely impacting the customers. To most managers this typically means you hope your employees will maintain the same level of production that was being achieved before the layoff -- only with less people. And you hope the quality of the work doesn’t diminish either.

This, of course, is impossible.

A building contractor cannot build a specified building with less material without reducing the quality of the building. A symphony conductor cannot eliminate a section of the orchestra without impacting the quality of the music. Likewise, a report that previously has taken four full-time employees a week to produce cannot be completed in the same amount of time with only two employees. A waitress who can provide great customer service to ten tables at one time cannot cover 15 tables equally well at the same level of quality.

If your employees are already working at or near full capacity, it will be almost impossible for them to do more with less staff without adversely impacting the quality of their work.

I like to demonstrate this by holding up four 3x5 cards, each representing 25% of an employee’s time. If 100% of an employee’s time is taken, and you want to give that employee more work to do (represented by another card you wish to add to the deck of four), how is it possible to add more work to the employee’s schedule when 100% of the employee’s time is already gone? The obvious answer is the employee must somehow find time to do the additional task. Or the employee must reduce the quality of the work being done on one or more of the already assigned tasks.

Historically employees somehow find the time to accomplish the added tasks when bosses load them up with work. But where did the additional time come from? If it’s true that 100% of the employee’s workday is filled, then the only way one can complete the additional work is to come in early, stay late, or reduce one’s lunch or break time to get the added work done. However, there are better ways to accomplish more with less people, as I outline later in this article.

There is an adage at work that says: “If you want to get the work done, give it to your busiest worker.” This tends to be true because your hardest worker usually is your most responsible employee. Responsible employees tend to do whatever they have to do to get the work done, even if it means sacrificing their own time.

Human beings have a great capacity to “kick it in gear” to get work done in a pinch. They can do more in less time. They can give 110% of their effort. They can sacrifice their families and personal time for the good of the company. But they can only do that for a limited time before they burn out.

It is possible to go to 110% percent on a nuclear reactor and get greater production by doing so. But staying “in the red” too long can have dire consequences.
The same is true of people. It is possible to push people in times of great need to do more – to give 110% – but they cannot do so forever without causing damage to themselves or the company. Eventually, the stress of working beyond normal parameters will cause a “meltdown.”

Consequently, if you've downsized your staff and still want to get the work done, you need to take certain actions as a manager. One of the greatest problems after a downsizing is that managers typically don’t do anything different from what they were doing before the layoff. They continue going about their work as if nothing has changed. But a great deal has changed; which means the manager must change, too.
Just like your employees, your workload increases the moment you lay off staff. There are numerous managerial duties you must perform immediately after a layoff if you want your employees to continue to perform at acceptable levels.

The first thing you need to do after a layoff is to identify what work is core to the business and what work is not. It’s easy to believe that everything you and your employees are doing is important, but when business is going good businesses typically become bloated and bureaucratic. “Pet projects” and “fluff” are easily allowed when a company is profitable. A downturn in business forces you to look at what you’re doing to determine what really matters to your customers. I can assure you that some of the work your employees are currently doing really doesn’t matter to your customers. They don’t care. Nor does it positively impact the bottom line of your enterprise.

You need to take a hard look at everything your staff is doing. Identify the work that is core to the business, and get rid of the rest. Be very clear about what things you will stop doing since you no longer have the staff. Remove all unnecessary tasks and responsibilities from your surviving employees before giving them the additional duties of the downsized employees. Pull unnecessary “cards” from their deck of duties before adding new cards to the deck.

While you’re looking at core work – what is and isn’t important to your customers – you also should identify which quality and service standards matter to your customers.

People’s expectations change as situations change. For example, customers who never would have shopped at Walmart during prosperous times may suddenly find Walmart quality to be acceptable during a distressed economy. Customers who expected attention to detail and added-value perks when flying high during the economic boom may quickly lower their standards when forced to pay extra for such privileges during a recession.

You may have to lower your quality or service standards during a recession since you may not have the staff to perform at a higher level after a layoff. The good news is that your customers may find the lowering of such standards to be acceptable, provided you know what is and is not important to them.

Obviously, one of the most important things you can do after a layoff is to prioritize the work. During stressful times people can easily lose focus as to what is important and what is not. They can spend too much time on trivial issues and too little time on major priorities. You need to help your employees identify where they should channel their energy and effort. You need to help them focus on the things that matter most. This is particularly important when new duties have been assigned to them that previously were not their responsibility. People tend to do what they have always done unless specifically instructed to do otherwise.

When people have been given additional duties, you may have to specifically teach employees how to multi-task. Don’t assume your employees will know how to link previously unassigned tasks with their current assignments. You may need to walk your employees through each step of their work processes and show them which steps can be optimized, minimized, synthesized or altered. Teach them how to do several tasks at once.

Look to your exemplar employees to discover ways to perform better. Your most productive employees have discovered little “tricks” to perform better, cheaper or faster. The best food servers, for example, have learned to scan all of their assigned tables while walking to or from the kitchen. They’ve discovered how to carefully stack the dishes on their arms so they can carry more plates in less trips. They mentally know how much time it takes to cook certain orders so they can perform other duties while they wait. They carry a water pitcher and a coffee pot at the same time, knowing someone will ask for one or the other as they pass by.

The most efficient production line workers in a manufacturing plant know exactly how to hold a tool or position themselves on the line to better reach the equipment they’re working on. The best auto mechanic can quickly diagnose a problem by asking a few simple questions or probing certain areas of an engine.

Every exemplar employee has discovered tricks that help them perform well. You need to teach the performance enhancing tricks of your exemplar employees to all of your workers so they can perform equally well.

By now you should realize that a company downsizing means you have to train and cross-train your employees to do the new tasks assigned to them. I’m continually amazed at the number of managers who assign the duties of laid-off employees to surviving workers and expect these workers to pick up the new tasks and perform to standard without significant training. Obviously there will be learning curves on newly assigned work with a decrease in quality and performance while that new tasks are being learned. You must expect diminished performance and implement the training necessary to bridge the gap between the employees’ current skills and those needed to accomplish the tasks.

Of course, the best scenario is one where the employees don’t have to learn the new tasks because you give the tasks to your customers instead. This may sound strange, but you may be surprised to discover how many tasks your customers are willing to do themselves. For example, when there are less bellmen at a hotel due to downsizing, sometimes all a company needs to do is provide self-serve bell carts at the front desk so customers can take their bags to the room themselves. Customers may also prefer a self-serve kiosk rather than having to stand in line for a human attendant when staffing levels are low.

If you use technology instead of people, you many find you don’t have to on-load as much work to your reduced staff as you supposed. During prosperous times companies tend to use human beings to add a “personal touch” to their business. But this personal touch may be completely unnecessary. Some customers may prefer automation, self-service, on-line purchasing, push-button technology and other means of conducting business rather than having to deal with over-worked and stressed-out employees. Never do manually what could more easily and more cheaply be done through technology.

Finally, from everything stated above it should be evident that your primary responsibility before, during and after a company downsizing is to clarify roles and expectations for your employees. Workers need to know exactly what is expected of them. They need clarification regarding the standards to which they must perform. Managers must take the time to clearly explain how each employee's work has changed in the new economy.

As can be seen by the comments above, it is unrealistic for you to expect fewer people to perform at the same level that the full compliment of employees did before the downsizing without significant changes to the way you manage. Life is significantly different for all surviving employees in a company after a layoff, and that includes you. You must manage different. You must undertake specific and deliberate actions to maintain the performance of your employees if you wish to satisfy your customers and keep your employees motivated and happy.


Innovative Management Group can help you maintain the enthusiasm and commitment of your employees, even in distressed times, by focusing your efforts on the things that matter most. For more information, contact us at 702-258-8334 or email to

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