The need for staff flexibility has always been prevalent, as demand is rarely static year-round. But the pandemic has brought this idea to the forefront. How can organizations cope when demand suddenly falls off a cliff and then surges again a few months later?
When demand falls dramatically, tough decisions have to be made. Staff are let go, and many go on to find other jobs. But then when demand picks back up again, businesses are left scrambling for enough staff to meet consumer needs and will find that, despite high unemployment figures, hiring quickly isn’t as seamless as they would like. They still have to find the right fit and still need to have time for training and getting new hires up to speed.
Elastic Workforces to the Rescue
This is where an elastic workforce can come into play. Even if you haven’t heard of an elastic workforce, chances are you’ve seen it in action in some form. In this instance, elasticity refers to the ability to stretch to meet staffing needs or contract the workforce easily when business decreases.
For many businesses, this takes the form of hiring independent contractors who remain available to assist the company when demand increases too quickly to be met with regular staffing, but this is just one example of how an organization can have more elasticity in its workforce. Here are a few more:
- Have fewer expectations around work hours. By having a more flexible work schedule, employees are more likely to be able to accommodate demand fluctuations. The organization can set the expectation that some weeks or months will be busier, and employees won’t be penalized when they work less when demand wanes.
- Provide more opportunities for on-the-job training and cross-training. By allowing people to learn more about their job and the jobs of those around them, you create flexibility in the existing workforce. This means more employees will be ready to take on new responsibilities when the time comes, which will require a shorter time frame than when hiring someone new.
- Create a culture in which employees are encouraged to take risks and try new things. This type of culture will enable people to be more ready to step up when needed because they have less fear of negative repercussions if they do something wrong. When employees know they have the support to try something new and to get more done, they will be more likely to do so. Have safeguards in place (like quality control) to ensure the final product doesn’t suffer.
- Consider outsourcing when appropriate. This is one of the simplest and fastest ways to get more elasticity into your organization: Outsource tasks you don’t currently have the skills for in-house. This may be in the form of hiring independent contractors for specific projects, or it could be as complex as partnering with other organizations to handle entire segments of the business.
- Ensure your tools and processes are set up to meet fluctuating demand and are able to communicate with dispersed staff.
A contingent workforce can be key to having more staff elasticity and thus being more prepared for changes in demand over time.
Bridget Miller is a business consultant with a specialized MBA in International Economics and Management, which provides a unique perspective on business challenges. She’s been working in the corporate world for over 15 years, with experience across multiple diverse departments including HR, sales, marketing, IT, commercial development, and training.