Posted by: Bill von Achen | September 24, 2010

Leveraging Employee Talent During Slow Periods

Even the most carefully staffed companies go through times when the volume of available work is less than the capacity of the available staff.  This can be especially true in professional consulting firms where it’s tough to plan work flow in a way that precisely matches the talent that you have on the bench.

But there are ways to leverage your highly compensated but underutilized professional staff during slow periods.  One of the most imaginative approaches that I’ve come across lately is called a “job jar,” an actual large, glass jar into which management and staff place slips of paper representing the understaffed projects that need to get done, as well as all of the “nice to do” and “someday, maybe” tasks that no one ever gets around to doing as long as there’s billable work available. 

Jobs from the job jar are not assigned to anyone.  Instead, staff members who have extra time available can pick any job from the jar that they’d like to tackle (which ensures that their motivation for completing the task remains high).  Once they’ve selected a job from the job jar, they get the additional information that they need from the project owner identified on the slip of paper, and negotiate the completion date and any other relevant terms.   

One client uses his company’s job jar to entice otherwise reluctant consultants to follow-up on sales leads.  (It’s apparently less intimidating for a non-salesperson to call one prospective client than to work his or her way down a long list.)  Another client uses the job jar to entice professional staffers to take on an internal planning project, or to conduct some simple market research on the web. 

There are some web-based tools available that can be used to create a virtual job jar, but I like the physical presence and immediacy of using an actual jar, since a big glass jar is harder to ignore than a list hidden away on a computer.  It’s also a bit reminiscent of the cookie jar that your mother probably kept in the kitchen, and such positive associations may help to motivate even the most reluctant staffer to participate.

Have you used a job jar at your company to keep otherwise underworked employees busy and engaged.  If so, how does your job jar process work?  If you haven’t used a job jar, what other techniques have you used to keep employees busy during slow periods?  Share your comments and ideas with us here.  Thanks!

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