How to Get the Work Done with Less People

Even though our economy is theoretically more stable, many companies still are hesitant to expand their employee base. Far too many companies are trying to maintain production levels with limited staff. Some companies, such as those in the gaming industry, are now being forced to layoff workers as their market becomes saturated and overly competitive.

Managers hope their employees will understand the business necessity for the reduced staffing levels and will continue to perform at acceptable levels without adversely impacting the customers. And, of course, the managers want to maintain the same level of production and quality with less people.

But is this even possible?

A building contractor cannot build a building with less material without reducing the quality of the building. A symphony conductor cannot eliminate a section of the orchestra without diminishing the quality of the music. Likewise, a report that previously has taken four fulltime employees one week to produce cannot be completed in the same amount of time with only two employees. Waitresses who can provide great customer service to ten tables at one time cannot cover 15 tables equally well at the same level of quality.

Something Has to Give

If your employees are already working at or near full capacity, it will be almost impossible for them to do more with less staff without adversely impacting the quality of their work.

I like to demonstrate this by holding up four 3x5 cards, each representing 25% of an employee’s time. If 100% of an employee’s time is already taken at work, and you want to give that employee more work to do (represented by another card you wish to add to the deck of four), how is it possible to add more work to the employee’s schedule when 100% of the employee’s time is already gone? 

Interestingly, it is possible to find more time at work. Historically employees invariably do find time to accomplish the added tasks when bosses load them up with additional work. But where does the additional time come from? If it’s true that 100% of the employee’s workday is filled, then the only way an employee can complete the additional work is to come in early, stay late or reduce one’s lunch or break time to get the added work done.

In other words, the employee must give up one’s personal time to take on the new tasks. Unless you, the manager, implement some of the techniques I outline in this article.

Going Beyond 100%

There is an adage that says: “If you want to get the work done, give it to your busiest worker.” This tends to be true because your hardest worker usually is your most responsible employee. Responsible employees tend to do whatever they have to, to get the work done, even if it means sacrificing their own time.

Human beings have a great capacity to “kick it in gear” in order to get work done in a pinch. They can do more in less time. They can give 110% of their effort. They can sacrifice their family and personal time for the good of the company. But they can only do this for a limited time.

It is possible to go to 110% percent on a nuclear reactor and get greater production by doing so. But staying “in the red” too long can have dire consequences. The same is true of people. It is possible to push people in times of great need to do more – to give 110% – but they cannot do that forever without causing damage to themselves or the company. Eventually, the stress of working beyond normal parameters will cause a “meltdown.”

Getting the Work Done With Less People

Consequently, if you downsize your staff and still want to get the work done, you need to take certain actions as a manager. One of the greatest problems after a downsizing is that managers typically don’t do anything different from what they were doing before the layoff. They continue going about their own work as if nothing has changed. But a great deal has changed; which means the manager must change, too.

Just like your employees, your workload increases the moment you lay off staff. There are numerous managerial duties you must perform immediately after a layoff if you want your employees to continue to perform at acceptable levels.

The first thing you need to do after a layoff is to identify what work is core to your business and what work is not. It’s easy to believe that everything you and your employees are doing is important, but when business is going good businesses typically become bloated and bureaucratic. “Pet projects” and “fluff” are easily allowed when a company is profitable. A downturn in business forces you to look at what you’re doing and determine what really matters to your customers. I can assure you that some of the work your employees are currently doing really doesn’t matter to your customers. They don’t care. Nor does it positively impact the bottom line.

You need to take a hard look at everything your staff is doing. Identify the work that is core to the business or required by law, and get rid of the rest. Be very clear about what things you will stop doing since you no longer have the staff. Remove all unnecessary tasks and responsibilities from your surviving employees before giving them the additional duties of the downsized employees. Pull unnecessary “cards” from their deck of responsibilities before adding new cards to the deck.

While you’re looking at core work – what is and isn’t important to your customers – you also should identify which quality and service standards matter to your customers.

People’s expectations change as situations change. For example, customers who never would have shopped at Walmart during prosperous times may suddenly find Walmart quality to be acceptable during a distressed economy. Customers who expected attention to detail and added-value perks when flying high during the economic boom may quickly lower their standards when forced to pay extra for such privileges during a recession.

You may have to lower your quality or service standards during a recession since you may not have the staff to perform at a higher level after a downsizing. The good news is your customers may find the lowering of such standards to be acceptable, provided you know what is and is not important to them.

Obviously, one of the most important things you can do after a layoff is to prioritize the work. During stressful times people can easily lose focus as to what is important and what is not. They can spend too much time on trivial issues and too little time on major priorities. You need to help your employees identify where they should channel their energy and effort. You need to help them focus on the things that matter most. This is particularly important when new duties have been assigned to them that previously were not their responsibility. People tend to do what they have always done unless specifically instructed to do otherwise.

When people have been given additional duties, you may have to specifically teach people how to multi-task. Don’t assume your employees will know how to link previously unassigned tasks with their current assignments. You may need to walk your employees through each step of their processes and show them which steps can be optimized, minimized, synthesized or altered. Teach them how to do several tasks at once.

Look to your exemplar employees to discover ways to perform better. Your most productive employees are the ones who have discovered little “tricks” to perform better, cheaper or faster. The best food servers, for example, have learned to scan all of their assigned tables while walking to or from the kitchen. They’ve discovered how to carefully stack the dishes on their arms so they can carry more plates in less trips. They mentally know how much time it takes to cook certain orders so they can perform other duties while they wait. They carry a water pitcher and a coffee pot at the same time, knowing someone will ask for one or the other as they pass by.

The most efficient production line workers in a manufacturing plant know exactly how to hold a tool or position themselves on the line to better reach the equipment they’re working on. The best auto mechanic can quickly diagnose a problem by asking a few simple questions or probing certain areas of an engine.

Over time your exemplar employees have discovered tricks that help them perform well. You need to teach the performance enhancing tricks of your exemplar employees to all of your workers so they can perform equally well.

By now you should realize that a company downsizing means you have to train and cross-train your employees to do the new tasks assigned to them. I’m continually amazed at the number of managers who assign the duties of laid-off employees to surviving employees and expect them to pick up the tasks and perform to standard without significant training. Obviously there will be a learning curve on newly assigned work with a decrease in quality and performance while the new tasks are being learned. You must expect diminished performance and implement the training necessary to bridge the gap between the employees’ current skills and those needed to accomplish the tasks.

Of course, the best scenario is one where the employees don’t have to learn the new tasks because you give tasks to your customers instead. This may sound strange, but you may be surprised to discover how many tasks your customers are willing to do themselves. For example, when there are less bellmen at a hotel due to downsizing, sometimes all a company needs to do is provide self-serve bell carts at the front desk so customers can take their bags to the room themselves. A self-serve checkout stand at a grocery store may be a better option for a customer than having to stand in line for a human attendant.

If you use technology instead of people, you many find you don’t have to on-load as much work to your reduced staff as you supposed. During prosperous times companies tend to use human beings to add a “personal touch” to their business. But this personal touch may be completely unnecessary. Some customers may prefer automation, self-service, on-line purchasing, push-button technology and other means of conducting business to having to deal with over-worked and stressed-out employees. Never do manually what could more easily and cheaply be done through technology.

Finally, from everything stated above it should be evident that your primary responsibility before, during and after a company downsizing is to clarify roles and expectations for your employees. They need to know exactly what is expected of them and the standards to which they must perform. It is unrealistic for you to expect fewer people to perform at the same level after a downsizing as the full complement of employees did before the layoff without significant changes to the way you manage. Life is significantly different for all surviving employees in a company after a layoff, and that includes you. You must manage different. You must undertake specific and deliberate actions to maintain the performance of your employees and satisfy your customers when you have less staff. §


Innovative Management Group provides consulting and training services to help you manage effectively during tough economic times. We show you how to keep your employees focused on the things that matter most. We’ll help you draw out the full potential of your employees at every level of your organization. Call us at 307-789-3744 or email at

11:37 am am  02-05-14
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