How you frame a decision matters. If you want to see this idea in action, pick up any major newspaper. There are countless stories of businesses struggling due to staffing issues. The pandemic has knocked out a significant portion of the workforce, and there’s another portion that is reconsidering their entire careers. All of this happens while consumer demand rebounds to pre-COVID levels, putting companies in a tough spot. Consumers wait months for new cars, hours at airports, and days to talk to a customer support agent.
The best companies are dealing with these challenges by reframing the problem of hiring. To understand framing, think of a camera lens. You can use the lens to zoom in, make the background blurry or allow more light to be captured. You have multiple options to determine what your photo’s focus should be. Framing affects decisions in the same way. A good frame highlights the right outcome. Companies aren’t using the right frame when only considering hiring new people to meet the growing demands of their business.
Usually, when you want to hire a new person, you’re interested in achieving a list of tasks. You think these tasks can only be done by a new person when you have at least three other options. You could automate the tasks, allocate responsibilities to someone already in your company, or adjust your strategy. I call these the 3 As of the people frame. The first A focuses on automation.
Automate tasks: does it need to be done by a human?
Automation has slowly changed how companies operate for years, but the pandemic accelerated all timelines. As companies forced most of their knowledge workers into a Zoom world, they started to think about which processes were no longer needed and which ones could be automated. It turns out that manually copying data between spreadsheets or inputting data from paper to a digital format isn’t feasible when so many people are working from home—plus, it was never the best use of an employee’s time. Solutions had to be found, and once the motivation was there to look, the solutions turned out to be easy. Many processes were automated, and many more are on their way to automation.
Automation has a bad rep as the destroyer of jobs and livelihoods, but the reality is different. No one misses the manual labor of putting screws on an automobile conveyor belt or manually cleaning data in Excel. People can shift to jobs that are higher in value and more rewarding. I know the transitions aren’t easy, but they are also inevitable. The best companies are proactively tackling automation to ensure people can be redeployed to other tasks. In the worst case, employees get a chance to take their talents somewhere else.
I have helped clients look at how automation can help them, particularly marketing. For example, using software like Zapier to trigger surveys after a customer purchases a new product or using AI to surface interesting insights from their data. As a result, companies can spend more time talking to customers and working on creative elements. I helped one client automate a registration process for their 100+ live sessions, saving one person around 20 hours a week. That person shifted their time to brainstorming about new session topics instead of wasting their time inside Excel. Automation, appropriately done is a net positive on the company’s performance and employee satisfaction.
Allocate responsibilities: are you sitting on hidden gems?
It’s amazing to me how much-hidden talent companies have. These people could contribute more to the company by making the most out of their talent. Talented people can be your company’s “best-kept” secret, and if you don’t find them, the company and the individuals are missing out. If you can identify these people, allocate them to new responsibilities, and provide the necessary coaching, everyone will be better off.
Companies often want my help in hiring for data roles, such as engineers, analysts, and scientists. Before we write one word of a job description, I always have them explore whether the role could be handled internally. We do that by making a list of all the tasks we expect to be done and then seeing if there’s someone who has the skills, interest, and time to handle them. In some cases, we find an engineer who has been taking online courses on their own time or a marketer who has always wanted to move into a new field. These people can thrive in their new roles with the right support and expectations.
Allocating new responsibilities to your existing employees also means giving them more ownership. Companies fall prey to decision–by-committee, which takes valuable time away from everyone involved. The alternative is a culture like Netflix’s. They pride themselves on a principle of radical ownership where anyone can make the big decisions. Stranger Things, the blockbuster show, wasn’t signed by an executive. It was done by the person who researched the deal and knew the most.
I’m convinced that many jobs only exist due to inefficiencies in how companies make decisions. If companies were comfortable giving more ownership and supported employees with the necessary information, they could be leaner and more effective. Netflix’s culture might be too extreme for your company, but there’s room for improvement at all companies. Allocating new responsibilities is too easily overlooked as an alternative to hiring, but you should ask yourself, who better to tackle new challenges than those who already know your culture and processes?
Adjust your strategy: is that the best way forward?
The pandemic forced many companies into innovative positions purely by luck. For example, my local food bank used to host a one-hour orientation session for new volunteers. Because of the pandemic, they needed to reduce the amount of time people spent in an enclosed space together, so they experimented with just covering the essentials within the first five minutes of every shift. Suddenly, they found they could handle the same or higher number of volunteers without the quality of their work going down. Suppose they had stubbornly continued to see the problem of conveying an hour’s worth of information to the volunteers. In that case, they might have persisted with subpar solutions like online orientation sessions, asynchronous e-learning, or outdoor sessions. But they framed the problem as an outcome: how do we get the volunteers to be useful as quickly as possible? The solution to that problem was a basics-only orientation and a process of partnering with experienced volunteers to learn the rest.
I saw the benefits of new approaches with my golden retriever puppy. I can now go to PetSmart and pick up food at their drive-through, which is faster than browsing through the store. Or I can get it delivered within a couple of days because they improved their online delivery options. The simple outcome that PetSmart needed was for me to continue to buy dog food from them. The pet industry has been great at focusing on outcomes: I can see vets remotely without having to leave the comfort of my couch; I’m even taking dog training lessons in my living room. These companies adjusted their strategy to reflect the realities of the pandemic.
Any company that is still operating a pre-pandemic strategy is delusional. Things have changed too much. Your strategy may presume that you need to grow by adding more stores, but that won’t lead to the outcomes you need as much as expanding online deliveries. Lawyers—who love billable hours—are now exploring advisory services which can’t be changed hourly. The advice doesn’t get better the longer you spend on it. Law firms will need to change their partner tracks and business model completely, especially because advisory can be more lucrative and less labor-intensive. adjusting your strategy means that you may not need to hire anyone.
A different question makes all the difference.
I recently watched Man in the Arena: Tom Brady, which looks at Tom’s career with the Patriots and the Buccaneers. Tom has used a question to refocus what needed to be done through the ups and downs. He asked himself why something was happening for him instead of to him. The former focuses on opportunities while the latter looks for blame. Companies can either look at the hiring crunch as yet another obstacle or as an opportunity to rethink their business. The ones that use this opportunity to rethink are coming out slimmer and more effective from three years of pandemic stress. These companies are changing their frames to focus on the right outcomes and drastically change their future trajectory.
Feature image by Devin Avery