Every month the calendar seems to serve up a special occasion or holiday that provides a good excuse for eating a fantastic meal. After a big helping of caloric overload you may begin to strategize how to make up for it. Diet fads are constantly the rage. Consumers voraciously devour the latest promise for easy weight loss with no work or sacrifices. 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 and eat less and that’s where strategy and commitment come into play.

While over eating may dictate the need for a personal diet, economic issues often dictate the need for companies to go on a “people diet”; more commonly known as layoffs or a reduction in force. As a manager, how do you cope with a reduced work force and continue to get the work done? Similar to going on a personal diet; you need to commit to a strategy that works for your business and keeps you moving forward. Let’s take a look at three approaches you’ll want to apply when making 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. For many managers, if they were asked to prioritize the value each position contributes to company revenue, their response could be a mixed bag. The big hitting sales people are easy keepers, but what about everyone else? This is where honest, business-based soul searching must be done. Layoffs should be number driven – yes – but with an appropriate amount of strategic managerial thinking layered on top. At a high level you must prioritize positions that 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 trusted team leads these questions prior to cutting head count: What high priority activities must be maintained to generate revenue and keep the business competitive and thriving? What key positions must be in place to enable these activities? What activities and related jobs could you live without while still keeping 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 the majority of managers, but it’s still a bad move. Companies big and small have a tendency to cut marketing first and forget that marketing helps drive sales and customer relationships and keeps your business name in front of the buying public. Don’t make that mistake. Keep your key marketing players in place, even if the team needs to be slimmed down. In essence, prioritize all functions and jobs that contribute to generating money and keeping customers happy and coming in the door.

2) Be smart – Let’s do the math. 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? As a manager you may be tempted to quickly decide what work should continue and who should shoulder a bigger load. Before you do, conduct a confidential planning session with your team leaders and validate work that needs to remain intact, inter-dependent tasks, and key skills along with employees who have those skills. Part of managing smart after a layoff is performing a skills assessment before the layoff occurs. This action 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 load. 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 resume on file with your human resources department. This should be updated with annual performance reviews. Input from your team leaders will help too. Even if you aren't faced with layoff issues, conducting semi-annual skills assessments will come in handy for every manager who wants to plot strategies for getting the work done with fewer people.

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 work load with fewer people and will adjustments in work assignments more effective. Before and after the layoff, remember to also seriously look at your organization’s structure. Are there ways to restructure your business that builds efficiency and provides better collaboration across groups or departments? As you manage smarter, strategize how structure changes might reduce previously accepted redundancies and help fewer workers produce ongoing success.

3) Be nimble –When you face tough layoff decisions, keep the future in mind and maintain a nimble approach to adding 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 workers to part time employees or contractors. Some employees may balk at this option and 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 with your employee roster? 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 each other to 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” and layoffs are behind you. The same holds true if you're experiencing a hiring freeze. 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 not; look problems in the eye and fix them quickly. As conditions improve, you may be able to hire new people or hire back a valued employee you had to let go … or with that personal diet … grab a chocolate chip cookie or an extra beer. 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! (reprinted with permission from Soundings Publications LLC, Mary Elston management column)

Author's Bio: 

Mary Elston has been meeting management challenges head on for over 25 years through her management positions in transportation, technology and consulting Fortune 500 companies. She is author of the book "How to Master Your Middle Management Universe" and the audio book on CD "Master Your Middle Management Universe and Manage UP!" Mary trains business professionals on her unique and highly effective management methods for taking on any challenge the right way. She also writes a management column for a boating and marine trade journal and is a member of National Speaker's Association. Mary's management blog shares secrets techniques and methods for "make a difference" management and is located at: managementsecrets.masteryoursuccess.com; main website at masteryoursuccess.com.