Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 20, Issue 52;   December 23, 2020:

Anticipating Absence: Internal Consulting

by

Most consultants are advisors from outside the organization. But when many employees are unavailable because of the Coronavirus pandemic, we need to find ways to access the knowledge that remains inside the organization. Internal consulting can help.
An empty subway car

An empty subway car. If the pandemic escalates for the next few months, this image could become a metaphor for the workplace.

The Coronavirus pandemic has already led to elevated levels of illness and other forms of unavailability. But for December 2020 to February 2021 — and beyond — experts are projecting even more extensive disruptions. It's reasonable to suppose that current organizational procedures for dealing with staff unavailability are incompatible with continuing operations. As I've discussed in recent posts, for organizations primarily engaged in knowledge work — "thinking for a living" — the problems associated with pandemic-induced unavailability can be especially severe.

A more general description of the staffing problem in the pandemic context is that we experience a lower and less predictable level of staff availability. In the pandemic context, progress on most projects will be slower than the rate originally projected before the pandemic. For two or more parallel projects that share some staff, lower and less predictable staff availability means that coordinating schedules also becomes more difficult. Because we can't share staff as effectively, the organization's total staff requirement rises. This leads to a cruel irony: just at the time when staff availability is dropping and becoming less predictable, the staff needed to accomplish a given task increases.

For many projects, suspending or deferring work until the pandemic eases is the best solution. But what if we can't suspend? What can we do to keep operating as best we can for as long as possible?

We can mitigate Many of those who are unavailable for
work are unavailable for reasons
that are compatible with the
role of internal consultant
the risk of having to sharply curtail or halt operations by deploying procedures that better enable those still available for work to solve the problems they encounter even though the people with the necessary knowledge are unavailable, or are available on a limited basis. To craft such procedures or to make adjustments to existing procedures, we must begin by understanding why these effects can be mitigated and why knowledge workers become unavailable in the pandemic context.

Why we can mitigate the effects of pandemic-induced unavailability

Two characteristics of pandemic-induced unavailability in knowledge-oriented organizations make mitigation strategies practical.

The contributions of internal consultants are high value and low effort
Mitigation is possible in knowledge-oriented organizations because what's needed from internal consultants is often very easy for them to provide. What's needed are bits of knowledge such as details about the state of the work in progress, the name of a person to contact, the name or location of a document, the answer to a yes-or-no question, or whether a particular approach to solving a problem has already been tried.
Many of the unavailable staff members are only minimally affected
A factor that enables the staff member to act as an internal consultant is the nature of the causes of unavailability. Some are unavailable because of severe illness. But as I explain in the next section, many of those who are unavailable are unavailable for reasons that are compatible with the role of internal consultant.

Why knowledge workers become unavailable in pandemics

Severe illness and death are reasons for staff unavailability that come to mind most readily, and they truly are debilitating. Absentees who are severely ill or even hospitalized are unlikely to be able to act as internal consultants. But others who are unavailable might be able and eager. Here's a little catalog of causes of unavailability that might leave the unavailable people able to act as internal consultants.

Reassigned to other work
In times of widespread staff unavailability, reassigning some individuals might be necessary for various reasons. For example, priorities can change because of the pandemic, and we therefore must reconfigure resources. Or new opportunities emerge, but because of staff unavailability we can't exploit those opportuities unless we reassign some people.
Reassignments inevitably leave behind some uncovered responsibilities. And management can sometimes be reluctant to hire replacements because of a belief or hope that when the pandemic begins to ease, the roster will fill rapidly as people return to work. Meanwhile the slots left behind remain unfilled.
Idle because one or more of their projects have been suspended
Some people who are healthy and whose family members are healthy find themselves with idle time because of suspension, cancellation, or delays of one or more of their projects. This can happen if a project has been so dramatically affected by staff unavailability that work cannot continue. It can also occur when a project depends on receiving deliverables from another project or an external supplier, and those deliverables are late.
Recovering from illness, but not quite ready for full-time work
Most of those who become ill with COVID-19 do recover. When recovery is rapid, those afflicted can return to work. But recovery can be slower and more gradual. In some cases, people can be well enough to take telephone calls occasionally, but not well enough to attend virtual meetings or to work even half days.
Caring for loved ones at home
Some of those who are unavailable are healthy themselves, but cannot work a full schedule because they are primary caregivers for family members at home. The employee's home responsibilities might include childcare, eldercare, home schooling support, shopping, family transportation services, medical errands, and more. These activities can consume significant amounts of time, and they can also render the employee's schedule too unpredictable for regular work.
Employers can increase the availability of people in this category by providing commercial services for some of the more commonplace tasks. For example, employers can provide commercial shopping and errand services and local transportation. Easing the burden in this way can make the employee more available for internal consulting.

Infrastructure to support internal consulting

What's needed is a reliable and current list of individuals who can respond to inquiries from colleagues. This set of internal consultants can include capable people still able to report for work, as well as any people unavailable for regular work but who are nevertheless able to act as internal consultants.

To make it possible for the able but not fully available to serve the organization as internal consultants, we need only adjust the already-existing procedures for what's customarily known as "calling in sick." The usual procedure is to notify one's assistant or supervisor of one's absence by phone, text, or email. Because almost anyone, including assistants and supervisors, is potentially absent, this system is unworkable when absence rates become elevated enough. There are too many potential points of failure, including every supervisor and every assistant.

To address this issue, establish a new internal digital publication, and a new role to support it.

A new internal publication: Available Internal Consultants
This publication, updated daily, is a list of people who are available for internal telephone consultation. In some cases, the publication also includes hours of availability, whether appointments are necessary, and information about the areas of specialty in which each internal consultant might be most helpful.
A new role: Available Internal Consultants editor
The Available Internal Consultants editor is the designated point of contact for internal consultant listings. This person receives status reports from everyone in the organization who is participating as an internal consultant, and updates the Available Internal Consultants directory. Tracking the status of the internal consultant publication editor is all that's required to ensure that reports are being received and handled. If the internal consultant publication editor falls ill or reports absent for any reason, a replacement takes over the role.

Last words

Before absentees can participate in an internal consulting program, several difficult policy issues must be resolved. If an absentee is on paid leave, does organizational policy permit the absentee to respond to inquiries from colleagues? Are there any liability issues associated with such activity? Does participation in the teleconsulting program, and listing the absentee in the Available Internal Consultants directory compromise the absentee's privacy? Resolving these issues does take effort. It is not free. But it might enable the organization to continue operations long enough and at a level high enough to limit serious effects of pandemic induced unavailability. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Anticipating Absence: Passings  Next Issue

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