service sanity

From holiday breaks to busy seasons to just plain decreasing employee numbers, we have all experienced the effects of being understaffed at some point. It’s easy to get discouraged or even bitter when you feel like you work sixteen–hour days, and you’re still behind on necessary projects.

I used to manage serving lines at my college’s dining facility, and sometimes I only had half the workers I needed. I usually worked mornings or lunches when most students were in class; so we sometimes didn’t have enough people to go around. I learned a lot about running understaffed during this time.

Try a couple of these ideas that helped me pull through the rough times.


Weed out the Extras

Every workplace has them. You know, the mundane tasks or extra projects that you really could put on the backburner during a rushed day. You might only need to cast it aside for a few hours while you help your team resolve some customer tickets. But you’ll de–stress a little if you prioritize your most immediate work.

In my dining area, one of those extra tasks was condiment prep. Yes, you bet we didn’t like going through a serving time with thousands of people walking through the door and no backup condiments or toppings in the fridge. But we worked with it by refilling as we went.

For your team, weeding out extra tasks might include throwing unnecessary paperwork into tomorrow’s pile. Please file any safety reports or product order forms that you might have to keep your work flowing, but do you really have to analyze your sales data right now? Some things will have to come first.

I suggest spending the first ten minutes of your morning writing down your priorities for the day or week. Remember, your customers should always come first, followed closely by your team. You don’t want either of those groups to turn on you.


Run the numbers.

This step is a must if you want to stay afloat during a hectic understaffed time. If you lose five full–time employees, you have also lost two hundred weekly hours. Chances are that you’ll still need many of those hours to keep up with your workload.

You already have a prioritized list of projects; so count how many extra hours you’ll need to make up. You should refine your list if the total hours needed equals a gargantuan number. Finally, after some trial and error, you should find a number you can work with. Then, you strategize.

You could try extending everyone’s workload by an hour for a short time or rotating your agents to work longer shifts one week with the following week at normal hours. If you have ten agents that stay an extra hour each day, you just gained fifty hours. Or you could ask five agents to stay two extra hours one week and switch to the other five the following week for the same hourly result.


Speak Up 

You need to communicate with the head honcho about the tight ship they’re running. Even if you’re an agent, you can remind your manager about your workload as they tack on other projects. Be gracious when you do so, though, or you’ll look like the bad guy mouthing off to your boss.

On the other hand, if you’re a manager, you have little choice but to speak up. Thomas DeLong, former Managing Director of Morgan Stanley Group, Inc., says most managers hate discussing understaffing problems with their bosses.

“I’m amazed that although organizations are willing to set metrics for success in difficult times, so few individuals are willing to have conversations about what they need to accomplish.”

As a manager, your team is relying on you. Nobody wants to work seventy hours a week for the next decade until the company can find replacements. If you don’t speak up, you’ll likely have worse problems on your hands. Your agents aren’t invincible; they do wear out with repeated use.


Send out an SOS

The definition of an understaffed company is one that does not have enough people to complete all the work. That means your number one goal is: get more people, even temporarily.

Zendesk, a customer service software company, suggests sending smoke signals to other departments. Many times, customers ask general questions about the product or company that even the secretary could answer. By handing off a few of those easy cases, your agents will have more time to handle the cases they specialize in.

Also, think about those who just resigned their position. Could you convince them to stay until you get more employees? Even if they won’t stay for too much longer, asking them for another week or two will buy you a little more interviewing time.


Get the Little Guy Involved

There’s no better time to get agents involved than when you’re understaffed. Ask them if they have suggestions for accomplishing work efficiently. Since they’re the ones doing the tasks throughout the day, it only makes sense to ask them for solutions.

Nicolas Gremion, entrepreneur and CEO of Free Ebooks, says that asking employees for solutions has made his team more productive. According to Gremion, employees feel rewarded when their suggestions work, motivating them to tackle their other daily tasks. Plus, managers spend less time training the employee on new strategies since they already know what to do.

Another way to get agents involved is to ask them about potential recruits. When our dining facility was hurting for more employees, my boss asked us student managers if we knew anyone who wanted more work. I recruited several people for my understaffed shifts just by keeping my ears open to the workers around me.


Don’t Rule out a Staffing Agency

Jason Leverant, president and COO of the staffing franchise AtWork Group, says staffing companies are becoming more popular.

Leverant told Entrepreneur, “Imagine a company with an internal work force of 500 employees who had to shed 300 of them during the recession. As the economy returns, and they need more employees, they are skeptical of going back up to 500. They ask, ‘Is this economy going to hold?’”

According to Leverant, employers are turning to staffing companies instead of hiring employees themselves.

Think your company is too small to use a staffing agency? Leverant disagrees. “Our customers vary from Fortune 100 companies to mom-and-pop shops with one or two heads that don’t want to deal with employment law.”

And the great thing about gaining temp staff from an agency? You’re not obligated to keep any of them after the contract ends. You can just say goodbye to the least favorable candidates. You’ll also get a wide employee field where you can choose from the best to stay with your company.


How Agents Cope when Understaffed

Many of the ideas above can be shaped into a customer service agent’s strategy too. Going to your manager for advice, asking colleagues for solutions, and prioritizing your own workload are a few you can try.  But if you’re still feeling overwhelmed, listen to a few tips from work–life coach Sharon Teitelbaum.


Give Yourself Some Slack

Teitelbaum suggests finding a spot in your workload where you can decrease your quality. She doesn’t mean giving customers terrible service or barrelling through one project so that you can get to the next. But she does recommend evaluating whether you’re overworked because you hold yourself to standards too rigid.

“A lot of people don’t realize how much of a slave they are to their standards,” she says. You don’t have to deliver a perfectly formatted email to your coworkers or find three solutions for every customer’s problem when only one or two would suffice.


Evaluate your Home Life

Maybe you feel stressed because you can’t relax as often or you spend less time with family. You’re always catching up on chores left undone from your long work days.

Teitelbaum mentions how a colleague delegated chores to her son when she was busy. You could also hire a cleaning service for a little while until work gets back to normal. Who wants to clean when you could visit the beach instead?

For budgeting and errands, you could find a stay–at–home mom or college student who wouldn’t mind a few extra bucks. Getting other people to do your home responsibilities will give you more time to relax. Then, you’ll feel rested when you do have to work again.


Don’t Volunteer

This tip comes from career coach Amy Mazur, who says that women especially have trouble saying no to volunteer projects related to work. Such projects could include planning a banquet or holiday party or showing up to a business’s public event.

Even if your boss asks you to work overtime, you should let him know when you truly need time off. You don’t want to risk illness or burnout from your job. At the very least, Mazur recommends asking for payment on such projects.

Whether you attempt a few of these suggestions or develop your own strategy, the point is that you absolutely have to make a plan. Understaffed companies pose enormous problems to employee wellness, customer satisfaction, product quality, and ultimately sales. During a hectic window between layoffs or resignations and new staffing, keep your head held high and your brain armed with a plan. You’ll make it through the rough times like a pro.


Sarah GeorgeSarah George is a flower–sniffing, homemade–cooking  wordsmith who loves pounding out breathless stories until they fill with life. In her spare time, she loves designing her home with thrilling thrift finds and challenging herself with a good workout.


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