Spreading the Workload

Planning how to redistribute work is a key step in engineering layoffs.

By Eric Krell Jul 1, 2009
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July Cover​Brian Acker, SPHR, describes March 6, 2009, as the worst day of his working career. As human resources director for the Paulding County (Ga.) Board of Commissioners, he had to lay off 20 of the county government’s approximately 770 full-time employees.

The reduction was necessary because revenues from sales taxes and residential development dropped as the recession descended on the greater Atlanta area. For a decade, Acker had worked closely with many of the released workers—and knew them well. He acknowledges that the aftermath could have been much worse if he and his colleagues had not conducted sufficient planning and communication about work reassignments.

Layoffs have become a reality for many U.S. organizations. A Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) survey in March indicated that 51 percent of the responding public and private entities of all sizes in the United States were likely to implement layoffs by August.

After making job cuts, managers must grapple with a tough challenge: how to fairly dole out important work that has been "orphaned" after downsizing and how to maintain employee engagement and productivity among remaining workers.

Given the anxiety and disruption that layoffs cause, some drop-off in productivity is to be expected, says Laura Lea Clinton, GPHR, director of human resources management for CARE USA, a humanitarian organization based in Atlanta. "We’ve acknowledged that during the first couple of months after the layoffs, we will not expect everyone to automatically work in a different way," says Clinton of the planning she conducted before CARE USA reduced its U.S.-based workforce by 15 percent during May. "It is a major change process. And in any big change process, productivity is going to decrease for a period."

That said, Clinton and other HR practitioners and experts who have been reassigning orphaned workloads following downsizing identify numerous ways HR managers can help a painful process work as smoothly as possible.

"HR managers are an excellent resource for reassigning work," says Liz Hocker, senior associate with Austin, Texas-based vcfo. The company offers professional services in finance, recruiting and human resources. "They may have a better idea of each department’s activities, challenges and strengths and can bring together key stakeholders within the organization to streamline operations," she says.

In recent years, Hocker has worked on HR initiatives with more than 30 companies, including six that conducted layoffs before or during her work with them. "HR managers should be in close communication with the operational managers in the weeks following a layoff," she says. "Discussions about workload, employee retention, employee burnout and productivity should occur during each meeting."

Before: Communications and Planning

Plan to redistribute the workload in advance.

At CARE USA, Clinton began meeting with senior-level managers to discuss downsizing several months before it was scheduled. They discussed how laid-off employees would be assisted, how managers could best address the remaining employees’ emotional needs and how the workloads of departing employees would be reassigned.

The plan was extensive. It:

  • Described how laid-off workers would be selected by using information from the talent management program.
  • Identified strategic objectives and work priorities moving forward.
  • Documented how remaining employees would receive help adapting to the emotional stress of the layoffs.
  • Included a reworked organizational structure to address the new workload demands.
  • Placed high-potential employees in stretch positions that aligned with leadership development needs.

Clinton, a member of SHRM’s Employee Relations Special Expertise Panel, stresses two points. First, such plans need to address the emotional cost of layoffs on the remaining workforce. "It’s human nature to wonder, ‘Am I next?’ " agrees Bernard Ruesgen, SPHR, corporatee group HR manager, logistics and distribution centers, for Sports Authority in Englewood, Colo. Those musings create anxiety. Combined with the guilt of seeing co-workers suffer unplanned departures, anxiety creates stress. That stress, along with new duties and organizational charts, can make the workload after layoffs feel heavier, even if work volume does not increase, Clinton says.

Second, she adds, "if you lay off 50 workers, that does not mean 50 jobs then get pushed onto [remaining employees’] plates." Restructuring and new priorities should prevent that from occurring.

Checklist for Orphaned Work Human resource professionals say that the process of reassigning work orphaned as a result of layoffs depends on the work, the culture and the organizational structure—and that the process varies according to the company and even by departments within companies. The following steps are most often identified:

Communicate early and often. "In this economic environment, everyone in the company, from the VP level to the receptionist, needs to know how the company is doing on a regular basis," says consultant Paul Facella.

Plan ahead. As soon as it has been decided that there will be layoffs, but before the decision is announced to the workforce, HR and senior managers should identify what work needs to be performed following the reduction and what restructuring and reassignments can help ensure that the work is performed efficiently and effectively. Don’t overburden remaining employees with too much work; it may damage morale and productivity, and they may be too worried about their own job security to communicate the problem.

Collaborate. After layoffs are announced, supervisors and remaining employees with new or different workloads need to work together to monitor how the plan operates in practice and make adjustments.

Monitor metrics. Measure productivity and quality with metrics appropriate for the post-layoff structure and work. Expect a period of lower productivity as employees adapt to changes.

Address anxiety. Reassure remaining employees that they are valued by the organization. Remaining workers will evaluate how laid-off colleagues are treated.

"It is still the employer’s responsibility to set conditions that provide a reasonable work and life balance," Ruesgen notes. "You get nowhere working people to death." It is reasonable to have a salaried professional work nine to 10 hours a day, sometimes, he continues. "But if you’re working your salaried people 10 hours a day every day, there is probably a problem—either in how you’re structuring the work or evaluating what you need accomplished."

During: Reprioritization

The value of communication remains high throughout the layoff process. Once the downsizing has occurred, communication becomes crucial for determining how well the planned reassignment of orphaned work functions in practice.

Before that assessment, the reason for the downsizing should be communicated directly, immediately and specifically, says Jathan Janove, an attorney with Ater Wynne in Portland, Ore., and author of The Star Profile: A Management Tool to Unleash Employee Potential (Davies-Black, 2008).

Ruesgen, a member of SHRM’s Labor Relations Special Expertise Panel, says that the reason for the layoffs should be explained in terms that define organizational health:

We’ve done this so we can continue to be competitive and healthy. That said, we’re restructuring how we are doing some things. We’re going to be smarter and more efficient. And we’re going to use this opportunity to enhance what you do.

How those enhancements occur hinges on how the workload is reassigned and reprioritized: "The boss needs to go one-on-one and review every employee’s schedule and workload," says Paul Facella, CEO of consulting firm Inside Management of Woodstock, N.Y., and author of Everything I Know About Business I Learned at McDonald’s (McGraw Hill, 2009). Doing so enables the reassignment plan to be recalibrated in an ongoing and collaborative fashion.

This collaboration accomplishes two objectives. First, it helps the person receiving more work to prioritize the load. "The person who is receiving, say, 20 percent more work to do may not know how important it is compared to his or her existing work," Facella explains. "You have to prioritize."

Second, it helps supervisors and employees spot opportunities for improvement. If a new task that a supervisor expects to take two hours actually takes an employee five hours, the two can reach agreement on what needs to change—either the task requires more time or the employee needs to develop a more efficient way of performing it.

After: Measure, Manage, Recognize

Once managers have determined the key deliverables and reassigned work, quality and productivity metrics can be identified to monitor performance.

Metrics serve as assessment tools as well as starting points for discussion, Facella and Hocker emphasize. For example, the HR department of a Texas construction company Hocker worked with recently assigned basic productivity and quality metrics to monitor work performance following a round of layoffs. "It allowed managers to identify departmental and individual challenges early on," Hocker recalls. "If the deliverables were slipping, managers could focus on the reasons behind the failing deliverable and recalibrate." The recalibration included additional training for some employees, process improvements and subsequent redistribution of work.

Metrics also can identify when rewards are justified. Because of financial constraints resulting in layoffs, however, companies often have little budget left for rewarding employees. That’s fine, says Ruesgen. "The gift cards and that sort of recognition are a nice thing, which is exactly how employees perceive them," he explains. But "they don’t run home beaming, saying ‘Whoa! I got a $25 Wal-Mart gift card.’ "

Ruesgen says psychological rewards are less expensive and much more effective. "People want to learn, and they want to feel challenged in their jobs," he says. "This is a great opportunity for an employer to harness that interest for the benefit of both the employee and the organization.

"One of the most important psychological rewards is for the HR manager or supervisor to sit with an individual employee and say, ‘We have confidence in you. You are here because we really want you here. We want you because we see you as having a viable and meaningful contribution to make to the organization.’ "

Facella advises HR professionals to "sit in the cubicles" of employees taking on additional and new work. "HR has long been striving for a seat at the executive table, and they should be there," he says. "But they also need to care for the troops, and they cannot afford to lose sight of their constituency in this environment."

Acker continues to communicate with nearly all of his former Paulding County colleagues to serve as a sounding board and provide networking and job hunting support. Although he says he is driven to do so in large part out of loyalty and empathy—he still recalls how his father’s layoff in 1982 challenged his family when he was in high school—he acknowledges that his current colleagues, including those with extra work, notice his efforts.

"It does make a difference," he says, "when people understand you’re making every effort to help their colleagues who have been laid off."


The author is a business writer based in Austin, Texas, who covers human resource and finance issues.

Web Extras

SHRM article: Layoff Aftermath (HR Magazine)

SHRM article: After the Layoff: How Are You Feeling? (HR Magazine)

SHRM article: Layoffs Pack Punch to ‘Surviving’ Employees (HR News)

SHRM web page: Guiding Organizations Through Economically Challenging Times

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