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We have moved to Wordpress! Posted by Jason Links to this post The Recruiting Front Lines has evolved. At the beginning of the year, I changed jobs within my company, moving away from Outreach and Education, and into my new role as Director of Business Development. While I remain closely involved with our field activity, I am now more focused on strategic partnerships, social media, and the world of internet recruitment resources. As I have made this change, the focus of my blog content has also changed. Recently, I began to feel that many of the ideas I had for blog posts would not fit within the framework of The Recruiting Front Lines. This was a cause of some frustration, as I felt that I was either misrepresenting my content with the title of my blog, or that I was stifling my writing because I felt it didn't fit. To rectify this situation, I have created a new blog home, now on WordPress. I am still ironing out the wrinkles, but feel that it is far enough along that I can move all my past content, and begin posting all new content, at the new address. I would like to formally welcome everyone to come check out my new home at I can't wait to hear what you think! Best Regards, and Thank you for your time and attention over the past 18 months. Jason

May 18, 2009

Staffing Up in a Down Economy

We are all on the same path...finding ways to do more with less. It is widely known that workforces are becoming leaner and leaner, while most are still faced with maintaining and even growing market share and productivity. It seems like an impossible task: reduce the number of people working for you, and increase your revenue. Unfortunately, as markets have become more crowded and competitive over time, most businesses have routinely been increasing expectations and output of their workforces to drive profits. Because of this well-established culture, economic belt-tightening has proven to be even more difficult than in times past. We ALL ran lean operations BEFORE the economy started its decline. So where exactly do we go from here?

Staffing Up in a Down Economy
The Auxiliary Workforce Plan
by Jason C. Blais

I believe the first step on the path toward success is to look within. That doesn't mean we need to set up meditation schedules and personal reflection time, though those aren't bad ideas, but rather that we need to figure out just what our companies are made of. Specifically, what skills our workforce is made of. I am willing to stake my reputation on the fact that there are employees working in all our organizations today who have valuable skills that we are completely unaware of. That is, our current employees may present us with the skills we need to operate lean and thrive while other businesses merely survive.

There are numerous studies available that provide statistics on the dollar-value of engaged employees, and the damages caused by bored ones. For access to a number of these reports, visit SHRM, and type "engaged employees" or "bored employees" in their search engine. You'll find volumes of surveys and articles to this point.

Figure 1 The Life Cycle of an Employee, Used With Permission from SHRM

Through careful and thoughtful analysis of the skills that are required to carry out your business functions and the ancillary or unused skills present in your workforce, you can begin to build engagement while operating more efficiently.

During staffing reductions, either by layoffs or attrition, there is often a work gap left behind by the departed employees. That is, when a company lays off one person, it is common that some portion of the work that person performed must still be completed. Customarily, this work is picked up by the remaining employees, adding a sense of increased burden to the insecurity they are already feeling. We have an alternative to this process, however, which can have a splendidly counter effect- increasing our employee engagement and sense of security. It's what we call the Auxiliary Workforce Plan (AWP).

Essentially, the AWP provides the roadmap to identify, develop, and utilize untapped skills and talents present within our current workforce. Through this mechanism, we can provide interdepartmental and cross-functional opportunities to our employees, which lead to stronger engagement, and better overall understanding of our business. For the employees, it manifests professional development, resume building, and increased variety in their day-to-day job activities. This is truly a win/win practice that will provide the greatest benefits when the economy is at its worst.

Fundamentally, the premise is rather simple. First, we identify skill sets associated with each job function within our company. Then, identify secondary and tertiary skills that our employees have, but do not use in their primary job description. When staff levels are reduced, we can now examine the work gap created, in terms of job functions, and identify which skills we need to complete those tasks. Next, we simply match up the necessary job functions with the right employees based on the skills sets needed and available. Okay, maybe it's not exactly SIMPLE. Here is a scenario that may provide a clearer picture:

While it has been a regular practice to follow this philosophy- in this example adding 12.5% of work to your surviving staff- without offering a pay increase, it has also proven to hurt employee morale and enagement. Through the AWP, a business can identify unused skills across the workforce, and match those skills with orphaned job functions. This process broadens employees' understanding of the business, and provides a greater variety in the day-to-day work- two key factors to increasing employee engagement. Additionally, you can avoide overburdening the remaining staff by simply adding more work for the same pay.

While developing an Auxiliary Workforce Plan can be time consuming, the short- and long-term benefits are significant. The process of surveying our workforce to uncover the auxiliary skills can, in itself, generate excitement and engagement from our workforce immediately. Over the long-term, a well-developed AWP provides our company with engaged, productive, and dynamic employees, which leads directly to increased profitability. The AWP also gives us an added dimension in our recruiting and hiring process, as we uncover those latent skills during the interview process, providing us with a better view of how a candidate can contribute to all facets of our business.

This information was collected, developed, and shared by Jason C. Blais, Director of Business Development,, at the 14th Annual Maine HR Convention, under the JobsInME University program.

The following excerpts are used by permission from the Society of Human Resource Management:

From "Bored Employees Found To Damage Organizations"
By Kathy Gurchiek, HR Magazine, March 2008
  • Bored employees are less satisfied with their jobs, finding them less challenging and poorer matches to suit their skills. In addition, they are less innovative and feel less valued, he stated.
  • Employees with more than 10 years’ tenure with the same employer reported being overworked or bored more often than those with zero to two years’ tenure with the same employer.
  • Moreover, they want and expect jobs to be more than just sources of income; they expect them to be stimulating and fulfilling. Yet this need is clashing in many cases with the relentless industrial pressure to drive down costs, which seems to involve controlling aspects of employee work with ever greater precision.

From "15 Ways To Train on the Job, In a down economy, trainers turn to homegrown help" By Kathryn Tyler, HR Magazine, September 2008

  • Instead of hiring external consultants, turn to the real experts: your own employees.
  • Highlight internal talent.
  • Implement job shadowing.Create or expand formal mentoring.
  • Develop teachers throughout the organization.
  • Cross-train. Employees who have more than one skill become more valuable and flexible.
  • Host interdepartmental conferences.
  • Give job rotation assignments.
  • Develop training projects. On-the-job training projects and “stretch assignments” give employees a chance to learn while doing real work, not just hypothetical classroom exercises.
  • Create an online bulletin board, e-mail discussion list, blog to share best practices & ask for help.


Steve said...

Hi Jason,

Aninteresting and very well thought out post. Let me suggest, though, a couple of alternate perspectives:

We tend to focus almost entirely on skills... except when we don't. There's a tendency to assume that people with similar skills are interchangeable, and that one can pick up the job of another. What skills represent is merely one way of solving a problem.

What problem? Well, that depends on what the business is trying to do. Fundamentally, when a business is saying, "we need someone with skill x, y, and z" what they are really saying is that "We have a problem and the solution that we envision involves the following tool."

Now, sometimes that's all you need to do: if you're looking for a brain surgeon a pastry chef won't suffice. However, a lot of the time the actual problem is amenable to a variety of solutions.

Therefore, a business would be well-served to look at the various results obtained by its employees. If you have to lay people off, what are the results that you are risking? What alternate ways are there of getting those results? Which employees are good at gaining results along those lines?

How do you figure out which employees can obtain different results? Sometimes you can tell from the jobs they are currently doing, but often you cannot: the job is too limiting in the range of opportunities the employee is given to really let you see the breadth of their abilities. One approach that can help with this is the use of Predictive Scenario Games, a form of serious roleplaying that exposes participants to a variety of situations in a very short time and enables one to see how they react.

Another problem that exists, though, in dealing with employee engagement and workload after a layoff is, as you point out, that the business rarely increases the salaries of the people remaining. This causes several subtle (and not so subtle!) problems.

First of all, no one likes to be asked to do more and not get rewarded for their efforts. The message that "you'd better step up or you could be next to go," infringes on the employee's sense of autonomy and relationship to the organization. The feel exploited.

Second, what does it say when a business is asking for something of value and refusing to pay for it? What message are they sending? In our culture, the people who ask for value and don't pay are generally viewed as either beggars or thieves. While helping a beggar might induce feelings of warm fuzziness, no one likes being robbed.

If a business really wants to create an effective auxiliary workforce, they would be well advised to do several things:

1. Look at the results desired as well as the skills required.
2. Explore innovative ways of discovering what employees are capable of when given the opportunity.
3. Give people time and opportunity to excel.
4. Find creative ways of recognizing the additional value employees are bringing the company.


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