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Leaner workforce after layoffs? This will help get the job done

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Every month the calendar seems to serve up a holiday or other occasion that provides a good excuse for enjoying a fantastic meal. After these adventures in caloric overload, you begin to strategize how to compensate for them.

Diet fads are the rage. Consumers voraciously devour the latest promise for easy weight loss with no work or sacrifice. It’s like losing something that costs you nothing — except the $89.95 plus shipping and handling to purchase the magic diet pills.

Get real. You know the drill. If you want to weigh less, you have to work out more and eat less, and that’s where strategy and commitment come into play.

While overeating may dictate the need for a personal diet, economic issues often dictate the need for companies to go on a “people diet” in the form of layoffs. As a manager, how do you continue to get the work done with a smaller workforce? Just as you do when you’re embarking on a personal diet, you need to commit to a strategy that works for your business and keeps you moving forward.

Let’s look at three approaches to layoff decisions and how you’ll accomplish the same amount of work with fewer people.

1. Prioritize: This sounds relatively simple, but that’s exactly why it isn’t. If managers are asked to prioritize the value each position contributes to company revenue, their responses often are a mixed bag. The big-hitting salespeople are easy keepers, but what about everyone else? This is where there has to be honest, business-based soul searching. Layoffs should be number-driven, yes, but with strategic managerial thinking layered on top. High-level managers must prioritize positions to maintain product flow, sales and service, marketing, customer relationships and accounting practices to process money and keep an eye on costs and cash flow.

Managers should ask themselves and their team leaders these questions before reducing head count: What activities must be maintained to generate revenue and keep the business competitive and thriving? What positions must be in place to enable these activities? What activities and related jobs could you live without and still keep the business healthy and viable?

Do you have the answers? Not so fast.

How many of you put marketing on the “live without” list? If you did, you’re in good company with a majority of managers, but it’s still a bad move. Companies big and small tend to cut marketing first and forget it’s the function that helps drive sales and customer relationships and keeps your business name in front of the buying public. Don’t make this mistake. Keep your key marketing players in place, even if the team needs to be slimmed down. Give priority to the functions and jobs that generate money and keep customers coming in the door.

2. Be smart: The math is simple: After a layoff, you have the same amount of work to accomplish with fewer people. Hmmm … does that mean those who are left will be working longer hours? Will some work just fall off the table? What’s your strategy? How do you manage smarter with fewer people?

You may be tempted to quickly decide what work should continue and who should shoulder a bigger load. Before you do this, conduct a confidential planning session with your team leaders and validate work that needs to remain intact, interdependent tasks and key skills, along with employees who have those skills. Part of managing smart is performing a skills assessment before the layoff occurs. This will help you do something else — focus.

Make it a point to focus on skills and essential tasks that can be performed by multi-talented workers who can expand their loads. After conducting a skills assessment, I’m always amazed what skills are available across the team but aren’t utilized.

How do you perform the skills assessment? Be proactive. Each employee should have a work history and résumé on file with your human resources department. This should be updated with annual performance reviews. Input from your team leaders will help, too.

Now that you’re aware of your bench strength, you’ll be able to manage smarter by freshly evaluating who can perform different types of work. This will help manage the workload with fewer people and will enable you to adjust work assignments more effectively. Before and after the layoff, look seriously at your organization’s structure. Are there ways to restructure that build efficiency and provide better collaboration across groups or departments? Strategize how structure changes might reduce previously accepted redundancies and bring continued success with fewer workers.

3. Be nimble: When you face tough layoff decisions, keep the future in mind and maintain a nimble approach to bringing back talent when you can. Of course layoffs should always be implemented with diplomacy and empathy for departing individuals, whether there’s a potential to bring them back or not. This is the right thing to do and maintains a positive tone for everyone. Being nimble may involve trimming the payroll and retaining talent by converting full-time people into part-time employees or independent contractors. Some employees may balk at this option; others may find it acceptable until they can be hired back full time or find other employment.

Can you think of other ways to be nimble? Some work may be outsourced or hired out. Another alternative is to split one job into two. This can be viable with two people who agree to share a position that is being retained, rather than lose either of their jobs completely. Job sharing can open the door for more flexible schedules as well.

When job sharing is applied, you’ll want to make sure it’s with individuals who communicate and coordinate well with one another. That way, you keep shared job functions running smoothly.

After shedding pounds on a personal diet, you need a maintenance plan to stay in shape. This is also the case after a “people diet” — when the layoffs are behind you. Make sure your adjustments to priorities and structure are working well — in short, you’re generating revenue, servicing customers and keeping your business moving ahead. If that’s not the case, look problems in the eye and fix them quickly. As conditions improve, you may be able to hire back a valued employee (like grabbing a chocolate chip cookie or an extra beer on that personal diet). Diets are hard; “people diets” are even harder. Make it a point to revisit priorities on a regular basis, and continue to be smart and nimble. Do this and the next time things get tough you may be the manager who won’t need to go on a diet at all.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of “Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps.” Contact her at

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.



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