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How to cope when you’re suddenly under staffed on a shift

Posted by Mackensie Freedman on Aug 20, 2020 4:51:28 PM

Working with a skeleton crew is a pretty common occurrence in hospitality – especially in smaller businesses, where even one person’s unexpected sick day can temporarily cripple a team. Unfortunately, given what’s happening across the world right now, we're having to learn to expect the unexpected even more than usual. 

Finding yourself suddenly understaffed for a shift can be stressful, but it doesn't have to make your team and your workplace any less productive or positive. In this easy guide, a former hospitality manager explains how.


It's important to put together an action plan. Many businesses are doing this already by implementing more thorough staff training, consolidating supply chains, and utilizing a more aggressive online strategy for maximum impact.

But there’s an essential piece of the puzzle that can be easily overlooked – what to do on the day, in the moment, if you find yourself understaffed and stressed out.

In hospitality, a great team kind of works like a single body: each limb can and should work independently, and brings something uniquely useful to the table, but suddenly trying to function as normal without a leg is always going to be difficult – and if you’re not prepared for it, you’re likely to fall over.

Luckily, there are ways you can adjust your strategy to keep everyone smiling, customers and team members alike.

And remember: whatever your plan looks like, be sure it's always communicated clearly to the rest of the team.


1. Understand what role needs filling

Everyone in your staff should have a specific role they play in helping the team run efficiently. That means when someone has to call in, you should have a really clear idea of exactly what their contribution would normally look like, and what you need to do to make sure their absence doesn’t leave a gaping hole in service or efficiency.

The next thing to do is make sure you have a clear idea of everyone’s skill set on staff. Who can jump in where, when necessary? This is why it’s so important to encourage everyone on staff to constantly upskill – you need to be sure that everyone on the team is skilled in a variety of areas, so they can effectively work together and help each other out where necessary.

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2. Be flexible and reassess sections

Unless you’re an exceptionally small venue, you probably section out the workspace and responsibilities to ensure focus and quality service. When you’re down a person – particularly a member of your floor staff, but this also goes for bar or kitchen staff – you need to reassess how those sections will run.

This is pretty self-explanatory: if you have four sections and four staff members, that’s great, but covering four sections between three staff members creates a focus problem.

The most important thing to remember is that every role is valuable, so you can’t just shuffle team members around and substitute one gap for another. Be flexible, and encourage the rest of the team to be flexible as well. View it as a group challenge, rather than competitive jockeying.


3. Assign leaders at different levels to triage issues and share the load

A clear hierarchy in a hospitality environment is always important for a successful team, but especially so when you’re down a team member. If you find yourself in a situation where managerial staff are likely to get swamped, being spread too thin or racing to put out fires (hopefully not literally), you need an extra layer of hierarchy so that issues can be split and triaged effectively.

In a larger venue where you have a single floor manager and several wait staff, this might look like a team leader assigned to each section to deal with lower-grade issues as they arise. In a smaller venue, like a neighborhood coffee shop with only a few FOH staff, you might assign certain types of issues to each team member according to seniority or experience.

Doing this means you can avoid overwhelming managerial staff with smaller problems that could really be handled by another team member.


4. Stay on top of the team's basic needs and breaks

This is a biggie. When it’s incredibly busy, the first thing to get overlooked is often the team’s basic needs – we’re talking hydration, hunger, bathroom breaks, and rest. And while it’s easy to get caught up in a rush and suddenly realize you haven’t had any water in five hours, this is a recipe for disaster.

Sapped energy, low mood, and being overly tired will all contribute to more mistakes being made, which inevitably build on each other until the team is completely worn down and things have gone very awry.

Even if you only have time to allocate everyone 2 minutes to drink some water and sit in peace, it makes a world of difference to productivity – and everyone gets to end the day smiling.


5. Positive vibes only

On that note, we cannot overstate the importance of good vibes during a crazy shift. If you’re understaffed, everyone’s in the same boat: they’re stressed, trying to do a million things at once, and getting exhausted working to top speed. It’s very easy for one person’s anxious or negative energy to bring the rest of the team down – so you just can’t allow space for it.

Encourage other staff members to step in and help each other out if things are getting out of control. If someone’s looking anxious, upset, or angry, give them a brief time out.

It’s counter-intuitive to give someone a break in the middle of a big rush, but for the minute or two you lose while they get themselves together, you gain potentially hours of clear thinking, good service, and efficiency.

Most importantly: if things go wrong, mid-shift is not the time to voice frustration. It only undermines everyone’s confidence and makes the day that much harder.

In the moment, gently and politely redirect someone who’s making a mistake. That’s usually more than enough to resolve the issue.


Above all, lean into the chaos. These kinds of days are part of what makes hospitality such an exciting, interesting industry - with the adrenaline pumping and a smile on, you feel like you could conquer the world. 

Accept that things might go wrong, or slip through the cracks. You can't do better than your best, so you might as well have fun while you're at it.


Have a question about hotel management or hospitality training? We’re always ready to talk.

You might also like:


6 habits of highly effective hospitality managers


How to create and maintain good workplace culture


Reopening strategies: how to manage guest expectations


Topics: Hotels, Hospitality managers, Hospitality staff, Restaurants, Hospitality training, Bars, COVID-19