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3 Strategies for Managing an Understaffed Team

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Thanks to continuing resignations, many employees’ workloads have increased to untenable levels. There are a few common solutions for staffing shortages: redistributing work, hiring replacement employees and outsourcing lower-level tasks. But amid the Great Resignation’s persistent talent shortage, many managers are finding that their usual go-to solutions aren’t enough. The author presents three strategies for managers struggling with understaffed teams.

With job resignations still up 23% above pre-pandemic levels, many organizations are short-staffed. When just a few employees resign, their workloads can usually be redistributed among the remaining employees. Indeed, resources abound to help managers fairly divide workload and to help employees manage the increased workload. However, as departments of 50 become departments of 35 and teams of 10 become teams of seven, workload redistribution is an untenable long-term solution.

In addition to redistributing work, there are a couple common solutions for staffing shortages: hiring replacement employees and outsourcing lower-level tasks. But amid the Great Resignation’s persistent talent shortage, many managers are finding that their usual go-to solutions aren’t enough. Here are three strategies for managers struggling with understaffed teams.

Rethink Project Calendars

One of the fastest ways to turn high performers into low performers is to allocate their time to so many different projects that they don’t have time to think deeply. For example, in my work with a global insurance company, as the number of treasury managers dwindled, one historically high-performing treasury manager found herself spending 10% of her time on each of 10 major project teams — with no time to spare for her individual job responsibilities. The result was weekly calendars full of double-booked meetings, multiple frustrated teams, and poor results.

It’s critical to prioritize projects and defer what you can. For example, does there really need to be a system upgrade every year, or is every other year actually fine? What you can’t defer needs to be implemented more strategically and scheduled more carefully — preferably sequentially. If the treasury manager had four weeks allocated for each project, with a slack week in between for overages or previous project revisions, each of the 10 projects could have been accomplished within the year, and with two weeks to spare for some well-deserved PTO. Although it can be tempting to fight over scarce resources and demand your projects are the priority, as a manager, it’s more important to get employees’ focused effort rather than clock time. Stated differently, don’t just grab for whatever you can get — help employees be their best.

Prioritize Core Client Needs

Traditional business teaching emphasizes the importance of having a diverse portfolio of clients and products to minimize risk and make your business stronger. Indeed, focusing on only a few big clients is potentially precarious. However, when you’re in a situation where you can’t manage your entire client base well, giving everyone a little may prompt important unsatisfied clients to move on.

It’s a reoccurring theme across industries (e.g., investments, insurance, and health care) that the number of policies, customers, or patients that an employee is expected to manage has significantly increased — sometimes even doubling or tripling. For example, an asset manager I worked with at a multinational financial services company who two years ago was expected to call about 60 clients per week now has a client load of 246 per week. That comes out to fewer than 10 minutes per client with no time allocated for anything else, like meeting with new clients or conducting market research. No client was getting great service and the employee was working long hours and constantly under tremendous pressure. Unsurprisingly, they just accepted a new job.

Sometimes prioritizing clients involves firing clients, but there are less-drastic measures to try. For example, does every client really need a personal phone call every week, or might some be satisfied with a call every quarter accompanied by automated weekly emails or monthly newsletters? Also consider whether algorithms or even simple group sorting/filtering in Excel could be introduced to determine which client should be a priority on a given week — for example, those whose investments are currently experiencing market volatility. Ideally, a mid-range solution will be effective at reducing employee workload while maintaining your client base. But if not, you may need to prioritize your core clients over having a large portfolio of clients.

Find Quick Interventions

Look for interventions that can substantively improve employees’ daily work and be mastered in less than a week. For example, are there ways to automate data entry, such as converting paper forms into electronic forms that clients enter themselves? Could teaching employees a few formulas in Excel or creating report templates save hours of manual computations? Could three levels of approval be reduced to one, or could the dollar amount requiring approval be increased? Could a shared document repository be used to save the project lead hours of integrating feedback from 10 people’s emails?

Alternatively, if it’s the less-frequent tasks — for example, monthly financial or operational reports — that are the bane of your employees’ existence, try to make any process improvement interventions even shorter (ideally, a day or less). If you can, bring in external consultants or human resources to manage much of the design and rollout of the interventions to avoid further overwhelming an already overstretched workforce. Although investing in process improvement may be expensive, it’s likely much cheaper than recruiting, training, and managing a revolving door of employees who are all frustrated by broken processes.

. . .

Thanks to staffing shortages, many employees’ workloads have increased to untenable levels. For the workplaces running on a skeleton crew, now is the time to implement process improvement interventions, prioritize your core clients and products, and assign your employees to fewer concurrent projects — not more.

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When Shifting Strategy, Don’t Lose Sight of Your Long-Term Vision

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When introducing new strategies in response to the ever-shifting business landscape, executives must take care to align them with the larger picture of where their organization is heading — the company’s “vision.” That’s because when vision and strategy are at odds, employees, shareholders, and customers may lose confidence. To achieve this alignment, executives need to evaluate whether proposed short-term strategic shifts are consistent with the longer-term vision and resist the pressure to those strategies that run counter to it.

Given the time and effort it takes to develop and execute new strategies, it’s best not to introduce them too often. But there are instances when short-term strategic shifts are unavoidable — especially in today’s ever-changing business context. Take, for example, the need to respond to calls for social change or demands from investors to turn around poor financial results.

When responding to these kinds of pressures, executives must take care to align the strategic shifts they introduce with the larger picture of where their organization is heading and what it aspires to accomplish in the future — the company’s “vision.” After all, strategy — overarching decisions about priorities and resource allocations — should be all about translating that vision into action. When vision and strategy are at odds, employees, shareholders, and customers may lose confidence that management has a coherent and consistent plan for moving the company forward.

To achieve this alignment, executives need to evaluate whether proposed short-term strategic shifts are consistent with the longer-term vision and resist the pressure to those strategies that run counter to it. This process itself can help leaders assess whether their vision is sufficiently clear and compelling or may need to be sharpened or revised.

Let’s look at how this plays out in different contexts in practice.

Responding to Social Change

Connecting short-term strategic responses to a long-term vision is particularly important when companies are responding to social movements. These can put pressure on companies to act quickly and publicly. But when company leaders implement strategies that aren’t tied to a larger vision, those strategies can wither on the vine.

For example, in the summer of 2020, after the murder of George Floyd, many firms raced to come up with strategies to convince their people and their customers that they stood firm against systemic racism. But the results of their efforts have been decidedly mixed. While some have pointed to the inefficacy of widely implemented anti-racism training as the culprit, I believe that these strategies fell short of their companies’ rhetoric because they were not supported by a larger vision of how the companies themselves needed to change.

Take a counterexample: For some companies that already had a robust vision for building inclusion and diversity, the new strategies were supported by a pre-existing framework, and have proved more successful. At Johnson & Johnson, for example, by the summer of 2020, the pharmaceutical firm already had a detailed vision — “to maximize the global power of diversity and inclusion, to drive superior business results and sustainable competitive advantage” — and was actively engaged in initiatives that would move the company in this direction. So in November of 2020, when J&J responded to the increasing awareness of social injustice by pledging $100 million to address racism and health inequities, the strategy — which included support for mobile health clinics in communities of color, and a 50% increase in hiring people of color into leadership positions in J&J — was clearly part of an ongoing commitment, and not a one-time, knee-jerk response to social pressure. This consistency is perhaps one reason that employees from often-marginalized categories feel highly positive about the company’s culture and work environment, putting it in the top 10% of companies with over 10,000 employees on Comparably, a workplace rating site.

Leaders whose companies feel compelled to take immediate strides in response to social action should consider whether they have this kind of longer-term vision in place as well. If not, they should develop that vision in parallel with their more immediate strategies. PepsiCo’s response in the summer of 2020 was future- and big-picture focused in this way. The company vowed to add 100 associates of color to its executive ranks within five years and has already achieved at least a quarter of that goal. The company also said that it would double its spending with Black-owned suppliers in five years and has made tangible progress in that direction.

Responding to Business Pressure

Aligning short-term strategies with a longer-term vision also is critical in responding to financial pressures, as executives often feel like they have no choice about pursuing change when the numbers demand it.

A case in point is GE which, starting in 2005, had a compelling, long-term vision for reducing environmental impact at a global scale called “ecoimagination.” This vision drove GE towards investments in wind and water and initiatives to lower carbon emissions technologies for jet engines and other products. The vision was generally well received. But the pressure to maintain and grow revenues led GE to a strategy of selling the water business in 2017 and doubling down on acquisitions in the non-renewable energy sector (see, for example the $9.5 billion 2015 purchase of Alstom’s power business, including the manufacture of coal-fueled turbines, and the 2016 merger with Baker Hughes, which provides services and equipment for oil drilling). These deals gave lie to GE’s green image and mired the company with an unmanageable debt load — problems that could possibly have been avoided by staying true to ecoimagination.

In contrast, Merck CEO Ken Frazier kept his company’s actions focused squarely on the company’s ultimate vision despite immense pressure in the early 2010s from shareholders to cut back on research and development as a strategy for increasing profitability and share price. Frazier pushed back on that strategic shift and even budgeted more for R&D because he saw it as key to the company’s long-term vision to “use the power of leading-edge science to save and improve lives around the world.” Despite taking short-term heat for his decision, Frazier kept the company focused on the vision — a strategy that led to the development and approval of a blockbuster immuno-oncology drug, a robust research pipeline, and, by the time Frazier retired in 2021, a stock price that had more than doubled.

Use Change to Accelerate Your Vision

No matter where the pressure to change your strategy comes from, think not only about whether you can align the changes with long-term vision, but also how you can do it in a way that accelerates your company’s pursuit of that vision.

For example, a large technology firm that had a long-term goal of attracting more women to its high-tech jobs used the abrupt move to remote and hybrid work as a way of proactively speeding up its gender diversity vision. From previous studies and observations, executives at the company had realized that women, who still bore the brunt of childcare, often had a hard time breaking into the company’s onsite tech teams where men stayed late or went out together after work; and that many women valued flexible work hours more than camaraderie. Driven by these insights, they intentionally leveraged the lessons from the remote and hybrid work arrangements necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic to make the co-located office teams less essential; and they are now empowering managers to continue creating flexible work arrangements both for new and current employees. Although it’s too soon to know for sure, early indications across the industry are that this is making it easier to recruit and retain women.

Check Your Vision

Aligning your strategy with your long-term vision of course presupposes that you have one. But that’s something you should test — especially when you are faced with the pressure to change your strategy.

A quick way to do this is to first ask yourself how, in the next 3–5 years, your company (or department of unit) will set itself apart from the competition, attract great talent, and be financially or operationally sustainable. See if you can put this down on paper in no more than a few sentences. Then ask three of your direct reports and a few other stakeholders (like a board member, a key customer, or a partner) to answer the same question.

If you can’t articulate the vision easily, or you don’t get a reasonably consistent response from others, then either you don’t have a clear and exciting vision, or it hasn’t been well communicated or understood.

If indeed your vision doesn’t pass this test, then take some time (even if it’s just a few days) and try to clarify the longer-term vision. There are various ways to do this that I have written about previously in the HBR Leader’s Handbook; if you’re not the CEO, then you can still go through a similar process just for your area. In either case, putting your long-term vision front and center is a critical first step for incorporating short-term strategic shifts into your plans.

Without a vision to guide you, responsive strategic shifts will get you somewhere, but not necessarily where you want to go.

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Using Emojis to Connect with Your Team

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Employees don’t check their emotions at the office door — or Zoom room. But it can be harder to read how your team is feeling when you’re working remotely or in a hybrid office. Managers can use emojis as a fun and easy way to connect with their team. They can offer deeper insight on how your team is feeling, help you build your own cognitive empathy, help you model appropriate emotions, and help reinforce your company culture. Emoji usage can be an intergenerational and cultural minefield, however, so if you are new to the practice, the authors suggest starting with simple emojis (for example, a thumbs up) rather than those that represent complex emotions.

Leaders have often relied on physical cues, such as facial expressions and body language, to gauge and communicate emotions or intent. But doing so is more difficult in the remote workplace, where facial expressions and physical gestures are difficult to both read and convey.

Anecdotal evidence, as well as conversations we’ve had as part of our ongoing research into effective leadership in the digital age, is pointing to the growing use of emojis in the virtual workplace as an alternative to physical cues. They can help clarify meaning behind digital communications, as well as the type and strength of emotions being expressed. But they can also be an intergenerational and cultural minefield. For example, Gen Z’s are reportedly offended by their colleagues’ use of the smiley face emoji, which they see as patronizing. And cultural and geographical differences can mean that one person’s friendly gesture is another’s offense.

To lead in the remote or hybrid workplace, managers need to be aware of these pitfalls and need to understand how to use emojis effectively.

Using Emojis to Connect with Your Team

Based on recent research on emoji use in the workplace, our interviews with leaders who self-identified as using emojis for team management, as well as our own research into effective leadership, we identified four ways using emoji can help you connect with employees and enhance your leadership in a hybrid or remote environment.

1. Get deeper insight on how your team is feeling.

When employees at Danske Bank A/S, a Danish banking and financial services company, log on to join their remote management meetings, they share an emoji. “Our virtual meetings start with capturing the mood of the day. We each post a sticker with our name and an emoji that represents how we feel,” explains Eduardo Morales, a Danske Bank product owner. As these meetings usually are attended by more than 40 people, emoji sharing allows attendees to get a sense of each other’s moods, as well as the collective mood of the group, with just a single glance at the screen. “It saves time, and yet our interactions are richer,” Morales says. “Emojis allows us to reflect upon and express a broader range of feelings beyond the standard verbal response of ‘I’m fine.’”

The simple task of emoji selection gives team members a moment for self-reflection, which has been found to positively impact performance. And those with higher self-awareness become more thoughtful in expressing their emotions, which results in a better accuracy of emoji selection to represent their given mood.

2. Build your own cognitive empathy.

Your employees’ emotions are a data point that can help you understand what motivates them and how they experience their work.

“How do I as a leader understand what my team is working on and how they’re feeling about their work when everybody is remote?” asks Luke Thomas, founder of software startup Friday.app. He decided to start using emojis as part of his weekly check-ins. He asks direct reports to select an emoji to indicate how their week went, and then follows up with open-ended questions, such as: What went well this week? What was the worst part of the week? Is there anything I can help with?

Thomas explains that these updates allow him to have richer one-on-one discussions and then act on his employees’ needs. “I spend less time doing status updates and check-ins, and more time engaged in building better relationships, removing blockers and coaching,” he says.

3. Model appropriate emotions.

Emotions are contagious, and research suggests they may be even more amplified in the digital space. Managing your team’s emotional state and mood is a critical element of leadership, and emojis can help leaders express and role model emotional cues suitable for certain situations.

One senior leader at a global consumer products company explained that he uses emojis and GIFs to help motivate his team members and colleagues: “I use them as “pick-me-ups” to energize and to drive positive moods and behaviors within my team.” He described a recent example of how he used a humorous GIF and emoji to bring a moment of levity to a challenging financial discussion that was taking place on an online chat. The digital cue served as a transition, enabling the discussion to be steered towards a more positive orientation.

Leaders can greatly influence an organization’s emotional culture. Using emojis that represent positive workplace emotions, such as happiness, pride, enthusiasm, and optimism, is a first step for leaders looking to effectively role-model digital cues.

4. Reinforce your company’s culture.

Organizations have emotional cultures that can impact everything from employee satisfaction to burnout to financial performance. Emojis can both reflect and enhance the emotional culture of your organization in your daily communications.

“Our corporate culture is very fun and friendly — we hug a lot,” shares a manager at a global home furnishings retailer. After moving to remote work, managers at the company had to find a new way to express this aspect of their culture. “We can’t close a single department meeting without sending emojis and GIFs. A lot of them,” one told us. If the emotional culture is ebullient, as was true for the one described above, emojis can be used liberally and without necessarily having the leader set the norm.

In other workplace cultures, leaders use emojis to reinforce their organization’s core values. Take the example of material science company, DuPont. “We like to show appreciation and recognition for each other, so I often use the applause emoji to recognize people’s accomplishments,” explains Lori Gettelfinger, a DuPont global brand leader.

Take the time to gauge your organization’s emotional culture, which may be codified in mission statements, values, and daily behaviors. Then think about digital gestures, such as emojis, that can help reinforce it.

Minimizing Opportunities for Offense

If you are new or hesitant to using emojis in the workplace, we advise starting with simple emojis (e.g., thumbs up) rather than emojis that represent complex emotions (e.g. laughing emojis with tears) in order to decrease the likelihood that an emoji will offend.

Offense usually stems from a misinterpretation of a sent emoji or when someone uses an emoji that they think means one thing but really means another. For example, if a manager sends the emoji that features two hands pressed together, does it send a message of gratitude? A request for a favor? Or is it hands clasped in prayer? And is the emoji with the smiling face and two hands signaling a friendly wave “hello” or giving a hug? If you’re not sure, better to avoid using the emoji and to stick with something that is more straightforward and less open to interpretation.

Employees don’t check their emotions at the office door — or Zoom room. And when you’re leading in a virtual space, it can be harder to read how your team is feeling. Using emojis can help managers connect with their employees and strengthen their organization’s emotional culture.

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Distributed work is here to stay — how your business can adapt

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Close the gap

It’s no secret that the business world and working environments have changed drastically since 2020. With fierce competition in recruiting for skilled labor becoming a critical issue for businesses, having employees in varied locations around the U.S. or even internationally has become an increasingly common solution. It looks like this distributed work model is here for the long haul, so it’s time to get your business on board.

What is distributed work?

Distributed work is defined as a business that has one or more employees who work in different physical locations. This can range from having different in-person office locations, remote work or a blend of the two — often termed “hybrid work.” Large companies having a distributed workforce is nothing new, as having multiple locations allows companies to meet more of their customers’ needs.

The difference now, though, is the massive increase in remote work triggered in large part by the COVID-19 pandemic, ramped-up competition for skilled workers, and how those factors have combined to impact smaller businesses.

If you’re struggling to keep up with today’s workforce demands, take heart. Distributed work can provide some solutions.

Millennial and Gen Z workers strongly prefer flexible working environments and a distributed work policy fits into that preference nicely. Additionally, distributed work structures have the benefits of increased access to international talent, more productive employees and higher job satisfaction.

How to adapt your small business for distributed work

Making the leap to a distributed workforce can feel daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. Software solutions tailored specifically for supporting a distributed work environment can help ease the transition and make your business run efficiently.

In this guide, we’re going to take a look at important adaptations needed to bring your small business up to speed for distributed work and how to accomplish them.

  • Get your business security up to date.
  • Tap into global talent pools.
  • Maintain quality communication between employees.

Let’s take a closer look at each point below.

Get your business security up to date

When remote work exploded in early 2020 due to COVID-19 office closures, it quickly became obvious that improvements to business security protocols were necessary. Now with many businesses planning how their company will operate going forward, security continues to be a crucial consideration.

What are some security considerations important for businesses with distributed work environments? Here are a handful of important security features you’ll want to think about:

1. Avoid losing business documents with automatic saves

The stress from losing hard work or entire documents altogether is something most people have dealt with at some point. Having to backtrack and redo lost work is tedious and unproductive.

The best way to avoid that ordeal? Automated saves.

With Microsoft 365, your Office documents are automatically saved for you. Whether it’s a document in the company Sharepoint or in your own OneDrive account, your hard work won’t go to waste.

Additionally, Sharepoint allows your company to collaborate on documentation without having to worry about whether the current document is the correct version. An average of 83% of the current workforce loses time daily due to document versioning issues. Microsoft 365 makes it easy to avoid lost time and frustration, with the added benefit of simplifying collaboration.

2. Maintain business security across all user devices

In the United States, 68% of organizations reported being hit by a public cloud security incident when polled in 2020. Attacks like these can cripple your business’ productivity and lower public perception of your company as a whole.

Both Sharepoint and OneDrive offer multiple layers of security to keep your business documentation safe on the cloud servers themselves, including:

  • Virus scanning for documents
  • Suspicious activity monitoring
  • Password protected sharing links
  • Real-time security monitoring with dedicated intrusion specialists
  • Ransomware detection and recovery

With these built-in protections, you can keep your company safe no matter where your company’s distributed work happens.

3. Adopt company-wide security policies

Effective company security policies protect your organization’s data by clearly outlining employee responsibilities with regard to what information needs to be safeguarded and why.

Having clear guidelines set ensures that both your company information and your employees are safe from security threats.

Items to include in your security policy might include:

  • Remote work policies
  • Password update policies
  • Data retention policies
  • Employee training guidelines
  • Disaster recovery policies

This list obviously isn’t exhaustive, so we’d recommend using a security risk assessment tool to pinpoint specific areas your business should address.

Note: Social engineering and phishing are major security threats for businesses of all sizes. To avoid becoming a target, your company must implement strong security practices for your users. For example, using a secure two-factor authentication setup can help prevent unauthorized users from accessing company documents.

4. Ensure communications are secured

Having a distributed work environment tends to mean that most (if not all) communications occur digitally. As such, keeping digital communications secure should be a top consideration.

Using Microsoft 365, you can ensure that your communication remains encrypted.

If video calls are a major part of your business needs, Microsoft Teams offers robust encryption for your calls. Additionally, email through Microsoft 365 offers top-tier anti-phishing protection for your business.

To learn more about available tools for secure business communication, refer to the Microsoft documentation here.

Tap into global talent pools

world map on a computer

The pandemic triggered a drastic reshuffling of how workers view their jobs, leading to what has been dubbed the Great Resignation. In the United States, more than 11 million jobs were sitting unfilled as of January 2022. With jobless claims on the decline, the domestic labor pool is small and competitive.

It can be easy to feel overwhelmed as a small company attempting to attract talent in the current labor market. You’ll want to ensure that you’re offering competitive wages and benefits, but it can be difficult to go toe-to-toe with large corporations.

However, this is another instance where distributed work can help. One solution? International talent.

The distributed work model makes employing remote workers worldwide more seamless than ever before.

A few considerations here to keep in mind, though.

  • You’ll need to apply for certification from the U.S. Department of Labor to hire outside the country.
  • Be aware of additional taxes that might result.

For more information, review the official documentation for this process.

Note: The same standards do not apply to international contractors, but there are special considerations for contractors as well. Read this guide for more details.

Maintain quality communication between employees

Successful businesses rely on open communication for everything from keeping employees up to date on company information to maintaining morale. Let’s go over a few ways to implement quality communication in a distributed work environment.

1. Cultivate a healthy work environment

Company culture can feel like an afterthought when your teams work separately from each other. However, cultivating a strong company culture is vital, especially for distributed work environments.

The first step here is to clearly define the company culture that you want. By setting the company standards early, your employees will be able to benefit from a solid starting point.

Second, reinforce the culture that you’d like to create. Setting goals, establishing performance metrics, fostering accountability, building trust with employees, and being open to feedback from workers all help reinforce a healthy company culture.

And third, it’s important to prioritize the mental and physical health of your employees. Encourage vacation time, allow for flexible working arrangements, and make mental health support a priority.

2. Foster open communication

Digital communication is key for distributed work environments, so keeping open and transparent channels for communication is imperative.

Email and chat tools are communication fundamentals, but fostering communication itself can feel a bit daunting.

Here are a few suggestions on building healthy communication for your distributed work teams:

  • Make empathy a priority.
  • Greet employees every day.
  • Create a virtual water cooler to encourage socialization.
  • Announce company updates directly.
  • Give recognition and feedback regularly.

By encouraging clear, focused — but also fun — communication, your teams will grow to trust each other and interteam collaboration can flourish.

Distributed work is the ‘new normal’

Building your business toward a distributed work model is a solid investment in growing your company in the future. Tools like Microsoft 365 offer an all-in-one solution to take the pain out of transitioning your business, so take charge of your business’ future today.



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