To scale (up) or not to scale: how to build teams for the future

How to find the balance between hiring and firing when strategizing for the new business “normal”.


While the economy is slowly recovering from the devastation wrought by COVID-19, a recent surge in employment numbers reflects an important question businesses have to answer as they prepare for 2021 – how do they scale teams to meet new business goals?

We recently sat with Esther Colman, Director of The HR Dept Eastern Suburbs Sydney and expert on people management, to discuss the need to find a balance between rapid growth and downsizing, and ways to build sustainable long term strategies in an unstable and changing environment.

Esther Colman, Director of The HR Dept

Esther Colman, Director of The HR Dept

But first, let’s see how we got to this point.

Why the confusion?

2020 has largely been a domino chain reaction of unpredictability and disruption, and as a result, we have been faced with unexpected global economic upheaval. Canada alone saw a loss of almost 2 million jobs in the month of April. The full onset of the pandemic then saw the unemployment rate soar to 13%, numbers not seen since the 2008 recession.

But all is not doom and gloom.

The focused efforts to restart the Canadian economy in September appear to have paid off. Over the last several months, Canada has managed to recoup over 55% of the losses sustained in the initial months of the pandemic, with over 418,000 jobs added to the economy in July alone.

At the height of the pandemic, several industries were forced to significantly downsize their existing teams and enforce severe austerity measures in order to survive. The current upturn of the economy has carried certain industries out of the immediate fire, allowing them to exit reactionary planning, and return their focus to the future.

Naturally, certain businesses now find themselves having to rapidly scale up to return to pre-pandemic levels of output, while others look to new strategies to compensate for smaller teams and revised business goals.

As we proceed into the final fiscal quarter for most industries, leaders looking to build sustainable and strong long-term strategies will have to start by successfully organizing their people.

So how do leaders find the balance between hiring and firing in an uncertain economy?

“Planning is the key and it’s been pretty difficult because the pace of change has been so fast,” said Esther.

“But you have to plan to figure out where you are going to be, you can’t have a knee-jerk reaction. With any business small or large, now is the time to look at your business strategy and ask yourself if you need to tweak it.”

In order to look towards the future, leaders should start by asking themselves a series of questions which can then be used to lay the building blocks to their 2021 roadmap.

Where am I now?

Before you can map your future, it is important to first assess where you’re starting from.

While certain industries, like hospitality or travel, are still struggling to keep their heads above water, other sectors like education or gaming tech have been thriving through the pandemic.

Taking stock of your starting point can give you a lot of clarity on the easiest path forward. At this stage, leaders should be asking questions like:

  • Is our current/pre-pandemic business plan still working?

  • Is there a need for significant change? Do we maintain our current trajectory?

  • Are we able to make the transition from reactive to proactive planning?

  • Are our teams currently optimized to handle immediate and future workloads?

  • Do we currently have the talent to support our roadmap?

Answers to these questions will naturally lead you to the next stage of building your roadmap.

Where do I want to go?

Depending on your responses to the previous question, businesses will likely fall into three categories :

  1. Need to scale up

Businesses that were forced to significantly downsize both in size and productivity over the last few months, may now lack the manpower to return to pre-pandemic levels of output. Recovering industries may look to repopulate their team and rapidly scale operations in order to make up for lost revenue.

It is essential to ensure that your teams are, in fact, scalable before moving forward. Employees who make it through large-scale layoffs are often then compelled to take over the roles and responsibilities of their “fallen” friends and coworkers. A significant increase in workload at an already stressful time can often leave employees increasingly overwhelmed, anxious and highly susceptible to burnout, Esther says.

Survivor syndrome can be a reality for a lot of these employees and this could be a culture killer. You can’t have a massive layoff and return to normal. For many employees that are left it is not business as usual. They could be feeling completely overwhelmed, they could be missing their colleagues, they may have to do more than one job – there could be a complete lack of role clarity. These things need to be accounted for in your retention strategy.

When setting business goals and performance expectations, it is therefore important to identify when you simply need more people to get a job done right.

Businesses that are most likely to be faced with a need to rapidly scale teams, are probably going to be either those that are looking to return to their pre-pandemic “normal” output or belong to industries that have been booming in the past several months.

  1. Need to maintain current headcount

In other cases, however, businesses may find that increasing headcount is not an option, either because growth is no longer scalable for their team, or because it is no longer necessary. The first category includes businesses that are still exiting austerity measures and must therefore be cautious with the expenditure of their resources, while the latter category involves businesses that have turned to alternate avenues to make up for a drop in available resources and manpower, for example using technology to automate certain job functions.

Businesses that have significantly pivoted from their prior strategic roadmaps for 2020, and leaned into the change, are less likely to be rushing towards a “return to normal”, and more likely to center their strategies on building outward from where they now find themselves.

Want an easy way to see what your current headcount or FTE is with the ability to cross filter by team, leave status, gender and so much more? Check out intelliHR’s headcount report.

  1. Need to scale down

Lastly, leaders developing new business roadmaps may be forced to take a hard look at potential redundancies in their current organization. It is important to recognize that while the economy is showing signs of improvement, the pandemic is yet to come to a full stop. Certain roles and responsibilities that were relevant in the pre-covid workplace may now be unnecessary in an increasingly remote workforce. Leaders may be faced with the hard decision of letting go more employees in order to create a sustainable future-focused strategy.

It’s a real risk that certain jobs, like office managers or other admin roles, are going to disappear over time, as people are going to have increasingly less face-to-face time in the workplace. Companies are likely to turn to technology to automate these processes.

In this case, leaders must consider how to downsize their business with the least negative impact on their people, whilst also retaining essential talent within their organization.

How do I get there?

Upon identifying where they want to go, it is then time for leaders to figure out the best path to success. According to Esther, this is the time to consult your experts on everything from how to keep your team safe, to how to best utilize the talent within your business.

These are three possible pathways to success available for leadership:

  1. Scaling up

The biggest boon to growing your teams at the moment is the availability of talent. In addition to a growing pool of people actively looking for new roles, the recent pivot to remote work has opened up a global market for diverse talent that exist before. HR leaders now have access to incredibly diverse talent, including people with disabilities who are now able to enter a larger talent pool. With more companies investing in processes such as remote recruitment and onboarding, there may be a permanent increase in the number of people choosing to work remotely in the future.

Leadership also has the option to call back talent they were forced to let go of, which not only mitigates the time and resources spent in training and ramping new talent, but also helps preserve the company culture and reassure employees about their position within the organization.

Here’s a simple list of tasks to help organize your next steps!

HR to do list

  • Invest in your remote recruiting and onboarding tools.

  • Build a centralized process that your teams can rely on.

  • Ensure that remote onboarding is inclusive and includes measures to stay connected.

  • Invest in safe team building activities that can help foster company culture. (For example, virtual game nights are currently a big hit!)

  1. Upskilling

Increasing headcount is not the only way businesses are able to scale operations. Businesses choosing to move forward with existing team structures may want to consider using this time to upskill their leaders and employees in order to best utilize the talent available to them. By reassessing existing roles within the organization, it is possible to rewrite the job descriptions for certain positions, and then provide the necessary training and resources in order to best equip your existing team to achieve operational goals. This allows you to scale your businesses over time without growing your headcount.

HR to do list:

  • Run internal assessments to determine what roles are essential and whether there is in-house talent to fill existing gaps in a sustainable way.

  • Invest in training to upskill leaders – especially in relevant areas such as remote management.

  • Invest in training to upskill your employees to better equip them to fill gaps left by lay-offs or new business practices.

  • Invest in technology that will support your people, and automate unnecessary processes that are blockers to productivity.

Need to know what skills you have in your business and want to be able to identify where the gaps are? Check out intelliHR’s skills report.

  1. Scaling down

While leaders have to make hard decisions when downsizing the business, it is important to go about it in a manner that preserves a sense of respect and value for the people being let go from the business, Esther says.

People have long memories when it comes to being treated badly, or if they have seen their coworkers treated badly. It can cause permanent, long-term damage to the culture and reputation of a business. It is very important to have a process when doing layoffs, and it doesn’t cost a lot to do this well.

HR to do list

  • Have a dedicated exit plan that provides an employee with as much control as possible over their departure from a role.

  • Conduct and analyse data from exit interviews.

  • Have some support measures in place to help guide people into possible next steps for them. For example: have an outplacement program that helps them get new roles.

  • Provide as much clarity as possible on the nature of their departure.

  • Consider other downsizing measures, such as moving certain roles to part time or contract work, in order to preserve the talent in your company.

  • Give your “surviving” employees time to process the change, and keep lines of communication open to ensure transparency and prevent misinformation.

How do I do all of this successfully?

The key to building a successful strategic roadmap for the future is communication.

With constant external uncertainty and instability, it is important now more than ever to keep lines of communication open between leadership and their people.

Just by talking to your teams and your experts – finding out what insights they have, how they’re feeling and if they need any support – you can get a 360-degree view of where your business is currently, where you need to be, what you need to do to get there, and whether or not that involves scaling your teams up or down.

Only through communication, will you be able to diagnose problems and get an understanding of whether achieving a certain business goal will require more people or could be solved another way – like with better tools.

In addition to communication, however, transparency is also essential to maintain trust in leadership and mitigate fear and misinformation within an organization, Esther said.

Fear is going to be a reality. We as human beings, in times of immense change, are going to be fearful. Open, honest communication is going to be key. Even saying ‘we don’t know at the moment’ can give clarity. You can’t always give certainty, but you can give people clarity.

Keen to know more about scaling teams? Watch our recent webinar on the topic Balancing the Scales with Esther Colman, Director of The HR Dept Eastern Suburbs Sydney or get in touch with our team to see how intelliHR can support your business into the future.