The highest peaks of customer demand can’t always be met with standard staffing plans, whether the need for extra staff is driven by holiday sales or a department-wide training. In addition to asking employees for overtime or expanding the size of seasonal and on-call staff, companies typically use a variety of outsourced or off-premises solutions to handle the extremes of demand.
Some companies take a different approach, though, based either on their cultural norms or occasional desperation. They train a cadre of other departments’ managers (sometimes including the most senior executives) and staff members and scheduled them as backup to handle extra call volume or rudimentary tasks in the distribution center.
If you’ve considered—or lived through—periods of “all hands on deck,” you know there are both pros and cons to this approach.
Sharing the load
Getting everyone involved can be a wonderful practice because:
- It fosters a spirit of “we’re all in this together, this is our company and we respect all the work that gets done here.”
- People from all functions gain exposure to both the stresses and the pleasures of interacting with customers or preparing product for customers; there’s nothing like experiencing that visceral reality for understanding the customer experience—and bringing it back to improve standard work processes and decision-making.
- It’s an opportunity to see how well the system works to support live interactions and warehouse procedures, and to identify processing issues that could be improved or shortcuts that could be incorporated.
- Involving people with “fresh eyes” means there’s a new chance to identify errors, from typos to broken links.
- When marketing staffers get on the phone, they can see if their promotions and positioning are as effective with customers and potential customers as they anticipated when they developed them. Accounting staff learns first-hand how credit policies work for customers (or don’t).
And when everyone’s working at high speed, the operations staff really understands how many steps it is from the Receiving department to the various corners of the warehouse, and which work station setups are really the most efficient.
- The change of pace can provide a refreshing break from day-to-day activities and create a chance for both managers and staff to get to know their colleagues better.
Bearing the burden
Getting everyone involved can be horribly messy because:
- Error rates can go through the roof if “occasional” staff isn’t fully trained or focused; worse, the back-up staff can be a distraction to the harried regulars who are just trying to get customers served and orders packed.
- “Fish-out-of-water” experiences can have a negative impact on customers if a staff member with the wrong temperament is on the phone.
- Doing the job for a couple of shifts can give the back-up staff the false impression that they understand all the ins-and-outs of the job without the context of what can be sustained over long periods through the daily grind. Or they may come away with an unrealistic sense that the job is easy or fun because their experience was brief and exciting.
If you’re considering instituting a staff backup schedule for your operations, thin about how you could plan for these pros and cons.
Before you launch, ask the regulars what you can be looking and listening for, and how bringing an outside perspective to bear can help to resolve—and not to create—operating challenges. Set the context for staff backup as expanding the sense of the company “team” as well as an opportunity to learn more about customers.
And definitely save all the funny stories that come from the “fish-out-of-water” experiences—they’ll give you new opportunities for both training and bonding!
Liz Kislik is president of consultancy Liz Kislik Associates.