Management Tools

Doing More with Less

By Feb 1, 2003
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HR Magazine, February 2003How to motivate and reward your overworked staff during lean times

It’s a common scenario in U.S. companies today: A member of your department tenders her resignation, and you’re told that you can’t fill that position until further notice. That “further notice” period could be weeks or months away—that is, if you’re ever able to get the headcount approved. How do you motivate your existing staff to assume the remaining workload? How do you do more work with fewer people? More importantly, how do you make sure you don’t suffer additional turnover when your overstressed, overworked staff members are feeling overwhelmed by the sheer workload in your office?

While this article can’t solve the economy’s current problems, one thing is clear: We’ve proven to ourselves that we can do more with less. After all, we have been toeing the line in corporate America for a decade of unparalleled challenge. “What many businesspeople forget, though, is that the post-Y2K slowdown was immediately preceded by the immense workplace challenges of the 1990s, which had many employees scrambling to keep up with heated company production and technology demands,” according to Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.

“The late 1990s may have provided seemingly better job security and a richer stock portfolio, but many of us were constantly running ourselves ragged at that time to keep pace with the rapidly changing business environment,” adds Kyser.

Increasing workloads are relative, not absolute. In actuality, U.S. companies have experienced two very extreme employment markets in the past decade. The earlier market was characterized by increased demands for productivity to feed an insatiable growing economy, and the current market is characterized by employment scarcity and tremendous pressure on the bottom line to wait out a glut of product that sits idling in a warehouse. Subsequently, people have been working at a harried pace, not only since the 2000 recession, but well before that in the previous decade—albeit for different reasons.

In essence, both extremes have one thing in common: People are weary and somewhat unnerved by the rapid pace of change and its accompanying uncertainty. “What is certain, however, is that we’ll not likely have the luxury of increasing staff quickly or in large quantities any time soon. We’ll simply need to get more out of our existing workforce, but that will be a big challenge,” says Kyser.

Here are some simple tips that may work for you, no matter what line of business you’re in. ›

Challenge the Superstar

Many superstar employees who feel they are currently treading water career-wise may start looking to make up for lost time once the economy and job market rebound. One way to head off this threat lies in developing your “keepers” now so that they don’t jump ship once another opportunity comes along.

At first glance, this may look like you’re attempting to add to your staff’s already busy workload. In reality, you will be meeting your key players’ needs by developing these individuals to even greater levels of achievement. Remember, as long as outstanding performers feel they are on the fast track, are given an opportunity to prove their abilities, and sense appreciation for their contributions, they’re more likely to stay put.

First, determine what motivates your individual staff members according to these six general guidelines:

  • Career progression through the ranks/promotion.
  • Lateral assumption of increased job responsibilities/skill broadening.
  • Acquisition of new technical skills (typically requiring outside training or certification).
  • Acquisition of portable management, administration and people skills.
  • Work/life balance.
  • Money and other forms of compensation.

Before jumping too quickly on the money option, remember that, within reason, people primarily work for the “psychic” income involved, not for the money. And as much as readers may tend to minimize this reality, the truth is that most people who enjoy their work, are fond of their co-workers, and are otherwise at the top of Maslow’s hierarchy in the office, will stay put despite other companies’ job offers of 10 percent or 20 percent salary increases.

Next, determine what motivates each individual by meeting with your direct reports one-on-one and asking them to rank themselves according to these general guidelines. Simply stated, you can’t know what motivates your individual staff members unless you ask them. To encourage more open communication in your meeting, ask some of these questions as well:

  • If you could change one thing about the department to make it more effective or to make it more fun, what would it be?
  • If you could add or subtract one thing to my management style to help me become a better-performing manager and a better people developer, tell me what I could do differently.
  • Most importantly, if you could focus on one area where you would like to develop your own skills or gain more experience to broaden your resume and prepare for your next move in career progression (at our company or elsewhere), what would it be?

With this tailored information in hand, you will be on your way to determining what to delegate to whom. The goal of delegation is to pass along skills and opportunities that will help develop your subordinates.

Random Acts of Kindness

If you have a child in school, you know that educational philosophy has gotten away from punitive methods and focuses now on “catching students being good.” There’s no reason why that same culture couldn’t work for your office. Celebrate your successes, learn from your group mistakes by conducting a “post mortem” on deals gone bad, and try to have some fun. Supervisors have a relationship with their staff, and every relationship benefits from a spontaneous surprise now and then.

How about a 12:30 staff get-together at the local bowling alley? What about holding your next staff meeting in the park across the street? Would your employees benefit from a two-on-one lunch with you and perhaps your immediate supervisor? What if you were to invite your division head to the next staff meeting to get a view from the top—i.e., find out what your customers are saying and what strategic challenges your company is facing? Maybe you could have a short contest awarding the winner with next Friday off while runners-up get to leave at 3 p.m.

Remember that this doesn’t have to be anything grandiose. However, occasionally engaging in acts of benevolent spontaneity on company time will lift morale and give people a well-deserved break from their work. That’s a refreshing change that people will appreciate. (It makes them appreciate you and work harder, too.)

Rotate Staff Assignments

The key to developing staff in light of corporate America’s changing demands lies in making your people feel like they’re making a positive contribution at work (company benefit) while developing their own skills and building their resumes (individual benefit). If a headhunter approached one of your employees with an enticing interview at a competitor firm, the headhunter might ask:

  • What’s your reason for wanting to leave your present company?
  • What would have to change in your present position for you to stay?
  • What’s your next logical move in career progression if you stay with your current company, and how long would it take you to get there?

A typical response from your employee to this set of questions might be: “Well, there’s really no room for growth at my current company. I don’t see myself learning anything new; I’m just doing volumes of the same work that I’ve been doing for the past few years.”

If that’s the case, then it’s time to consider staff rotation assignments. Sometimes known as the “horizontal loading of jobs,” staff rotations, on an occasional, limited basis, allow employees to learn new skills and to develop new perspectives on their own work. It helps people broaden their knowledge about their own career interests and gain a more comprehensive perspective of their company’s operations.

Here’s how staff rotations might work in your company: An insurance claims adjuster who normally handles personal lines claims might work one day a month for the next three months in the commercial lines claims unit under the watchful eye of the commercial lines supervisor. Someone who handles property damage claims may want to mirror or follow an adjuster who deals with bodily injury claims and negotiates settlements with plaintiff attorneys. Maybe all adjusters could spend one hour next week visiting the underwriting department to understand how actuaries determine risk levels and set premiums on policies.

Similarly, a staff accountant who works in the accounts receivable area might appreciate an occasional rotational assignment in accounts payable or payroll. A finance manager who primarily budgets for expatriate relocation assignments might benefit from working with the international benefits administrator or a counterpart in domestic finance for a day.

Staff Appreciation

Finding ways to give your employees more of your time is the only real remedy that exists when they are overwhelmed themselves. You may not be able to snap your fingers and double the number of staff members, but you can increase the satisfaction and sense of career development that your existing people experience as they drive volumes of work day in and day out.

When you occasionally put their career needs above the needs of your day-to-day production demands, you will find that people generally respond in kind: They will work harder to demonstrate their appreciation of your leadership. They will find new ways of reinventing their work in light of your department’s changing needs. And they will hold themselves accountable for the end result. There’s no surer formula for individual or group success in up or down employment markets.

Paul Falcone is director of international human resources at Paramount Pictures in Hollywood, Calif. He is the author of four books published by AMACOM, including The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book (2001) and 101 Sample Write-Ups for Documenting Employee Performance Problems: A Guide to Progressive Discipline and Termination (1999). This article represents the views of the author solely as an individual and not in any other capacity.

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