Chances are during the recession you called upon your employees to pitch in in ways you wouldn’t have in more flush times. And chances are you’re still running with a streamlined staff, even if you see better times ahead. While “stretch roles,” as experts call them, can help employees grow, they can be bad for business in the long-term, affecting not only your employees’ behavior but your efficiency and your bottom line. Here, four experts share signs to help you identify if someone, or something, in your organization is about to snap:
Symptom: Business Bottlenecks. Look for places in your business where process has stalled, and you’ll likely find an overburdened employee, says Dave Berkus, superangel and author of the popular blog Berkonomics. He says bottlenecks are caused when someone, maybe even you, is so booked he or she can’t break away to complete an important task or make a crucial decision.
This can have serious impact on an entire organization because everyone before or after the bottleneck is left in limbo. For example, Berkus says, if you run a computer company and your installer is two weeks behind, billing is delayed on one side of the bottleneck, and trainers are left waiting on the other. In this case, bringing on some help could break the bottleneck free.
“That one person you hire will make 20 people more efficient if that person solves the problem at the point of constriction,” Berkus says.
Symptom: Customer Complaints. The downturn might have forced you to get creative, pulling a customer service rep to help with sales or getting your IT guy to handle your Twitter feed. This is the wrong approach if client satisfaction suffers. If your metrics reveal lower than expected customer service scores or you’re getting mixed reviews from clients, it’s time to take stock of stretch roles.
“That feedback could be an early indicator that things are starting to fail and that there’s risk,” explains Jamie Latiano, vice president of human resources for In Flight Entertainment, based in Irvine, Calif., and president-elect of the Orange County chapter of the National Human Resources Association. “An assessment has to be made to see whether your internal team members have the strength and experience to meet the growing needs of your growing business, or if they’re capped where they are.”
Latiano suggests staffing for the future. “I encourage leaders to think a few years ahead,” she says. “You may be investing in talent that’s a little heavy hitting right now but that’s the experience that’s going to help you meet your objectives.”
Symptom: Behavior Changes. You don’t need to look far to find signs of burnout in employees, especially during a time when job satisfaction is at one of its lowest levels in 22 years. Overstretched employees may exhibit a wide variety of behavior and personality changes, according to Debbie Zmorenski of Orlando, Fla.-based Moren Enterprises, and bosses should look for red flags.
She says someone who used to be upbeat and outgoing may appear anxious, critical, angry or withdrawn. An employee once known for accuracy might make careless mistakes. Staffers may call in sick more often, or use more physical and mental health benefits. Conflict between employees may also bubble to the surface, and turnover rates may increase. Says Zmorenski, “One symptom can lead to an entire list of things that damage the bottom line of the company.”
But isn’t as difficult or expensive to restore morale as you might think. Extending flex-time, increasing recognition programs and remembering to say ‘thank you’ go a long way. “It shows you appreciate not only the fact they’re carrying an extra workload but that they’ve stayed with you through the tough times,” Zmorenski says.
Symptom: Decreased Productivity. Ironically, the more individuals work the less they may be getting done, says HR expert Margaret Greenberg, founder of The Greenberg Group, a consulting and executive coaching firm based in Andover, Conn.
“You’ll see people that are just chained to their desk and don’t feel like they can leave. They think ‘If I just work longer and harder, I’ll get more done and catch up’ when in fact that’s a fallacy,” she says. Ask employees to log their projects, and if longer hours don’t seem to translate into increased output, it might be time to intervene. Encouraging e-mail shut-offs and mid-afternoon walks can actually increase efficiency, Greenberg says, as does taking time to plan before diving into tasks.
But Greenberg, co-author of Profit from the Positive, says there is a bright side to stretching staff beyond their original job descriptions, one that you can take advantage of. The increased responsibilities incubated talent and a greater perspective on how the company operates. “They can spot efficiencies and interdependencies to your benefit,” Greenberg says. “Stretch roles are not all negative all the time.” Take another look at job descriptions to see if promotions are in order or if you need to recast roles to fit what your company needs now. If so, encourage your employees to rise to the challenge.