How to Prosper When HR Is Understaffed

By Eric Butterman July 9, 2020
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frustrated woman at laptop

​One of the hardest parts about working in HR is helping a company's managers succeed when the company is understaffed. But what about when the HR department is understaffed, perhaps due to summer vacations, unfilled positions, or team members working fewer hours as they wrestle with child care or illness during the COVID‑19 pandemic?

HR leaders, whether managing a small or large team, can find the weight of a company's needs overwhelming when their department is short-staffed. But HR experts say there are a range of strategies to help address this situation.

"When an HR team is short-staffed, one of the best things to do is try to understand the goals of the company during this time," said Melodie Bond-Hillman, senior manager of HR and administration at XYPRO Technology Corp. in Simi Valley, Calif. She has had many cohorts reach out and express concern that their jobs have expanded out of scope during the coronavirus outbreak as they attempt to handle a range of new duties amid staff shortages. "They need to try and figure out how long term the staffing issue might be to know how to strategically plan," Bond-Hillman said.

Conversely, it's important not to over-promise when seeking staffing solutions for the department in such an unpredictable environment, said Buck Rogers, a vice president at Keystone Partners, a Raleigh, N.C., executive coaching and outplacement firm. "Don't set your team up for a fall," he said. "You need to keep their spirits up as much as possible, but giving them false hope can make them less likely to trust you in the future."

Rogers recommended against giving the HR team exact dates on when operations will return to normal, because no one can say for sure. Instead, he suggested being supportive—but not unrealistic.

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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Consider Investing in Automation

One positive step an HR leader can take during a period of uncertainty is to look for opportunities to automate required processes to save time, Bond-Hillman said.

"An important question to research is, how well is your HR system set up? Is it driving a lot of your process so you can automate when possible and give employees a strong range of self-service access?" she asked. "Do you have apps so workers can get their benefit cards and policy questions easily answered without your team being called on to step in too often? From getting their pay stubs to making 401(k) changes, the process needs to give employees a chance to help themselves. These are areas HR may get lazy at when times are easier, but it makes a difference" when times are tougher, as they are today, she said.

Even with shortcuts in place, there are other steps that will help the team operate more effectively. One is to provide new opportunities for team members to broaden their contributions, perhaps by giving responsibilities to HR professionals who are ready for a new challenge.

"This is a chance for them to help you out," Bond-Hillman said. But you can also help HR team members advance their careers or become specialists. "Give them the opportunity to come through for the team and further their career."

And despite potential revenue shortfalls due to the faltering economy, now isn't the time to reduce training. After all, if team members are going to be able to assist you more, they'll need the training to succeed, Bond-Hillman said.

"Yes, there's a feeling you don't have time, but if you don't make the time, it will potentially be a disaster in executing the work," she said. "Many HR people struggle because not everyone is cross-trained."

Seek Inexpensive Support

Seeking part-time help from a temp or college intern is another popular option this summer, said Heather Deyrieux, SHRM-SCP, HR manager for Sarasota County, Fla., and president of the HR Florida State Council, a Society for Human Resource Management affiliate. "We've had an intern just for the first couple of weeks of the summer, and she has been very helpful," Deyrieux said. "You can even look for volunteers—there can be many of those, especially if it's remote work."

Keeping morale up also is important and may be achieved by making sure everyone in the HR department sees team leaders rolling up their sleeves and doing tasks that may have been handled by others before the pandemic. It's also wise for those leaders to keep their office doors open and be available early and late to help answer questions and address issues, Bond-Hillman said. "A team has to be just that–a team."

Debora Roland, a Los Angeles-based vice president of HR at CareerArc, said seeking opportunities to allow the team to recharge is critical. "Your team, however big it may be, is working tirelessly during these times, and showing appreciation can go a long way," she said. "One way to do this is to give team members time off when it's needed. We're all in such high-stress times, and providing days off to recuperate and reset can make a world of a difference."

If providing time off isn't possible given the workload, showing appreciation can help. "Give a gift certificate to their favorite restaurant or something else they like," Deyrieux said. "This way you show appreciation, but you also show them that you pay attention to their interests. People need to know they're not just another employee."

6 Ways to Support an Understaffed HR Team

  1. Identify the company's primary goals during the pandemic and share it with the team.
  2. Ease the team's hours through automation or help from a temp, an intern or a volunteer.
  3. Be in the trenches with team members by taking on menial tasks and arriving early and/or staying late.
  4. Show appreciation, even if just in a small gift.
  5. Give additional responsibility that could lead to a promotion.
  6. Provide training so your team members feel they're in a good position to take on new responsibilities.

 

Eric Butterman is a freelance writer based in McKinney, Texas.

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