Updated: Apr 21, 2020
During my recent business travels across Asia, I’ve been surprised at the amount of underemployment within some firms. Underemployment has several definitions, but for the purposes of this article I’ll define it as:
“an employee who is under-utilised and not working to full capacity, or to the extent of their capabilities”.
In simple terms, it’s when there’s not enough work to go around. Traditionally this would result in a round of redundancies, however sometimes companies choose to maintain the status quo for a number of reasons. This could be waiting for a new project to start, an expected increase in business, or a plan to reallocate resources across different teams. This may sound great for the employees in question – after all, better to be underemployed than unemployed, right? – however, it comes with various negative effects that as a leader you need to negate. These include:
Disengagement – Not having any work to do might sound great in theory, but trust me, you soon get bored. Once boredom sets in, it’s very difficult to get the motivation back and you start to lose faith and trust in your employer. This soon leads to the next point…
Job-seeking – After a sustained period of disengagement and underemployment, employees are going to start contacting recruiters and trawling the classifieds. If they find an exciting-sounding alternative, it’s going to be hard for you to convince them to stay.
Lack of focus – An underemployed employee is going to be searching for things to occupy their mind. This could be anything from social media to planning next year’s holiday, however when they actually have to do some work their focus is often suboptimal. Their brain has spent too long switched off, and when needed, their mind and priorities are often elsewhere.
Skills drainage – If athletes or sportsmen can’t train for long periods, you often see a drop in form and skill level. Similarly, if your employees don’t have the opportunity to utilise and improve their skill-set, then their knowledge levels and technical ability will start to drop. This results in a team who is not performing at their peak when work picks up again.
So, if you’re faced with this situation, or you’re managing a team affected by it, how can you lead to ensure you avoid the above effects? How can you turn the situation to your advantage?
Upskill – Downtimes are perfect opportunities for learning new skills. As a leader, help your team find learning opportunities and encourage their participation. This could be a new internal system, soft-skills training, coaching, or a technical program such as accounts or social media. Upskilling your team can only reap you benefits in the future, yet most don’t get the luxury of time. Use it or lose it!
Cross-train – Every manager wants a team where everyone can perform every function. In reality, this is rarely achieved due to a number of factors (excuses?), including too much work, not enough time, or too complicated. If you have underemployed resources, then you have no excuse. Use the opportunity to cross-train as many members of your team as possible. This increases knowledge, improves coverage, drives innovation, and increases motivation and engagement.
Loan season – In a number of team sports, when you have underemployed resources you loan them out to another team. There’s nothing stopping you doing this in the corporate world, although it’s a tactic rarely used. Rather than lose a fully trained-up employee to another firm, look for opportunities to loan them to another team that would benefit from their experience. When they come back they’ll have a new skill set and network that can benefit your team.
Housekeeping – During busy times, things get messy. I’m not just talking about the lack of filing that inevitably happens, I’m talking out you having outdated or even a lack of procedures, and a lack of strategic planning. Use these times to get your house in order. Write procedures for all tasks (needed for cross-training), have strategic planning sessions, and make sure you’re up to date with compliance. You’ll be thankful of this when things get busy again.
Pet projects – Google famously used to allow its employees to spend 20% of time on their own pet projects, giving birth to apps such as Adsense and Gmail. If you have excess capacity in your team, it’s the perfect time to introduce your own 20% policy. Give your employees the freedom to explore process or system improvements and you may be surprised with what they come up with. Many of the best ideas come from your employees when they’re not faced with the daily pressures of the job.
Underemployment can create an atmosphere of fear amongst teams. Your main focus as a leader is to keep your valued team members employed, and to do this they must be kept motivated, engaged and of value to the firm. Rather than see it as a negative situation, see it as a time to create positive change; invest in your employees and give them an additional edge that they might not otherwise get. You never know when you’ll get the opportunity again.