How a team can survive a staff cutback

Keeping your team focused after a staffing reduction announcement raises many challenges. Find out how to best transfer workloads and decide which applications will lose support.

Suppose your internal development and support team is being dramatically downsized. The staff’s size is not out of line given the company’s revenue a few years ago. However, as revenues fall, the company has decided that it can no longer afford to invest as heavily in the internal projects, enhancements, and support the team performs today. As a result, the current team of 13 is being cut back to five members.

The workload of your team is typical for a medium-to-small-size company. It provides day-to-day support for business applications that support internal departments such as finance, sales, and marketing. This work includes fixing errors, answering user questions, and responding to help desk tickets. Team members also work on various internal projects to build new business capabilities or to support new business initiatives. If they have time, team members also deliver enhancements to the current business applications. In general, they do whatever is required.

The good news is that the team has some time to prepare. Team members who will leave have a few months before their jobs are eliminated to complete various projects that are in progress and transition key responsibilities.

Where would you begin?
I’m sure the first reflexes for many teams facing such cutbacks are shock and then a sense of sorrow. People who are facing job elimination need to start thinking about their next jobs, insurance coverage, and getting their resume updated. Those that are left start thinking about how the work is going to get done with a reduced staff. They may also feel a little uneasy about working with people who are losing their jobs.

Where would you begin if you found out that your team was facing a substantial cutback? I’d suggest a transition plan consisting of the following four major areas.

Determine the work to be completed and work to be stopped
Our hypothetical team is in the middle of a variety of projects and enhancements. Given the future cutbacks, it can’t finish everything it has going. Many other issues need to take priority before the job eliminations take place.

Deciding which current work needs to fall off the plate is the first step your team should take. Support of critical business applications still needs to rank first. The direction from senior management is to eliminate almost all active enhancements and to reduce the enhancement backlog to zero. Projects that are in progress must be reviewed to determine which ones are still important. The rest will quickly be ramped down and stopped.

Reduce the applications supported to the critical core
If your group were to lose one or two people, it could continue to support all of the company’s internal business applications with a marginal decrease in service levels. That won’t work with a cut of this magnitude. Like everything else, business applications themselves must be scrutinized and potentially reduced. When times are good, applications are built or purchased that seem important but don’t necessarily support the company’s core business. Such was the case in our hypothetical group. Some Web applications have been built in the past few years that were nice, but not critical. They must be turned off. Other applications that are not core to the business will be turned over to the clients for them to support. It’s either that approach or retire the applications.

Set new expectations for the group’s future service level
Just as the current workload needed to be downsized, it’s clear that our team will not be able to do nearly as much work in the future as it has in the past. Expectations need be reset within each of its major client areas. This includes the understanding that there will be more chances for application errors and that errors might not be fixed as quickly as in the past. Questions and problems will take longer to be resolved. Enhancement requests that might have taken two months in the past are now likely to never even be placed on the priority list. This transition may require a series of painful meetings with client managers, but expectations on future service levels need to be set up front.

Transition primary and backup support roles
This might be the area where our team will benefit the most from having some transition time. If jobs were eliminated immediately, there would be little chance for cross training. If a production application experienced problems, there might literally be no one with the knowledge to fix them. Our team will revise the list of primary and backup support for each application, and team members in given roles can document what they were doing. Obviously, it takes a lot of time for new staffers to be proficient in an application. However, at least our team has a fighting chance to make sure the new support people have an idea of the direction to go when problems arise.

Reality sets in
There’s no question that the downsizing in our group is painful for everyone involved. They are more fortunate than most in that the team can prepare and have a chance to keep the business applications up and running. For some period of time, that may be all they can do, which is why much of their other workload has been eliminated. Our team is trying its best to work through the difficult situation with a plan. I’ll revisit our hypothetical team as it deals with the new resource realities.

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