February 27, 2017

Six Steps for Managing Workflow During Unexpected Staff Departures

Madeleine Niebauer, Founder and CEO, vChief Virtual Chief of Staff Service

When an employee departs unexpectedly, a nonprofit organization needs to be able to quickly cover his or her key responsibilities and create a plan for filling the role. The steps outlined in this article can help you effectively manage workflow during this time of transition.

By: Madeleine Niebauer

Surprise! A key member of your staff tells you he or she is leaving to take another position. An announcement of this type can strike a blow to any nonprofit.

First, you and other team members may need to process the emotional aspects of losing someone unexpectedly. You might feel anger or disappointment that the person wasn't completely transparent about his or her unhappiness or about looking for other opportunities. Second, you're faced with the challenge to make sure the key aspects of the person's job get done until you can find a replacement. There can be huge ramifications if that doesn't happen. For example, a staff departure on a development team could put grant applications in limbo and slow the development pipeline.

In any role, there are key responsibilities that just must get done, so figuring out the path to making sure they are is critical. The following steps can help you effectively manage workflow during an unexpected staff departure:

1. Capture knowledge. Have the departing employee map out his or her tasks, from large projects to day-to-day responsibilities. Ask the staff member, in partnership with other team members, to create a plan to cover these tasks in his or her absence. Establish which duties the departing employee will finish before he or she leaves. Obtain key contacts for ongoing projects as well as any upcoming deadlines. Ask other employees to shadow the departing employee as he or she completes day-to-day work; this will help ensure you are documenting duties, as well as any unique knowledge the employee has developed of which others might not be aware.

2. Prioritize key tasks. Determine which of the departing employee's tasks are mission critical to your organization and which ones can be put on hold until another person(s) takes ownership. Compare these tasks of greatest importance with the other priorities and responsibilities of your team to help determine if work can be divided among existing employees or if additional interim help is required.

3. Work with the existing team. Be honest with other employees about what kind of impact this will have on your organization—and on their workload. Now might also be a good time to reconfigure your existing team. Are there individuals you might want to test out with a new role? Make sure existing staff feel supported, not overwhelmed. Help them prioritize work as needed.

4. Review the job description and post the job ASAP. Transitions are a good time to make sure the job is scoped accordingly and that the job description is correct. Reflect on the position and whether the description needs to be revised to include new responsibilities. Use the information you've gathered from the departing employee and existing staff—along with the previous job description. Also consider asking the exiting employee for his or her thoughts on education or experience that may be particularly useful in finding a replacement. The outgoing employee may also know of someone—either internally or externally—who would make a good candidate for the position.

5. Manage your relationship with the departing employee. Remember not to take your employee's departure personally. Congratulate him or her on the new opportunity and thank him or her for his or her service to your company. Establish a protocol for contacting him or her should questions arrive after the last day of work. Keep the lines of professional communication open—this person may one day return to your company and/or become a good source of leads for other opportunities.

6. Consider interim help. If the departing employee's duties cannot be managed or are too much to handle for the remaining team, you may want to consider some interim help to keep workflow on track. One great source for interim help is your own network, particularly former employees that may have done this work in the past. But if this option isn't a viable one for you, there are services that provide qualified, high-level interim support in key areas such as management, operations, strategy, and communications.

With a careful balance of clear communication, mindful delegation, and additional support, you can help ensure an unexpected staff departure doesn't throw your team's workflow off track.

Madeleine Niebauer is a Bridgespan alumna and the founder and CEO of vChief Virtual Chief of Staff Service. Her organization provides part-time and interim support to executives in the nonprofit and private sectors.

This article was adapted and reprinted with permission of the author. It was originally published on the vChief website.

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