Staffing Management

5 best ways to deal with short staffing

By Gustav Anderson

Oct. 21, 2021


  • Labor shortage persists across the nation, spanning multiple industries

  • Unemployment benefits, COVID fears, and career reevaluations fueling shortage, among other reasons

  • Beat short-staffing with labor forecasting, scheduling in advance, increasing engagement, automating breaks, and cross-training

In what people are now dubbing The Great American Labor Shortage, businesses across the United States are suffering from severe understaffing issues – and small businesses are taking the biggest hit.

Indeed, recovery is happening slowly. The National Restaurant Association says that, as of July, the industry is within 1 million jobs of its pre-pandemic peak – this is after three consecutive months of increasing employment levels. Nevertheless, short staffing still persists. The NFIB found in July of this year that 49% of small businesses reported having job openings they could not fill – the historical average is 22%. Restaurants are still experiencing the most difficulty with this, even in the face of recovery. Many of them, both local and franchise alike, are having to slash opening hours a significant amount due to low availability of staff. You know it’s bad when Alabama Chick-fil-As are closing early nearly every day of the week. 

Needless to say, this is as concerning as it is stressful for hardworking business owners, HR and front-line managers everywhere. After such a tumultuous year as 2020, one would think that things could only get better with the economy opening back up. Clearly, the staffing recovery is happening much slower than people hoped for or expected. 

Why the shortage exists

So why is this all happening you may be wondering? Well, there are several contributing factors to the problem; each probably plays a role in its own way. Understanding these causes will better inform how to schedule an understaffed business more effectively.

The first and most obvious reason is that people are afraid of COVID-19 still. Recently, the Census Bureau found that 3.9 million people are not returning to work because they fear catching or spreading the virus. The increasing prevalence of the Delta variant only adds to this already strong concern for personal health.  

And why bother risking going back to work when you can live comfortably without a job? Herein lies the second potential reason for the labor shortage: unemployment benefits may have acted as disincentives. The American Staffing Association reported that some people made as much as $6 more per hour on unemployment insurance with pandemic bonuses. Due to these benefits, perhaps it makes sense that people don’t want to return to work. 

However, the problem is not that simple.

26 states withdrew federal unemployment benefits in June and July, months before the Sept. 6 due date. In a recent study, it was found that there was no meaningful difference in increases of shift work between states that ended benefits and states that continued benefits. In fact, states that ended the benefits only saw a 2.2% growth in shift work between May and July, as opposed to a 4.1% growth in states that continued benefits. Clearly, there are other, more personal factors keeping people from returning to work.

While unemployment benefits and pandemic fears are the most discussed causes, they might coincide with a longer-running trend. 

The United States has a rapidly aging population and in turn, a shrinking workforce. Many industries are affected by this trend, and the pandemic only served to exacerbate it. Older workers probably chose to retire early in the face of remote work. Others may have relocated to work remotely in an attempt to spend more time with their families. 

Whatever the reasoning may be, the fact remains that industries across the United States are struggling to attract young workers to replace retiring older workers. The healthcare industry knows this well, as they are facing a nursing shortage. The NCBI reports that 1 million RNs are over the age of 50 and that in 10 to 15 years, about one-third of the current nursing workforce is due to retire. Slightly alarming, right?

These staffing shortages impact a variety of markets, ranging from hospitality to healthcare. With a multitude of factors causing the shortages, it can be extremely difficult to address each problem directly. There are, however, a few simple techniques you can use in your scheduling system that may help. 

Solve the shortage with better scheduling 

One of the best ways to handle an understaffed workforce is to adopt more efficient scheduling techniques. With smarter scheduling, managers can get the most value out of their limited number of employees. As the old saying goes, “work smarter, not harder.”

1.) Use Labor Forecasting

Automated employee scheduling software exists now that makes the creation of schedules quite simple. Labor forecasting is perhaps the most impressive example of what this technology can do. It looks at historical sales data and other external factors, predicting how many employees are needed for certain shifts. Not only does this ensure proper staffing numbers but it also helps maximize productivity. Managers should use labor forecasting analytics during staffing shortages to accurately schedule their scarce employees at the right times to best meet predicted demand.

2.) Make Schedules in Advance

Tools like labor forecasting software help expedite the scheduling process; this allows managers to send schedules to employees far in advance. Doing this gives employees ample time to plan their personal lives accordingly. With a dedicated workforce management platform, these schedules are published in one place for everyone to see, no matter where they are. When faced with a staff shortage, publishing schedules early is extremely important because it ensures dedication to upcoming shifts. It also allows for early communication regarding potential conflicts – shift conflicts are often a nightmare to deal with last minute while shorthanded.  

3.) Increase Employee Engagement

Simply publishing schedules early isn’t always enough. Managers need to empower their employees with tools for communication. Shift swapping software lets workers signal via phone notifications if they need a shift covered; co-workers can then choose to claim a shift with the tap of a finger. Utilizing a shift-swapping tool lets employees adapt quickly and efficiently to schedule conflicts. 

Shift feedback is also critical for handling a short-staffed business. By allowing employees to briefly rate different aspects of their shifts, managers gain valuable insight into how their employees perform under certain conditions.

4.) Automate Breaks

With understaffing comes the risk of overworking. It is tempting for workers to skip breaks in order to keep up with demand; however, this can be disastrous for a manager trying to avoid labor compliance violations. With automated workforce management software, managers can input their own required fields for employee break times. These breaks then show up automatically in every schedule created. If an employee misses a break, starts it late, ends it early, etc., the manager will be notified. 

Errors in break times are very common in short-staffed environments, but by scheduling more efficiently with the proper software, these errors can easily be mitigated. 

5.) Cross-Train Employees

Finally, it is worth considering cross-training employees to perform multiple job roles. In a short-hand environment, it is always useful to have people on duty capable of performing a variety of tasks when needed. Cross-training makes scheduling much easier since the manager will almost always have people with the right qualifications on duty. 

Dealing with a staffing shortage is no easy task. The issue is something business owners in many industries have had to deal with forever, and there are really no definitive answers on how to solve it. However, utilizing more efficient scheduling techniques will nearly always help. Scheduling is one of the main things under the complete control of a manager, even in the face of a labor shortage.

Curious to learn more? Check out our webinar below featuring the founder of Grategy Coaching, Lisa Ryan.

Webinar: How to Schedule While Understaffed


Want to take immediate action? Innovative scheduling software like gives managers the necessary tools to start allocating labor more efficiently. 

Book a call with one of our team members to learn more, or try our software for free today. 

Gustav is a communications and product marketing specialist for He has a keen interest in frontline labor issues, pigeons, and fulfilling every level of Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs.

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