Maybe you’re bootstrapping and can’t afford to hire new employees. Or maybe you simply can’t find the right people to fill open positions, especially since in recent months over ten million jobs have gone unfilled in the U.S. alone. Either way, you face an all-too common problem for small business owners: too much work for too few people.

The situation worsens if you try to spread the same amount of work across a reduced workforce. Even if employees aren’t required to work more hours, still: the pressure, stress, and multi-tasking required can cause even the most loyal employees to question whether your job is right for them.

What can you do if hiring additional people isn’t an option? Or, even if you can hire more staff, what can you do in the meantime if the nature of a role means a lengthy onboarding and training process?

Be transparent about the problem

Some leaders try to act like a short-staffed situation is business as usual. Pretend all you want, but less employees means more work for someone—and everyone knows it.

Be direct and open. Explain the situation. Describe the challenges that having fewer employees creates. Share your plan to address the situation. And then go one step farther.

Ask for ideas

Tell people what to do, and they’ll do it. Ask people what they would do and allow them to put their input and suggestions into action and they will own what they do. (Want me to be truly engaged? Don’t just give me a voice; give me independence and authority.) 

The bigger your organization, the less likely you are to know the best way to redistribute tasks, re-organize processes, and know which person is best suited—or even most interested—in taking on additional responsibility.

Besides: Your employees may have ideas you would never have considered. It’s lonely at the top, and it will be even lonelier if you decide to handle a short-staffing problem by yourself.

Reduce authority constraints

I once took over a manufacturing department where production lines would sometimes sit idle for ten or fifteen minutes because they had to wait for a supervisor to sign off on quality prior to starting the next job. 

I eliminated that step in the process within my first hour. If we trusted employees to monitor job quality during a run, why wouldn’t we trust them to know if a job met quality standards before they started running it?

You probably have similar steps in your processes, understandably so. When an expensive mistake occurs, it’s natural to look for ways to eliminate the possibility in the future. Yet every sign-off or permission adds steps and time that your organization probably can’t afford.

The better approach? Don’t make all the decisions yourself. Don’t let managers or supervisors make all the decisions, either. Instead, appoint someone among the people who are performing the work to make decisions—and give them the authority, within parameters that you establish, to act on their decisions. For example, you may allow fulfillment employees to expedite shipping on delayed orders up to a certain cost. Or give employees the freedom to make supply purchases up to a certain dollar amount.

Then, if someone does make a mistake, see it as a training opportunity and not as a reason to add another step to an already over-tasked team.

Keep asking yourself the same question

When Herb Kelleher was the CEO of Southwest Airlines, he filtered every decision through one lens: “Will [this] help Southwest Airlines be the low-cost provider?” 

When you’re short-staffed, ruthless prioritization by focusing on what you “need to do” and ignoring what would be “nice to do” is crucial.

Your one question could be, “Does [this] generate revenue?” Or “Does [this] improve service or quality?” Or “Does [this] matter to our customers?”

That might mean eliminating the reports few people read, delaying an office layout reorganization, or scrapping plans for a brand awareness marketing campaign to focus on direct response advertising. 

You can never do it all, especially when you’re a few employees short. Prioritizing only the tasks that make a meaningful difference will help your business survive, and it shows your employees that you understand the situation and are willing to make the needed adjustments. When you do this, your employees will be more likely to be engaged when you ask them to take on different roles or responsibilities during an interim period. 

Talk to your customers

Proactively telling your customers they may experience delays in communication or service doesn’t sound very smart; in effect, that’s a signal they may want to consider other providers. Even so, long-term customers will understand, will appreciate the transparency… and will be much more forgiving if they experience a delay or lower level of service. 

But don’t stop there. Explain your situation, then ask if there are ways you can help solve their problems. A customer with limited warehouse may prefer lower-quantity shipments on a more frequent basis. Another may prefer using an automated payment system rather than receiving mailed invoices. Or you may find, during the conversation, ways to better service that customer without adding to your operational workload. 

Even if that doesn’t happen, still: people do business with people, not with businesses. Trust your customers to at least understand, and possibly even find ways to help you through your staffing issue.

And what if one doesn’t? Maybe  that’s a customer you can’t, at least for now, afford to keep.

Jeff Haden Jeff Haden is a writer, speaker, small business management expert, and Inc.’s most popular columnist. He's the author of The Motivation Myth: How High Achievers Really Set Themselves Up to Win.
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