By Andrew Forrester
Understaffed? You’re not alone. But here are some ways to make sure working with you is a singularly positive experience.
“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.”
Henry Ford, American industrialist and founder of the Ford Motor Company
If you’ve recently found yourself with vacancies on your staff, you’re not alone. In the midst of the Great Resignation, with no less than Beyoncé inspiring workers to quit their jobs, managers across the country are staring down dwindling rosters of employees, some of whom seem unlikely to be replaced any time soon. It’s getting harder and harder to retain qualified workers, and employee satisfaction has never been more important. When the challenges of managing an understaffed team make meeting the realities of the work ahead seem impossible, here are some things to remember and some tangible actions you can take. This can either be a painful trial with very real consequences or a concentrated moment for professional development—the choice is up to you.
IT’S NOT YOU, BUT IT IS UP TO YOU
First, remember you are not alone in this. Industries as disparate as education, health services, transportation and even lifeguarding are experiencing record labor shortages. The professional world is no exception. And while it’s unlikely that you as a manager are the sole cause of the situation you find yourself in, taking accountability and being proactive can make all the difference in motivating the team you still have.
The greatest risk you run at this time is that your employees will feel taken advantage of, simply because they’ve chosen to stick it out when others didn’t. As a manager, this might just seem like an especially large “other duties as assigned” moment, but in fact it’s more than that: it’s an opportunity. Now is your chance to demonstrate what being a team player looks like. If you’re asking your staff to pick up the slack, a fair amount of that slack-holding should fall to you. You should be the one coming early and staying late; you should be the one who fills gaps without being asked first; you are the one who can right this ship, and it all starts with walking the talk, even if it means getting your hands dirty (or losing some sleep) along the way.
BE HONEST ABOUT WHAT YOU HAVE AND WHAT YOU NEED
We’ve all seen situations that seem strained, even dire, in which the higher-ups seem more intent on white-knuckling their way into normalcy than actually acknowledging what’s going on. No matter how many times we tell ourselves and others “this is fine,” the truth is that things are likely tense, and whatever pressures you’re feeling as a manager won’t stop with you. So be honest with yourself and your employees: things are different now, and we need to adjust.
This starts with asking for what you need, whether than something general like greater flexibility when it comes to job duties, or something really specific, like assistance with digitizing and automating formerly analog processes. Your employees also need to know that they can be honest in return, communicating their own needs through the proper channels, especially when things aren’t going right. And once again, this starts with you. For better or worse, you are the one who sets the tone, so make sure you’re hitting the right note.
EASE THE BURDEN WHERE YOU CAN
While you’re earning points for all that hard work and honesty you’re modeling, consider other ways to accommodate your potentially overworked staff where you can. Many people who quit during the Great Resignation were simply looking for better work life balance, so it behooves you to indicate that such balance is possible here and now, not just out there where the grass is greener.
Low-cost perks like appreciation lunches, company-sponsored happy hours, and flexible work hours go a long way. Bigger, more culture-shifting extras can be even more powerful: more vacation days, opportunities for remote work, even four-day workweeks and additional bonuses when possible—each of these is a way to say to your team, “I see you and I get it – you’re working harder than you should have to, and I’m doing what I can to make things better.” People yearn to be seen, especially when they feel like they’ve been struggling in silence. So see them, and then put your money where your eyes are. And if you eventually return to being fully staffed, keep the perks. Those employees who’ve been around will certainly have earned them, and those who are new to fold will have every reason to stay for the long haul.
PRIORITIZE YOUR MOST PRESSING GOALS
Mission statements, core values, primary goals—now is the time to lean into what your company is really about and what it really needs to accomplish to justify its existence. Theoretically, everyone on your team knows the company and its clients’ hierarchy of needs, but you’re the one who has to verbalize them. What’s the next big thing? Who needs what right now, and what must we do to get it to them?
This is the time to be at your most managerial. Hammer those core goals into place; name what it is your staff should focus on, and then let them know you trust them to get it done in a way that aligns with your company’s mission, vision and values. Sure, some things will fall through the cracks and some projects may need to be cut altogether. That’s just reality. But prioritizing first things first will ensure that the things that matter most continue to be taken care of with the greatest possible attention and care.
LOOK TO THE FUTURE AND IN THE MEANTIME, SAY A LOT OF THANK YOUS
None of these action steps is a permanent fix, so it’s important you acknowledge that. People need to know that whatever you’re asking them to do is not the new normal, but a patch that will one day be removed and fully mended. Even when the end is not yet in sight, what matters is that there will be an end. What matters even more is that the people striving toward that end alongside you feel valued for the work they’ve done and the sacrifices they’ve made. No number of perks can compare to a consistent, heartfelt culture of gratitude. Being part of an understaffed team can be burdensome for everyone, but knowing your work is being recognized can lighten the load and make all the difference in the world.
Andrew Forrester is a writer whose work has appeared in Parents Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. Andrew also teaches English and creative writing in Austin, Texas, and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Southern Methodist University.
Learning and professional growth go hand in hand. For regular career insights and information on continuing education programs offered by UT’s Center for Professional Education, subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter, It’s Your Career.