Business Growth & Strategy

5 Keys to Managing Labor Costs in Times of Uncertainty

Businesses constantly struggle with capacity issues. Manufacturers seek access to the ideal manufacturing capacity, and service providers look to employ the optimum number of employees.  Both understand their labor spend is a key component of a company’s profit formula. So how is the entrepreneur to scale in an uncertain economy?

Those who had not experienced rapid market erosion previous to the liquidity crisis learned an important lesson; high fixed costs can be truly catastrophic when demand contracts quickly. Employers must marry labor costs with demand. There are several steps one can take to mitigate labor capacity risk:

Optimize Labor Efficiently– Most entrepreneurs intuitively understand that they should push low value activities down through (or out) of the organization.  Senior managers should aim for “zero administration”, where virtually all of their time is spent improving service or profitability, and not loading paper in the copier.  A good administrative assistant is worth their weight in gold. Similar thinking should apply to all; all work should be allocated to the appropriate staff based on their skill level, experience and cost.

Outsource Low Value Activities Based on Demand- The zeal for outsourcing is far from over. Organizations are not only seeking lower costs, they are looking to move resources outside their organization so that they can scale  their bandwidth quickly. Look for outsourcing partners who have infrastructure that can move, (in real time) with your business. Such organizations typically have an existing core competency in the services provided, including technology and human capital geared towards executing such work.

Increase Weighting of Incentives to Total Cash Compensation-Those who only provide subjective bonuses are actually doing themselves a disservice. Practically the entire Fortune 500 have moved to some type of performance based pay. Part of the rationale is to only pay out incentives when an organization reaches certain performance thresholds.  Failure to have a significant portion of cash compensation in incentives (20% or more) creates fixed costs and puts stress on a business and on employees. Fluctuations in demand require drastic action such as lay offs or furloughs.

Measure Labor Meticulously– Labor KPI’s are amongst the easiest predictive indicators to measure, and directly affect the bottom line. Examples include overtime, labor dollars per unit, direct labor, indirect labor and labor as a percentage of revenue.

Beware of External Demand Indicators– Within virtually every business segment there are external measures that provide context on future demand.  Add external indicators to your scorecard/dashboarding system so that you can stay in tune to the market place. Government websites, trade associations, and private research organizations offer a litany of statistics.  Plot such data  against company revenue to find which numbers correlate with business growth.


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About the Author: Marc Emmer

Marc Emmer is President of Optimize Inc., a management consulting firm specializing in strategic planning. Emmer is a sixteen-year Vistage member and a Vistage speaker. The release of his second book, “Momentum, Ho…

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