• Jen May

Stay Safe this Flu Season - Short Term Contingency Planning

A flu season as bad as this one can have serious consequences for the ability of your business to operate. Staff drop like flies, putting more and more pressure on the remaining people to do all the work ... the result is just exhausted staff, who take twice as long to recover when they inevitably succumb to the bugs.

But it is not just sickness which can lead to businesses needing to find contingency measures at short notice, to fill gaps in staffing or simply find more hours in the week. It could be a crisis situation, such as a major recall, meaning all hands on deck for some time. It could be system outages, natural disasters or other factors, which led to short term disruption with a long tail of tying up loose ends. Every business has peak periods, such as month or year end, major projects or sales pushes, when extracting every last drop of productivity may be the only way to get through.

Businesses that are thinking strategically already understand the need to be able to plan and adapt to cover short-term variations in resource requirements. For a business implementing strategic plans, key resources will need to be freed up from their day job to take on additional responsibilities. For a business operating a Kaizen-style project (quick turnaround, deep immersion), there may even be a need to effectively double capacity for a week or two, to enable dual processing and project implementation.

Already feeling the strain? There are still some things you can do

  1. Communicate with your whole team internally - as early and clearly as you can: The ideal way to do this is via a team meeting, even a virtual one. Call everyone physically present together and acknowledge the situation. Conference call - or better still video call - all those missing in. Start with each missing person and ask what they had on their To Do list, where they had reached and what they were worried about. Then talk to the people present and - as a team - share and prioritise the work.

  2. Communicate externally - as early and honestly as you can: Work with suppliers, clients and other stakeholders who may be impacted by your staffing issues. Explain the situation, give information about any variations from the norm (different staff members, longer turnaround times, etc) and ask for their input, including what their priority needs are. If the changes are due to an internal shift, such as improving a core process, this discussion should have happened weeks ago. If not, do it now - you will be amazed by the power of sympathy during crisis, and each and every open conversation with external parties is a chance to cement the relationship.

  3. Incentivise and reward staff: It is normal for resentment to creep in, when someone is asked to add another 30% to their workload. Compensate for this by being genuinely and openly grateful and appreciative for what they are doing. Reward them during the crisis if possible - whether with a pizza then a taxi home for anyone staying late, paying overtime without quibbling, time off in lieu after the crisis, or allowing flexible working hours / location. Never be stingy with these rewards. Recognize individual efforts publicly afterwards, with thank you gifts, employee of the month prizes and shout-outs. Remember to pay particular attention to the individuals that shine at time like these - they are showing you they have the loyalty, attitude and skills to take on more. So give it to them - whether it is an early promotion, additional responsibility or training opportunities.

  4. Engage a Temp or Virtual Assistant: For simple, repetitive tasks - or more complex ones, if they have been properly documented - engage someone external. Companies like May Dynamics can provide both Virtual Assistants and Temporary Resources who can often start that same day, and will take some of the burden off your team. These people are competent, efficient, and immune to the politics of your office. Particularly if bacteria and viruses are zooming their way around your office, a Virtual Assistant who works entirely remotely can be an excellent strategy, simply due to avoiding exposure.

  5. Organise for the Flu Jab to be available for all staff: It's not too late! Ideally you should organise this before the flu season, but at the onset of an outbreak (before symptoms start) can still be effective in reducing impact. In most industries, you can't compel your staff to have the flu vaccination. However, seeing is believing and many staff will be alarmed when a nasty strain actually rears its head in their office. Either arrange for a provider to come into your workplace and set up a Flu Clinic one day, or give your staff time off and foot the bill for their jab. The cost will be minimal compared with the downtime if everyone falls sick.

Did you survive the crisis? As you come out of the madness, take stock: make a point of gathering everyone together to talk through what happened, issues that were identified and lessons learned. Acknowledging your team's pain and reassuring them you are taking steps will go a long way towards countering any lingering resentment over what was expected of them. Then implement the changes ... before it happens again.

Advance contingency planning - the smart way to go

Most of the smarter measures for managing contingency need to be planned and implemented in advance. These are steps that we would recommend to any business wanting to improve productivity, as a platform for growth, but they will all smooth the ride if you are faced with a crisis situation.

An example Weekly & Monthly Task Overview, created in Excel
  1. Create Overview Maps: Ask each staff member to map out everything they do, on a Daily, Weekly, Monthly (and if relevant Yearly) basis. This doesn't have to be overly complicated (see the example above) but it is an invaluable tool for many reasons: It can help a member of staff illustrate impossible expectations; for prioritising One Off vs Regular tasks; for cross-training; for resource-planning; for job-sharing; for performance management discussions; for updating Job Descriptions and Position Contracts; and for identifying known processes which should be documented.

  2. Cross-Train your team: As the saying goes, don't put all your eggs in one basket. You should avoid at all costs relying on a single individual to complete core tasks. No-one should be indispensable in a high-functioning organisation. Rather than resenting the time that goes into it, relish cross-training your teams. The benefits are many: No big-headed indispensables; cover when it's needed; better appreciation of each other's reality; understanding more links in the chain (better context); being aware how we affect others (reducing issues with Inputs, Outputs and Handovers); identifying areas for improvement. Wherever possible, a team leader should aim to be trained well enough in each of their team's regular tasks, that they can confidently execute them - and then put this knowledge to improving how, when and why things are done.

  3. Capture and document your procedures: If you have created Task Overviews and cross-trained your team, this is an obvious and simple next step. Each individual identifies their key tasks; their team leader should discuss the overview with them, then together verify, amend and add if necessary. Then together prioritise each person's tasks for documenting - aim to capture the most critical, the most time-consuming and the most prone to errors. We call the documented instructions for completing a task Procedures, but they can also be known as Task Instructions. At the most basic, a Procedure should contain the full sequence of steps to complete a task, including referencing the trigger or Start Point (when a customer raises a complaint), the resources required (e.g. use System Z; find Customer Order No) and the End Point and/or Output (e.g. Hand over to Finance, or email Complaint Ref to customer). Documenting procedures can be alien and daunting, and that's why May Dynamics provides a Procedure Capture service - we do it right, so your can rely on the results, and it minimizes disruption and time for your team. But we also share our methods, so your team acquire the knowledge and skills required to start documenting their own procedures. As an organisation, encourage and support each individual to document one procedure every week, adding them to a binder file as they go. Within weeks you will have the beginnings of a comprehensive Operations Manual.

  4. Use a centralised task management system: Let's consider a typical manager with teams to look after and responsibility for driving improvements in those areas. This person has many sources of work: 1) They might have a small number of regular tasks, which could be guessed at if they called in sick (things like checking emails, holding 1:1’s, contributing to management reports). 2) They may have a number of system-assigned tasks (e.g. cases assigned to them; phone calls in a queue) which their teams can redistribute. 3) They will have some tasks from projects and initiatives they are working on, which only the project team know about (e.g. Test new module, or Write presentation explaining X change). 4) And they will have an unknown and unpredictable number of one-off tasks which have emerged in the course of their work, delegated to them by management, or requested by a peer. This individual is effectively operating multiple To Do Lists, and unless they are consolidated it is near-impossible to intelligently manage this workload. Now imagine our manager calls in sick. No one other person would be fully aware of what needed to be done, or the current status of any activity. The solution is a centralised task management system, with a view-per-user and view-per-team of all tasks regardless of source, and with the ability to update progress and communicate about the task. Usually the best tools for task management like this are CRM’s with appropriate integration so individuals, projects/tasks, queues, customers and products etc are all tagged. This way a central administrator can see, delay and reassign tasks to manage situations like mass sickness. Here at May Dynamics we use Zoho for this, as it integrates our tasks with our sales activity, ongoing projects and reporting.

  5. Automate manual and repetitive tasks: In Bruce Lee’s words, “It is daily decrease, not increase. Hack away at the unessentials”. We recommend these "unessentials" are identified and removed by following 3 steps: 1) Ask yourself – Do we (or I) need to do this? If the answer is no, just stop. 2) For required tasks, think of ways to improve them – do them less often, do them later, etc; and then try to eliminate steps and handovers. This streamlining is absolutely essential to working smart. 3) Lastly, look for repetitive tasks that can be automated. Examples include: email follow-ups and reminders; syncing information between systems; report collation and managing social media posts. Doing this will make sure the basics are reliably covered, regardless of workload, and the organisation becomes scalable. It increases the productivity of the responsible individual, by letting them focus on fewer tasks. And it almost certainly helps your bottom line: a ten-minute a day task done by a $50K a year employee will cost your business well over $1000! Prioritise carefully - high repetition, low implementation cost is best - and by aiming to automate at least one task a month, by next flu season, you could have shaved 20-50% off the workload.

  6. Build a rapid, reliable recruitment and on-boarding process: Cutting down the time and costs associated with bringing on new staff members will make it easier to hire someone without warning. Always recruit more on personality and aptitude than experience – this is particularly important for junior hires, who you are aiming to become your future leaders. Using a recruiting platform such as Match’d means personality profiling can be integrated into every candidate evaluation, and you can build up a pool of suitable candidates for future roles, that you can turn to without hesitation in times of crisis.The onboarding process typically involves the new hire, their line manager, HR, IT and Finance (at a minimum). Streamline and automate as much as possible of this cumbersome process so every new hire can be fully operational within minutes on Day 1 ... then focus your energy on immersing them into your culture and training them in everything it would help to know.

  7. Build flexibility into your employment contracts: Always be careful when writing your employment contracts, to be sure that there is enough flexibility built into them to enable you to vary working conditions (with the individual’s permission) in the short term. Someone saving for the trip of lifetime may be happy to work 10 hour days for 3 weeks, to get the overtime, but there may be legal and financial risks down the track. If you haven’t done so in the last 12 months, speak to an independent Workforce consultant to review your contracts.

Then, when flu season hits again? Well, you will be better prepared. And you can go back to Points 1-5 to manage the situation as it develops. Better still, why not set yourself a productivity gain target and implement some of the above, so your team can work better every day.

By Jen May, Business Success Partner at May Dynamics

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