One important lesson to be learned from the Gulf War is that people and the jobs they perform are critical factors in business continuity. Not only did the call-up of reservists represent a loss of manpower, but also a loss of their training, skills and knowledge for the duration of their absence.
While the circumstances are unique, the problem is not. Vacations, resignations, discharges, jury duty, illness, accidents and other emergencies happen daily, taking workers from their jobs and reducing productivity proportionately.
Whether the net result is a reduced work force or an influx of temporary personnel, the cost in dollars and time can be significant. If it’s a specialist who is lost, errors and omissions can be disastrous. If the decision maker leaves, activity can grind to a halt. If it is the primary producer who departs, income may be reduced or suspended.
Any major change in personnel increases the risk of information loss. Regardless of how skilled replacements may be, it takes time for them to become familiar with new systems and procedures. It also takes time from established personnel who are assigned to supervise their training.
In the performing arts, understudies and alternates are an integral part of production, just as second string players provide backup for sports teams. In business, cross training personnel for multiple roles, and establishing a reliable temporary work force and backup chain of command are equally important. The more specialized each person becomes, the more critical it is that there be a backup who can function adequately until the primary worker returns or is replaced.
It can be as vital that critical decisions not be delayed as it is to meet deadlines, regardless of absentees.
At the very least, an administrative backup should be someone who can evaluate how critical a decision is and whether or not it can be delayed.
The nature of the personnel backup system used depends on the size, assets and needs of each firm. Where sufficient personnel exist, cross training may work best.
Other firms may have to rely on temporary personnel agencies. Still others may utilize both. Regardless of the source, information pertaining to employee replacements should be recorded and maintained in the contingency plan.
Procedures Keep Order
Written office procedures help mitigate personnel fluctuations. They can ensure that each procedure is performed by each employee in the same manner and reduce the time it takes to train new employees.
Daily operating procedures and job descriptions often evolve without ever being documented. When explained to a temporary or permanent replacement, they can undergo unintended changes. The resulting confusion and inefficiency can be costly.
In some cases consistency may be critical (e.g. financial/ insurance/tax records and transactions). In others it may be desirable but not essential (e.g. answering phones, creating document formats, distributing mail).
Certain procedures, such as climate control, conservation measures and waste disposal, may have to be flexible to meet the changing requirements of personnel, equipment and regulatory agencies.
Consider the loss to sudden illness of a senior secretary who has assumed the role of trainer and supervisor. With no written procedures, it may be left to an executive to explain to her temporary replacement routine tasks long since delegated and ignored. Or, it may fall to a coworker whose responsibilities differ from the tasks to be taught.
In either case, the lack of written office procedures leaves the firm vulnerable to errors and omissions which may go undiscovered until the secretary returns.
Generations of verbal training allow individual preferences and prejudices to influence the way business is conducted. A new employee may follow instructions to the letter, but the trainer’s interpretation may not have been accurate in the first place.
Management can end up puzzled by unidentifiable problems which actually stem from undetected training errors.
Similarly, in the absence of documented procedures, a new manager would rely on verbal explanations. If the source is faulty, the manager’s actions or instructions could be inappropriate.
Providing inaccurate information to embarrass a new superior has been the often humorous subject of various entertainment forms. It’s far from humorous in the real world.
Whether a firm is in the throes of recovering from a major disaster or handling routine absenteeism, recording office procedures as part of the contingency plan makes them available for all circumstances requiring personnel adjustments.
Job Descriptions Merge People & Procedures
In firms which experience consistent fluctuation in the size and makeup of their work force, carefully written job descriptions can simplify the delineation of performance requirements.
New employees or temporaries are less likely to be overwhelmed by tasks unceremoniously dumped on them by others if there is a clear understanding of responsibilities.
Disputes over jurisdiction and expectations become avoidable. Duplications and/or omissions of tasks are reduced.
Carefully documented job descriptions can serve as a measure for salary determination. An employee who fails to meet or exceeds expectations can be judged on specific job performance criteria.
Appropriate compensation for temporary replacements can be evaluated, as well. Management personnel need not bear the burden of making such determinations without benefit of written guidelines, particularly important under emergency conditions.
During recovery from a disaster, the existence of job descriptions in the contingency plan offers time saving personnel management information. In routine operations, they offer support for personnel decisions and training.
Tie Them Together in the Contingency Plan
The process of recording procedures and job descriptions requires the involvement of administrative personnel. Employees performing both routine and specialized tasks can offer worthwhile input pertaining to their individual positions. The resulting discussion should identify areas for improvement, innovation and modification.
Once recorded, procedures and job descriptions are invaluable in daily operations as well as in emergencies. There are numerous occurrences within the normal range of business operations which would not qualify as disasters but are nonetheless disruptive.
In a world of sophisticated equipment and state-of-the-art working environments, it’s easy to overlook the fact that people keep a business running.
However mechanized a firm may be, at some point people have to be involved. Their knowledge, skills and job performance should not be overlooked when recording company assets in the contingency plan.
Joanne R. Piersall is President and owner of J R Piersall Consulting, Inc., an office management consulting firm which provides solutions for streamlining office procedures and records management systems. Since establishing her consultancy in 1988, Piersall has helped a wide range of clients.
This article adapted from Vol. 6 #1.