What to do? For Mark Taylor, the answer is straightforward. “The name of the game is efficiency,” says Taylor, a business coach in New York City and a chair of Vistage International, a San Diego-based chief executive organization. He suggests taking the following steps to streamline your organization:
Rethink your systems.
If you’ve had to make deep staff cuts, you most likely don’t have the personnel to run operations the way you did in a better economy. That means re-engineering your processes to fit your new situation.
The key, according to Taylor, is analyzing exactly how various functions are performed, from shipping methods to the way phones are answered, so you can zero in on inefficiencies. Best is to get employees involved by asking for them for their suggestions. “Top management knows about 10% of what really goes on in a company,” says Taylor. “You need to deal with people on the front lines who understand how things operate in reality.” He points to the CEO of a manufacturing company who, after meeting with warehouse employees, came up with a more-streamlined way to ship products. Instead of delivering packages to individual stores, they started sending one large pallet to customers’ central distribution centers. The move not only saved employees time, but lowered shipping costs, as well.
Your re-engineering moves will depend partly on just what type of employees you’ve cut. If, for example, you’ve downsized your middle management team, you’ll need to empower lower-level employees to assume responsibility for some tasks once done by their bosses. Taylor points to a translations service that recently changed its process for handling customer service issues after laying off a significant number of middle managers. According to Taylor, the company gave front-line employees more authority to make decisions on their own in a number of areas, such as whether or not to give customers credit. “He let his people have added responsibility for taking care of customers,” says Taylor.
The move had an added benefit, as well. Because employees appreciated having more authority to make decisions, “They started to feel they were making a bigger difference to the company,” says Taylor. The upshot: It helped boost morale.
Use virtual assistants.
The idea is to pinpoint tasks that you or your staff simply don’t have time for and outsource them to far-flung assistants, who are likely to be far less expensive than regular staffers. Taylor recently met the comptroller of a staffing company who was overwhelmed by the amount of work he had to do after laying off some of his employees. He decided to hire a virtual assistant to take care of some of those duties. “He’s leveraging that support so he can produce the work the CEO really needs him to do,” says Taylor.
Teach people to say no.
Not everyone can hire a virtual assistant, of course. But, what to do about over-burdened staff who might be unwilling to admit when they’re simply overwhelmed?
The answer: Give your staff permission to admit when they just can’t handle more work. “You have to create a relationship with your staff where they’re empowered to say, I won’t be able to do that today,” says Taylor.
In today’s high-stress environment, however, that requires taking steps to show you really mean it. Hold an employee meeting and explicitly explain your policy—and that there won’t be repercussions for following it. Reinforce the message in one-on-one discussions. Then, you have to walk the walk: The first time an employee takes you up on the offer, make sure you follow through. If employees still don’t feel comfortable taking such a tack, then, says Taylor, ”Encourage them to ask for help in setting priorities.”