Managing staff shortages during the volcano disruption

By Melanie Franklin
April 19, 2010

Melanie Franklin-Melanie Franklin is CEO at Maven Training. The opinions expressed are her own.-

Businesses should have learned by now, from the unexpected eruptions of volcanic ash and the global havoc it has wreaked, that flexibility, creativity and the ability to adapt to an unpredictable environment is crucial to survival.

Having the skills to manage a crisis, such as what to do when 25 percent of the workforce may not turn up to work on Monday morning and how to manage the impact, is vital. Those that learned such project management skills will have been putting contingency plans in place as early as Thursday – when the mass flight cancellations started totting up into the thousands.

Below are top ten tips for dealing with such a crisis:

1)    Review existing contingency plans to see what transferable actions can help. No-one plans for these highly unusual circumstances, but most organisations have plans for fire, flood and terrorist disruption.

2)    Meet with the management team to organise resources internally and assess the situation. Identify what resources are missing and find out from remaining employees the impact delayed staff returns will have. Then, if possible, speak to those that are trapped abroad and allow them to contribute to help analyse the gaps.

3)    Reassure those that are directly affected. Staff maybe more concerned with the safety of their job than getting home. If staff are to be effective when they return to work, they must be reassured that their workload is being passed to others and they are not going to be disciplined. Having staff worry about this when they are already experiencing the stress of being trapped abroad will not increase their productivity on their return.

4)    Pass on vital information about priority work that should be attended to first. Assess what activities are important but not time critical and push deadlines out by two weeks. Businesses shouldn’t plan for a return to work in the next couple of days – plan ahead and assume that people will be disrupted until the following weekend. This will allow breathing space as workers get back to normal and productivity rates begin to increase again.

5)    Make sure that time critical activities are clearly delegated and that individuals understand this is their responsibility. Too often in rushed situations, those managing the crisis assume that everyone understands how they are reallocating work. This is not always the case and it’s important to check that each delegated task has been accepted and the new deadlines agreed.

6)    If there is a staff shortage, ensure that senior managers get involved in some of the more junior tasks; it’s a great way to reconnect with the processes they manage and gives everyone the reassurance that when there are problems there is a real team spirit.

7)    Give one person in the business the authority to cancel and re-organise events should the crisis worsen (particularly if the crisis continues over a weekend). Having a key person in charge (a decision maker) is crucial in keeping customers informed and maintaining trust. Without this clear line of command – action plans cannot be effective.

8)    Reassure those not in the decision making team that their contribution is important, but that they are needed for ‘doing’ and not ‘deciding’. It’s a misconception that office politics and egos are put aside during a crisis – so make sure everyone feels included and appreciated.

9)    Keep the team that you consult with to a minimum. This is not the time for protracted discussions or attempting to make decisions by committee. Particularly over weekends when staff are at home, away from their computers, and communication is done over mobile phones.

10)    Be visible and present. If people have stepped in to fill the place of absent colleagues, now is the time to say thank you for making the extra effort. Just a few minutes to acknowledge this effort motivates everyone to get on with the job and minimises the risk of moaning or complaining.

Once the crisis has passed, it is important to have a review and identify lessons learned that can be applied to future challenges. Dealing with a crisis effectively will have a positive impact on staff morale – long after the planes start flying again.

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