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Feeling understaffed? 7 helpful tips for leading a lean team


If you are feeling like your business is understaffed – that you have more work than employees to handle it all – you are not alone. Between The Great Resignation and a looming economic downturn that has necessitated layoffs, many companies across the U.S. are experiencing a talent shortage.

Or, it could be that your business has experienced rapid success and needs to scale up fast. That is an exciting position to be in, but it can certainly place huge amounts of pressure on your company in the short term.

What else can exacerbate being understaffed?

  • Operating in niche areas requiring highly specialized, hard-to-find personnel
  • A location in smaller, more remote areas that tend to be less attractive to current and prospective employees alike
  • A negative culture and reputation that repel talent

The longer your current employees have to take on additional work to compensate for the talent shortage, especially if it is in areas outside their interests and core job responsibilities, the higher the risk that morale will tank. Employees may reach a breaking point and leave.

How to know if you are understaffed

If your company engages in strategic workforce planning, then your staffing plan will indicate when your current workforce numbers and allocation to various responsibilities are out of alignment with business needs and goals. With this information, you can proactively make adjustments, in the right areas, before your employees are significantly impacted.

If you do not have positions identified and need to add brand-new roles, investigate the following questions:

  • Are projects not getting completed because there are not enough people?
  • Are all your employees at maximum capacity?
  • Do you deal with overtime frequently?

If you have a positive workplace culture that prioritizes honesty and transparency – and your people feel safe in truthfully reporting how they feel to you – they may openly express concerns about being overworked.

Otherwise, you will need to be on the lookout for signs of stress or burnout in employees – just be careful to confirm that it is related to taking on extra workload by speaking with employees directly.

After all, stress and burnout can also be caused by:

  • Management styles
  • Workplace conflict
  • Personal issues
  • Performance issues
  • Boredom or lack of engagement with work

If you are going to dedicate time and resources to address staffing, you want to make sure there are not  any underlying issues that make staffing challenges seem more pronounced.

7 helpful tips to manage an understaffed team

When the company (or your department) is understaffed, what happens if it is not financially feasible to hire more people? It may not be a good idea to continue with the status quo and allow circumstances to potentially get worse.

Fortunately, all is not lost. Here are actions that can be taken to alleviate the situation and keep relationships with employees intact.

1. Communicate: Acknowledge that you are understaffed

  • Let employees know that the company is understaffed and why. If you are able to estimate how long the situation will last, explain this.
  • Express that you are aware of all the work they are doing and appreciate their efforts.
  • Encourage employees to discuss their concerns, feedback and any ideas they have with you. They might suggest something you would not have thought of otherwise.
  • As soon as possible, share with employees the roadmap that your company leadership has to reduce their workload. Solicit their input on those plans to ensure you have not overlooked anything that could negatively impact them.

Most of all, be prepared to listen, take action and look for small changes that can have a big impact. For example, schedule “No Meeting” days so everyone can focus on completing tasks.

2. Prioritize responsibilities

With your team’s input, meet as a leadership team to discuss which areas are most critical and which tasks can wait. Another way to think about it is: “What can we stop doing, at least temporarily, that is just getting in the way?”

However, create a plan for all the projects that are put on hold, so they are not forgotten.

3. Redeploy staff

Do some departments or teams within your company have a lighter workload than others? It may be necessary to cross-train employees with lighter workloads and redeploy them to the teams that are overwhelmed and could use additional help.

4. Allow employees to trade responsibilities

Do any of your employees have a specific area of interest or a passion for a certain skill? Maybe they would be willing to take on more work in that area. And, if there is some aspect of their job that they do not enjoy as much, maybe another employee would like to assume those responsibilities.

If employees enjoy what they are doing, and can unload the tasks they would rather not deal with, the extra work may be less burdensome.

5. Get leaders involved

When times get tough, everyone has to step up for the team – and that includes leadership. Resentment can fester when employees feel as though others are not carrying their weight, or that the “senior-level people” are asking “the lower-level people” to do something that they are not doing themselves.

In the spirit of modeling the behaviors and attitude that they want employees to follow, and to help reduce their employees’ workloads, managers should be open to taking on additional work as well.

6. Embrace flexibility

If you are asking employees to take on extra work, which often means longer hours on the job, allow them to have more workplace flexibility so they can still maintain work-life balance. This includes opportunities to:

This may reduce the risk of burnout while increasing engagement.

7. Consider short-term help

Hiring more full-time workers may not be in the budget, but perhaps hiring other types of workers could be approved. Consider:

  • Part-time workers
  • Job sharing (an arrangement in which two people “share” the same job, each working on a part-time basis)
  • Temporary workers (employees of your company or a temporary agency who are hired for a designated period of time for a specific purpose)
  • Contractors (professionals in business for themselves who are hired your company for a designated period of time for a specific purpose)

Just make sure that you do not misclassify employees as contractors.

Things to keep in mind when you can hire more people

If you are in a financial position to hire more people, great news! You will be able to resolve the problem and make your employees happier in less time.

A few things to remember:

  • Pay attention to your workplace culture and maintain a positive, trusting and supportive atmosphere. Do not wait until you are short-staffed and in a pinch to address any culture problems that may be the culprit for being understaffed in the first place – or, at least, can hinder your ability to fill open positions.
  • Understand exactly who you are looking for. Consider how much time you will be able to dedicate to training if you already have a lean team. Do new employees need to be ready to go, with minimal supervision, when they report for their first day?
  • Have well-written job descriptions ready in advance that not only focus on the specific job requirements and responsibilities, but also describe your workplace:
  • Mission, vision and values
    • Company culture
    • Commitment to learning and development
    • Benefits
    • Big-picture goals

Prospective applicants should immediately be able to grasp what your organization is all about from your job descriptions – and it should entice them to apply.

  • Monitor employee reviews and other online chatter about your company. If you see negative feedback, start a discussion with your HR partner. It is important to listen to the feedback and make changes in the company if that feedback is accurate. Is there a process issue? Does communication need to improve? Is manager training needed?
  • Recruiting can be a time-consuming, lengthy process. Consider your strategies for recruiting:

Summing it all up

If your business is understaffed, make a plan and act as soon as possible to prevent your employees from becoming overworked, stressed and burned out. If you can hire more employees, this is the clear, desirable solution. Recruit carefully, with an emphasis on cultural fit, to ensure that new employees are successful.

If you cannot hire more full-time employees, your actions need to center on strong communication and other creative solutions, like redeploying staff, trading responsibilities, asking leaders to absorb more workload and consider temporary help. By doing this, you can maintain employee morale and engagement, and prevent a devastating round of departures from your company.

To learn more about cultivating a committed team that can help your business navigate through challenging times, download our free e-book: How to develop a top-notch workforce that will accelerate your business.