Five ways to achieve top results from your short-staffed team

Under-staffed and overworked teams increase stress and dampen productivity – so what’s the best way to manage when employee numbers are low?

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared on the Chartered Management Institute website.

Whether it’s in the private or public sector, office-based or not, being a manager is difficult and stressful enough during a busy day. However, the challenge often increases exponentially on a day when your workplace is short-staffed – you might not even have time to be stressed!

In the short-term, understaffing can be caused by sudden illness to members of your team, or annual leave; it may also be a more long-term issue caused by a substantial increase in customers, clients and workloads or major employee redundancies.

For Simone Gould, a senior IT manager in Birmingham, her responsibilities ‘increased two-fold’ when her employer reduced her team of technicians by 40% during cost-cutting measures, despite the department’s workload remaining significant.

“Our company is pretty much dependent on technology, computers and the internet,” she says. “Our team shrank but our work duties only got bigger and more taxing. Employee morale was already low due to the layoffs, but the lack of downtime and the pressure to, essentially, do the jobs of two people has only made it harder to manage.

“Since the changes, we’ve noticed engagement is down, and the amount of sick leave has surged!”

As well as putting a strain on individuals, managers are faced with enforcing a number of tough decisions to ensure no employee is left without the help and support to cope with the workload. Some workers could face longer hours, getting into the office earlier or staying an hour or two later. Moreover, staff breaks may also have been shortened, or managers may have to allow workers to take their lunch at different times.

The much-documented understaffing of nurses in the NHS reflects some of the extreme dangers staff shortages can create for individuals and their patients – especially for emergency services personnel. A poll carried out by the Nursing Times magazine found 57% of the 526 nurses questioned believed their ward was dangerous for patients because there were too few staff.

One nurse told the magazine, “Although my organisation has been recruiting more nursing staff these have been inexperienced and have had to be supervised so, in some cases, have made matters harder.”

Here are five practical tips on how to manage an understaffed workforce.

  1.      Prioritise

Developing a plan of action to adequately prepare and organise your staff for the workload becomes even more important during busy, short-staffed days. Unfortunately, all tasks can’t be done at the same time, and some may even have to be delayed for the following day or two, but successful managers prioritise which work is the most urgent and important, roughly working out the required time to complete the projects and placing the right people to deal with each task. This means paperwork may have to be put off for the next day or returned ‘phone calls are delayed.

  1.       Emphasise teamwork

In scenarios where there is more work than staff, or when the team is missing a particular employee with specialist knowledge, teamwork is an essential method for ensuring the workforce’s performance doesn’t dip Many employees, including senior managers themselves, have experienced jumping into tasks that are not normally part of their duties and, in this instance, teamwork is essential for making it a success.

  1.       Gain help from past employees

If your employer is willing to spend and invest in more support, without the time and monetary cost of hiring and training a new starter, some managers bring in past employees on a short-term basis. With previous knowledge, skills and an understanding of your company’s culture, employees who were previously a part of the department are key resources for handling excessive workloads.

  1.       Allow for breaks

Although it may sound counterintuitive, there is some research to suggest managers should be still allow their staff to take their break time. The stress on understaffed teams increases the likelihood of mistakes being made, and allowing staff to take regular breaks during the workday helps employees remain more alert and productive.

A 2011 study from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that regular breaks helped people focus for longer on a task. Even when you’re incredibly busy at work, taking your regular lunch break can help you get even more done afterwards.

  1.       Communicate openly and frequently

Some staff may be underperforming or feel overwhelmed by working with fewer colleagues. To help avoid this, great managers continuously encourage their team to speak up when they are facing difficulties, or have a problem. Supervisors can, possibly, limit the work that needs to be done that day, call in support staff to help out, or even jump in to assist with tasks.

Keeping a keen eye on all of your team may provide difficult, but ensuring your staff feel comfortable to discuss any work/project issues, and receive guidance, can boost teamwork, maintain morale and avoid a decline in productivity.

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