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Nicole Tiefensee

Understaffing - How to Deal With Too Much Work, Not Enough Staff

Work pressure high, staff thin? Your business might be understaffed. Here's how to deal with understaffing before it takes its toll on your operations.

Understaffing is the corrosion making businesses falter. It’s slow, sometimes hard to spot, but always challenging to recover from. 

It can happen to a business at any stage, causing quality decline, employee dissatisfaction, customer churn, and lots of other negative outcomes. 

But the true danger of understaffing is that you might not even know the problem is there — until it backfires. 

Here’s all you need to know so lack of staff never becomes the headline of your daily agenda. 

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What is understaffing?

If you've ever watched a long line at the grocery store, you know that it usually doesn't move very fast. That's because the number of people in the line is often bigger than the number of people working. That’s, basically, what lack of staffing is. Too much work, not enough staff.

Understaffing can mean anything from a temporary lack of resources on specific projects or tasks to a permanent, structural problem in your departments. 

In April 2021, the NFBI Research Foundation looked into staff shortages across different industries and found that only 52% of professional services businesses say they have no understaffing issues.

That means 48% of professional services companies do. 

It all begins with not having enough people to do the job. And this can happen for several reasons:

  • Poor scheduling practices
  • Not enough budget
  • Lack of planning for new hires
  • Employee churn

Lack of staff is one of those things that can self-fuel. If your business is understaffed, be it because of lack or resources or lack of proper resource management, you will end up with overutilized and overworked resources

Signs of understaffing

Here are some signs that might indicate a team or organization is struggling with too few hands on deck:

  1. Consistent overtime: If employees are regularly working beyond their scheduled hours, it could mean there aren't enough people to handle the workload during normal hours.
  2. Increased errors: Mistakes and oversights tend to happen more frequently when employees are overworked and stretched too thin.
  3. High employee turnover: When staff feel overwhelmed and unsupported, they're more likely to leave, seeking better work conditions elsewhere.
  4. Decline in quality of work: Understaffing can lead to rushed work and a drop in the standard of service or product quality.
  5. Low morale: If your team seems consistently stressed, demotivated, or burnt out, it might be a sign they are struggling to keep up with demands.
  6. Delayed projects: When projects and tasks regularly miss deadlines, it may indicate that there simply aren't enough people to get everything done on time.
  7. Customer complaints: A rise in complaints or negative feedback from clients can be a sign that your team can't keep up with the service level required.
  8. Reduced innovation: Overburdened employees often have little time or energy for creativity and innovation, focusing only on immediate tasks.
  9. Physical and mental health issues: Increased absenteeism due to illness or stress-related conditions can be a red flag that the current workload is unsustainable.
  10. Inability to take time off: If employees feel they can't take vacation or sick leave without burdening their coworkers, it's a strong indicator of understaffing.

Recognizing these signs early and addressing them can help create a healthier, more sustainable work environment for everyone.

➡️ Related: 50+ Burnout Statistics That Will Shock You into Action

Understaffing examples

What would understaffing look like at a consulting or IT services firm?

Imagine a start-up that's producing a revolutionary new product in the optimization of big data. 

Their prototype is still in development, but it already looks like it's going to be great. They reach out to an IT services firm and hire a small team of three people to begin work on the project — two are programmers and one is a business analyst. The initiative should optimistically be finished within 3 months.

What could go wrong? A lot of things. Because the team is understaffed, and the planning is unrealistic. 

Low staffing is clearly a problem for employees, but for employers it can mean extra costs, increased risk, and other headaches. So what does this mean for our startup? 

Well, if things get backed up and a few deadlines get missed, no one will be able to do their job as effectively as they'd like. All of the team members will have to work longer hours to make up for lost time and they'll probably start burning out quickly. 

This puts strain on the company's ability to maintain quality work because so many people will be getting tired and stressed out — and they're probably not going to be happy about having to work so much harder than they were originally expecting. 

In addition, if the people who are working hard to meet their deadlines aren't being compensated for the overtime they're putting in, morale will drop even further.

What happens when you're understaffed?

Staffing problems can have a ripple effect not just on one project, but on the whole business. 

So what are the most common effects of being short-staffed? 

When you don't have enough employees on a team, your progress will be slowed down by the loss of efficiency from having more work to do per person. This typically leads to stress and frustration among workers and increases their risk of burnout. It can also lead to poor quality due to inadequate staff training and oversight.

The negative results of not having enough staff are often not apparent until later on in a project, which means that if this issue is overlooked early on, it's very possible it could snowball into a major headache later on. Even though some problems might seem small at first, they'll likely persist as they build up over time. 

Lack of staff in the workplace is not something you can hide, even if you think you do. Clients can usually feel it, which is where a lot of unhappy customers come from. With quality of work getting lower, promises not being met, deadlines missed, and, worst of all, budget getting overrun — understaffing problems can have detrimental impact on every stakeholder involved. 

Best practices to deal with understaffing issues

If there is one good thing about staffing issues in the workplace, it is that they can be fixed relatively fast, if you have a tried and tested strategy to follow. 

Here are the main pillars making that strategy. 

1. Build staffing plans

A staffing plan is one of the first steps you need to take before getting your project off the ground. In fact, it is one of the key human resource planning processes you need to do for successful project outcomes.

In short, a staffing plan is a document that helps you make sure no team ends up being understaffed and overworked. It is the document your hiring team will be using to supply the company with the right number of people bringing the skill sets you need to hit your business targets.

To build an accurate plan, you need to go through a string of important questions:

  • What kind of work do you need to get done?
  • How many expert hours do you need to achieve it?
  • What skills and expertise do you need for a successful finish?
  • Do you have enough resources in your current pool to cover the project?
  • If not, what are the actual talent gaps?

➡️ Related: What We Like About The Ready's Staffing Model

2. Do staff augmentation

Once you pinpoint those talent gaps, you’re ready to focus on staff augmentation.

Staff augmentation means that you hire outside resources to temporarily increase your capacity. It is actually something that saves you from overhiring, a problem many companies have already lost millions on, “when more isn’t more”.  

When scaling your business, you might indeed have a need in hiring more resources. But what if that need is seasonal or temporary — meaning that at some point, your resources will have to face lack of workload, which usually leads budget waste or lay-offs? 

To avoid that unfortunate ending, you need to do staff augmentation so you don’t stretch your company’s resources too thin but also don’t invest into hiring that will eventually bring more losses than gains.  

➡️ Related: How to Create an Effective Staffing Model (with Examples & Instructions)

3. Improve your resource scheduling practices

You can also avoid being short-staffed at work by turning resourceful and getting maximum value from your existing resources. 

Being under staffed is not always about having few resources. You might have enough of them in general at the company, but not enough visibility over who's working on what.

To leave this problem behind, you can compare workload and capacity to see who still has a few hours available and can join in on your new initiative. 

With Runn’s People Planner, you will always get a clear picture of your resources, their expertise and availability, in real time. After all, good resource management is always about being flexible and making the most with what you already have. 

People Planner in Runn

4. Do scenario planning

For your staffing plans to pay off and be as accurate as possible, you need to consider various scenarios for your project to follow.

As much as that would help, your project will never go exactly the way you plan it, there will always be some ad hoc request or force majeure. This is why modeling several project progress options and what-if plans can keep you away from unexpected risks. 

And this is particularly useful for resource management. 

For an expert to join your project, see what expertise, skills, and availability you will need there, and only then look into your available resources/ potential hires to see who matches the role best. 

➡️ Related: New to Scenario Planning? Here's a Starter's Guide

5. Reduce admin work

Admin work can eat away at a lot of your team’s time. Especially if they need to manually insert data all the time. 

Eventually, this will lead to your teams spending their efforts on things that do not directly contribute to the success of the project, missing deadlines, doing overtime, and feeling understaffed. 

By automating and reducing some of that work, you can increase your team’s utilization rates and help people focus on things that truly matter for successful business outcomes. 

There’s a fine line between understaffing and overhiring. And that fine line is about having just enough resources to deliver maximum business outputs and, most importantly, knowing how to use them right. 

Book a call with us to see how Runn can help you keep understaffing off the table at all times. 

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