Skip to navigation
8 Min Read

How to Keep Employees Engaged When You’re Short-Staffed

Genevieve Michaels

Short-staffed organizations don’t have enough people to handle all the work that needs to get done. When that goes on for too long, employees start taking notice and employee engagement suffers.

Watching important tasks go undone, having to work through lunch to hit deadlines, and feeling like promotion opportunities have gone the way of the dodo all take their toll on your workforce.

No matter how much work you put into your hiring plan or how closely you watch attrition and turnover, your organization will likely be short-staffed at one point or another. When this is the case, you’ll have a larger part to play in maintaining employee engagement on top of an increase in requests and complaints from employees.

That’s why HR professionals and managers need to work together to proactively develop employee engagement strategies that can see the organization through these periods. Without a plan in place, employee engagement will continue to steadily decrease. If you’re short-staffed long enough, morale will start to go down, too. Employee engagement software can help with this, but you still need the right plan.

Here’s a comprehensive guide on how being short-staffed affects your business and what HR professionals can do to keep engagement from slipping.

How does being short-staffed affect your business?

Whether it’s due to a wave of layoffs, high turnover, or broader market conditions, short-staffed organizations quickly start to feel the pinch of their situation. After all, your employees might not necessarily know you’re short-staffed with any certainty, but they can quickly recognize the signs, such as:

  • Too much work and not enough people to do it.
  • Increased responsibilities without promises of advancement or promotion.
  • Shelving of once-important projects after reprioritization.
  • Drastic changes in the organization’s overall strategy.
  • Increased monitoring and micromanagement from leaders.

Being short-staffed doesn’t just impact your team’s workload. Here’s how it can affect your organization as a whole:

  • Lower employee engagement: While being short-staffed itself doesn’t decrease employee engagement, its impacts on their workday will. When they see their to-do list grow and grow, warn their managers about it, and see no change, they’ll grow frustrated. If high-performers see their work rewarded with more tasks rather than growth opportunities, they’ll wonder why they’re putting so much effort into their day-to-day.
  • Declining employee morale: Employee engagement describes the drive and determination of employees at work, while morale is how they feel about that work and your organization. Low morale can have widespread effects on your organization, from decreased communication to increased absenteeism. It can even ratchet up turnover, exacerbating problems caused by being short-staffed.
  • Decreased productivity: Your organization will see productivity decrease across the board if there aren’t enough people to take on everything that needs to get done. Similarly, individual employees will often be less productive since they’ll often become overworked with little hope of a change.
  • Decreased customer satisfaction: Any issues your organization faces often trickle down to your customers. When you’re short-staffed, that can mean support tickets take longer to resolve, escalations take longer, and a customer might never even get through to someone on your team and decide to stop relying on your product or service.
  • Missed growth opportunities: Short-staffed organizations rarely hit their growth targets. Unless you have a strategy for turning things around and growing your workforce to where it needs to be, your organization will start to stagnate.
  • Increased workload for HR: When employees feel like your organization is short-staffed, irritants that wouldn’t affect them for more than a day start to stick around. These irritants will turn into issues that your HR team will have to deal with. You’ll field more requests, have to arbitrate in more conflicts, and need to address issues with policies and processes more often.
  • Shaken trust: This isn’t always the case, but depending on how you ended up short-staffed, you might start to find trust issues growing between employees and the organization. If it’s due to a wave of layoffs or a series of high-performing, veteran employees leaving, short-staffed organizations might have some trust-building to do.

Strategies to keep employees engaged and motivated (even when short-staffed)

When you’re short-staffed, employee engagement becomes more important than ever. You have fewer people to manage a growing list of tasks, so you need to help them bring their best selves to work consistently, even through difficult times. With that in mind, here are some things you can do to reignite that fire for your teams.

Adjust expectations accordingly

If managers and leaders still expect a team to have the same level of output after losing half of their members, you’ll be dealing with a tug-of-war that’s sure to see more people leaving. While it can be frustrating to see productivity decline when short-staffed, adjusting expectations to your current situation is essential. As an HR professional, you can help leaders understand the true impacts of being short-staffed while empowering managers to protect their teams from an ever-increasing workload.

Reprioritize tasks

Watching a project you’ve worked on for months get descoped so resources can be put elsewhere is frustrating. But without radically re-prioritizing projects and tasks, your organization will struggle to accomplish anything, let alone its most important goals. While HR professionals won’t usually be responsible for this change in priorities, they will have a role to play in reinforcing just how important this work is.

Maintain effective and open communication

Too many organizations clam up when things get difficult. Messages from leadership are worded much more carefully, managers rarely give straight answers to important questions, and employees feel like they’re constantly in the dark. Likewise, employees might be less likely to communicate issues as they come up, especially in situations where staffing issues were caused by layoffs. That means managers, leaders, and HR will have to work harder to keep communication channels open.

Be mindful when delivering feedback

What usually counts as constructive criticism might come across as unreasonable expectations when you’re short-staffed. It can be difficult for an employee to prioritize their growth when they feel like they’re constantly putting out fires. While you do want to give employees a clear image of their performance, it needs to come with an understanding that they’re doing the best they can in difficult circumstances.

Promote skill development

While being short-staffed means employees are working in tough conditions, that doesn’t mean their growth should be paused completely. In fact, you should find ways to help them develop skills that will help see them through being short-staffed, such as project management, task prioritization, and time management. If you can reward them for any progress they make in these areas, all the better!

Actively track employee satisfaction

You should already be using software that lets you track employee satisfaction, but this becomes doubly important when you’re short-staffed. Whether you’re actively trying to replace employees who’ve left or you’re learning to make it work with a reduced workforce, retaining employees should be a high-priority task. By actively tracking employee satisfaction, you can spot people who are more likely to suffer from low engagement and make a plan to act.

Make more time for recognition and reward

When an organization is short-staffed, it’s easy to miss opportunities for rewarding your teams when they move the needle. Everyone’s so focused on just getting through the day and closing out another week that initiatives like employee recognition fall by the wayside. Don’t let this happen. As an HR professional, you have a role to play in empowering leaders to reward employees in meaningful ways for sticking it out, hitting targets, and overachieving.

With the right strategy in place, you won’t just be able to maintain employee engagement while your organization is short-staffed; you’ll actually be able to improve it.

How 15Five supports employee engagement

Like anything else, measuring employee engagement can be difficult without the right tools. Patching together spreadsheets, form-builders, and your HRIS (human resources information system) doesn’t cut it. At best, you’ll miss opportunities to pick up on and solve employee engagement issues. At worst, you won’t even be able to determine just how low employee engagement is or what you can do about it.

15Five is a performance management platform that’s easy to use, full of essential data, and robust enough to meet all your employee engagement needs. It empowers HR professionals to build, dispatch, and analyze engagement surveys, measure what actually matters, and build custom dashboards relevant for every level of the org chart.

Curious to see how this works? Book a demo with our team here.

Engagement short-list

Employee engagement should always be a priority since it leads to stronger performance across the board and makes it more likely that your organization will hit its goals. But when you’re short-staffed, you need to double down on this priority. As an HR professional, you’ll have to help manage expectations for overwhelmed employees, encourage leaders to re-prioritize their goals, and empower managers to better support their teams when the organization is short-staffed, seeing them through to the other side.