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Making the most with fewer employees: 8 tactics for employers in era of labour shortages

January 5, 2023
By Barry Cross/Queen's University


Photo: Adobe Stock

Staffing challenges are front and center for employers of all shapes and sizes, with labour shortages being well documented.

It seems like we can’t go anywhere without seeing those ‘Help Wanted’ or ‘Join our team’ signs at retailers and restaurants, while at a more serious level, a number of hospitals have had to close wards or emergency departments due to staffing shortages.

The impact of the pandemic has been broad and significant. The most obvious challenges faced by organizations include forced closures and work-from-home situations, to COVID-related employee absences, to restrictions based on vaccination status.

While many of these scenarios appear to be easing, organizations continue to be short-handed today for a number of reasons. For instance, employees have been leaving their previous industries after upskilling amid pandemic closures, taking long-term leave due to industry pressures (i.e., healthcare), retiring early after reprioritizing and evaluating personal needs and life status , and searching for employment that offers continued remote and relaxed work scheduling.

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Ultimately, the pandemic has led to a recalibration of work across society. While you are aware of this, the facts and history behind how we got here doesn’t make the current situation any easier. As leadership in your organization, you still have a responsibility to execute, despite the conditions under which we must operate.

Eight tactics for employers

So, what should you do now? First, think about how best to use the people that you do have. They are (presumably) your best asset. Don’t squander all that talent. Second, consider taking a fresh perspective when you absolutely need more people. To get started, here are eight specific tactics that you can apply when faced with today’s pressing resource challenges.

1. Optimize your existing workforce

One of my favourite questions executives can ask is, “do we need to?’ A mentor used to ask me that question when, as a younger manager, I was looking to fill a gap recently created in our organization. It turns out, in some cases, we didn’t need to fill that gap; the business had changed. Interestingly, your org chart is structured for your operations today, or often for yesterday. Think twice about filling those gaps automatically (more on org charts later). In my own experience, I have rarely gone into an organization over the past 20 years and not been able to find the people the operations needed. Those resources, however, were being wasted on inefficient or poorly designed processes, or doing things that really didn’t matter.

2. Having good people isn’t enough

I like to say that most businesses either have a people problem, or a process problem, and chances are they have pretty good people. Evaluate how you work, looking for bottlenecks and constraints, challenged process and especially work that is no longer necessary. Think about that meeting you hold at 10 a.m. every Thursday that long ago solved its intended problem, yet the meeting continues, or the hours that go into the report that no one reads.

3. Fire your customer

Let’s admit it – some of your customers are either difficult to deal with or engage at the very bottom of your service menu (or both). Gently suggesting a few of these customers would be better served elsewhere may free up hours of your employees’ time with little impact on the bottom line. Price increases can also lead to some natural attrition while preserving overall sales.

4. If you are not short-handed, you are overstaffed

Running a bit lean allows your best people to shine, solve problems and help you refine your overall business model. The key is to engage the team on a regular basis and share your plans on where the organization is going. People want to be part of something, and this tactic helps.

5. Looking in all the wrong places

There are (still) good people who want to work, but in today’s competitive job market, you perhaps need to look at less traditional approaches to finding and recruiting talent.

We talked earlier about people evaluating their priorities and it is apparent that fewer are willing to work 40-50 hours per week (or more), yet they are skilled, capable people. Perhaps a few extra people working part time at roughly 25 hours a week would help you fill a gap? Consider the experience a 50- or 60-something retiree could bring to your operation, yet on a reduced number of hours and salary.

6. New job descriptions

Ask yourself if you’re still trying to fit people into old job descriptions? Do you need a degreed HR person or a Python programmer, or could you train someone with other experience into the role? Cast your net more widely.

7. Support remote work (at least for now)

Support remote work (at least for now). It is not the time to draw a firm line in the sand with respect to in-person versus remote work. While some jobs do need to be in person, continuing with some level of flexibility otherwise may help fill the gaps. Discuss this as an ‘evolving situation’ with staff rather than policy to provide flexibility later.

8. Adopt a new business model

The implications of what we have gone through as a society over the last three years are far-reaching and significant. There won’t be a broad ‘return to normal’ so much as the establishment of a new normal. Use this as the opportunity to redefine the way you do business, thinking about: Who are my best customers? Who are likely to be my best customers? What services do those customers really need? If we could do anything, what would our organization look like?

Throw away your old org chart and develop one that fits the new you. You may find you need fewer people than you think.

Barry Cross is an assistant professor and the Distinguished Faculty Fellow of Operations Strategy at Smith School of Business, Queen’s University. He is the bestselling author of Simple: Killing Complexity for a Lean and Agile Organization.


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