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Doing more with less, avoiding shoddy work and burned-out staff

Do more with less. That's the maxim in business today as executives and employees are pressed to work harder and faster as resources, from staffing levels to marketing and training budgets, are pared.

Multitasking is common, with many managers returning e-mails and checking cell phone messages while attempting to participate at company meetings. So are around-the-clock schedules, as those who want to get ahead have to make themselves available to global customers, bosses and subordinates.

This constant effort to keep up, however, can result in sloppy or less thoughtful work, as well as overworked and alienated employees. The challenge is doing more with less while maintaining, even improving, work quality and staff motivation.

Debbie DeGabrielle, vice president of corporate marketing at WRQ, a Seattle integration-software company, faced that challenge last year. Her 50-person staff was cut to 22 at the same time she was asked to expand the company's brand. Among other critical employees, DeGabrielle lost her director of brand strategy and creative director.

She responded by getting others outside her department, especially software developers and salespeople, to help shoulder the load.

She and several subordinates also traveled to Amsterdam, Stockholm and a half-dozen other European cities, to meet with partners who distribute WRQ's software and to solicit ideas. Within a few months, she had received 180 suggestions, and her department began highlighting the best of these on a company intranet site "so contributors got exposure and recognition," she says. They also started an online company store offering branded merchandise.

What's more, they built a brand toolbox so sales staff and executives who make presentations could download the company's logo, descriptions of products and a PowerPoint template, DeGabrielle says. That saved costs previously spent for graphic designers and others to create brochures and other marketing material.

In the past year, WRQ's marketing budget has been cut in half with savings deployed for more sales staff in business units, she says. "Yet, we're doing more and better work today than before, and getting people to focus on things they can do that are fun and interesting, rather than on the fact that we're in a downturn and our department staff has been cut," she says.

Her biggest challenge is making sure her staff stays energized but not frazzled. After her staff worked nonstop for 10 days preparing for a company meeting, she told them to take a mental health holiday for a day. "You have to make sure you don't push so hard that you burn out," she says.

John Seiple, president and chief operating officer of North American operations at ProLogis, a Denver distribution-facilities company, tries to stay focused on work that helps boost the bottom line. That means keeping paperwork to a minimum to free up time for customers.

ProLogis has 40 percent more distribution facilities than four years ago, yet employs 5 percent fewer people, about 500 employees. It's also offering customers a broader array of services, from helping them decide how many warehouses they need to locating real estate sites and designing and building the warehouses.

"Ten years ago we just provided the warehouse," Seiple says. His company took advantage of the downsizing at other businesses, picking up the slack where internal real estate and logistics departments were cut.

To help managers do more work with less staff, Seiple's staff streamlined work processes such as the company's accounts-payable system. He discourages multitasking as nonproductive. He insists cell phones and BlackBerrys are turned off during meetings. "It's so we can all focus and get through our agenda in 15 or 30 minutes instead of an hour," he says.

He checks his e-mails early in the morning and late at night after his children go to sleep so he doesn't spend his workday in front of a computer screen. "I want to make sure we're using technology rather than have technology use us," he says. He asks managers to spend at least half their time conferring with customers.

Seiple thinks it's important for executives to master how to compartmentalize tasks. "When a customer presents you with a new opportunity, you give that your total focus and stop thinking about the problem you were tackling 10 minutes before," he says.

Staying focused in the moment requires discipline and some tricks. Whenever someone comes into his office to chat, Seiple moves to another chair. "That way I'm reminding myself that I'm starting a new conversation," he says.

Other executives say bigger workloads mean putting tasks in priority. At Synygy, a Conshohocken, Pa., software company, Mike Lieberman, vice president of marketing, meets with his eight direct reports each morning to decide the day's agenda.

"We had been operating helter-skelter and became very reactive rather than proactive," he says. "Now we're trying to think ahead."