Imagine for a moment a soccer team who has to cancel an important game on short notice because two of the players fell sick, and having only twelve players on the payroll overall, they are unable to put the necessary eleven players on the field. It seems inconceivable to not plan ahead and keep more players than the bare minimum available, in case of injuries. All the more surprising that quite a few companies run their business that way.

By now, most have (hopefully) realized that it’s a good idea to keep a backup server somewhere to store the valuable company data on, and few would only start thinking about ordering new machinery once the old one completely falls apart and production comes to a standstill. In human resources, though, allegedly the most valuable of company assets, there has been a growing trend to cut things really, really close.

Over the last twenty years, many companies have made great pains to reduce personnel. That is generally a good thing, as achieving the same output with fewer resources means the kind of increase in productivity that is the foundation of the country’s economic success. However, in this case that’s only true up to a point. Once that line is crossed, productivity starts taking a nosedive. Once work can only be finished late, deliveries get delayed or orders cannot be filled at all, the previous savings in labor costs quickly are negated, and the loss of drive can turn into a true threat to the company. Exactly this scenario is also often described when managers with great trepidation talk about the lack of qualified personnel. Even so there are those companies who deliberately expose themselves to that risk.

An IT-Consultant working for a fairly large company once told me that he manages to do only about 50% of those things that urgently needed done. Anything that hasn’t reached the “desperate” state yet gets completely ignored. That works surprisingly well for the everyday business, but whether a lot of development work and innovations happen that way is doubtful.

Even if normally employees aren’t that hopelessly overtaxed, there is less and less wriggle room in employees’ time and work load. As long as everything is running smoothly, companies profit from the reduced personnel costs – but then descend into chaos and panic if an important specialist suddenly becomes unavailable for a longer period of time.

It has become common practice to work from home when having received a sick note from the doctor, or simply go to the office no matter how bad you feel. That not only hinders recovery but in the second case also endangers others. Once the virus has spread through the office and the commuter train and the illness solidly entrenched due to lack of rest, the costs of lost productivity (not to mention costs to the health system) quickly mount.

At the same time, it’s no rare occurrence nowadays that anyone returning from a vacation first needs to work overtime daily for three weeks until the pile of work that has accumulated during the vacation is reduced to a normal level, because there either were no colleagues who could have taken over some of that work load, or they were so bogged down themselves that there was no way to cover for the absent employee. Hence, within the shortest amount of time, the recuperative effect of the vacation evaporated and everyone’s productivity is back to the usual “need a vacation” status.

Yes, all this costs very real money, especially in Germany, and it is highly unlikely that someone will create a new job opening that isn’t really needed in the day-to-day business. Still, before doing another cut it wouldn’t hurt to spend a moment contemplating the subsequent costs if every bit of buffer is done away with, and the costs explode when something unexpected happens and help has to be brought in on short notice.

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