In the workplaces I’ve observed across the world, I’ve discovered time and time again: long-time employees hate being questioned about what they do. On the flip side, managers from South Australia to San Francisco have taken me aside and confessed: “I hate writing job descriptions and can't keep them up to date.”
Given the roadblocks these writeups represent, how can companies new and old chart a healthy course for growth? How can teams engage in productive conversations, regularly, about what strategic activities should be done and by whom? Most of all, when does this volatile job description dynamic present the greatest risk of boiling over into full-fledged organizational chaos? As the CEO of Functionly these are precisely the questions I help companies answer.
I’m excited to explore them through a multifamily lens, helping operators understand just how a hiring spree can go wrong — and why leveraging job functions can pave the way for high performance and a positive culture. Let’s get started.
In multifamily organizations, Functionly has many times observed a growth path that can prove quite slippery. First, a company starts with one property and a small team. Then, as it experiences growth and leaders are thinking of adding assets, contemplating the structure of their actual organization starts to shift toward the backburner.
It makes perfect sense that as a multifamily company buys more properties, its internal needs increase, forcing organizational structure to shift in some way. However, it’s at this point that most organizations hire in a reactive way. Lacking a sound organizational strategy, they hire impulsively more often than not because someone burst into the CEO’s office and asked for more headcount to solve an urgent need in their team.
“As a multifamily company experiences growth, contemplating the structure of their actual organization starts to shift toward the backburner.”
At this point, the typical multifamily company thinks about designing a job description only because it’s hiring. Yet, this is exactly when the organization should be pausing to soul-search, to decide what it wants to be structurally rather than reactively follow the add-more-people model. Here’s when and why things start to fall apart as a result.
For companies carrying out this kind of relentless hiring mission, Functionly has found that the sidewalk starts to crack right around 30 employees. The trouble begins because there are suddenly three structural responsibilities — job, team, and organizational design — to consider.
The middle manager is responsible for team and job design, while the top-level leadership should be designing the whole organization. Unfortunately, in an environment where roles have been filled rapidly, it’s usually the case that no one can be knowledgeable enough to see all three of those layers clearly. Nobody has the right visibility, insight or control of the entire organization anymore.
Who suffers the most in this circumstance? Interestingly, it’s the CEO. At this 30-person mark, Functionly finds that an unreasonable amount of people are reporting directly to the CEO, which limits communication significantly. Not surprisingly, c-suite leaders simultaneously start to lose sight of just what people do on various teams. I walk with CEOs down the hallways of their organizations all the time and they’ll say something like: “John’s a great guy but...I’m not exactly sure what he does here.”
If that weren’t enough of a red flag, one of the worst scenarios I see around this 30-employee turning point is when one person has started looking after a responsibility that shouldn’t be theirs. It’s typically the kind of function people didn’t know about or forgot about. Yet, the need for it to be performed grows and grows. Eventually, there’s a critical failure with this work area and the CEO asks: “why did it break and who is responsible?!” To this, the indignant employee responds along these lines: “Wait, I do 20 things here, and now you say my whole value comes down to this one thing that I shouldn’t even be doing?”
Unfortunately, the downsides of a hiring spree don’t stop there. Let’s turn to the profound financial and social costs that companies bear if they don’t employ a thoughtful work design strategy from the start.
In this precarious phase, as CEOs are fighting all kinds of fires and losing sight of why they’ve approved hiring people, a fall is inevitable. How does it take shape? Maybe 10+ people, hired in a flurry, are suddenly fired nine months later — after leadership has finally realized they needed different types of resources. Here’s why that’s so damaging.
On a purely financial level, it’s a steep cost to the company when you consider the revenue lost during onboarding. It generally takes three to nine months for a person to truly add value to a company. After all, they have to learn new systems, develop cross-team collaborations, etc. Should leadership decide their positions are irrelevant just as these new employees are picking up speed, the company robs them of a chance to add much to the bottom line.
“In this precarious phase, as CEOs are fighting all kinds of fires and losing sight of why they’ve approved hiring people, a fall is inevitable.”
The second major impact of faulty hiring entails significant personal consequences for the employees let go in the shuffle. Sometimes people attribute a significant part of their self-worth to the work they do. Maybe they were forced to leave a place they loved — to lose friends, intellectual stimulation, and, most importantly, a steady income. Ultimately, they’re left with just a nine-month stint on their resume that must be explained — through no fault of their own — to future employers.
Lastly, all the team members still there are impacted, trust is eroded, work is wasted and the shock waves to culture will continue to ripple through the organization for years to come.
To spare everyone this kind of outcome, companies can work consciously to align functions with people from the very beginning. Functionly believes you sometimes have to “break it (down) before you make it.” If your company’s pain points have grown too painful to tolerate: i.e. missed opportunity cost, sluggish speed to property acquisition, or crippling team misalignment, it’s time to decide what functions needed to be invested in. Simply deciding “add more people” or “let's draw an org chart” should never be the first call.
The triggering events can also span beyond hiring; perhaps someone has left or changed a position. Perhaps work has been redistributed among teams. No matter the cause, Functionly believes there’s a powerful opportunity to course correct when you rethink the design of your job descriptions, teams, and overall organizational structure.
The end goal? Seamless alignment of organizational functions with the people who carry them out. At the heart of this arrangement, employees reap the benefits of working on assignments that truly bring them the most energy. So, how do companies — multifamily or otherwise — get there? First, leadership needs to accept a sobering truth about org charts: they’re ineffective.
There’s no denying that classic organizational charts have a certain magnetism. Give them just a quick glance and you feel comforted by the sense of order they seem to convey. Like an apple, we know well an org chart’s taste and function. If you break it open, however, it’s water. Then, atoms. This atom level presents a profound opportunity to look at and understand work in a new way.
By creating a sort of periodic table of the elements of work that link critical job functions with strategic goals, companies have the best odds of thriving operationally. When leaders leverage a dynamic, incremental approach and truly align strategic mission with job responsibilities, they can empower staff to rally behind a unified vision. With a clear sense of what needs to get done and why, employees can feel proud of the piece they contribute to the greater puzzle.
Yet, when companies follow a classic org chart model, hiring managers who sense a gap in operations typically just look up job descriptions online and smash bullet points together. They think: “what job title am I missing right now?” Instead, what they should be thinking is: “what kind of functions am I missing, can i optimize the team structure and how will this new role relate to strategic goals?” The next question becomes: “are there already internal people who would prefer to do those functions?”
It’s critical that multifamily leaders pose these questions before hiring externally for needs they could fulfill perfectly well with internal staff. After all, the worst thing you can do to a long-time employee is hire someone new who loves the same things they love but haven’t gotten a chance to try.
When people are robbed of the chance to bring their whole selves to work, to do work that truly brings them energy, they lose a sense of loyalty to their company. With stakes this high, how do you find out what makes employees tick? In a word: ask.
For a given role, Functionly has found there are typically three sides to the story: what a person thinks they do, what a manager says they do, and what they were originally hired to do. Needless to say, the best managers make clear from the start what a person’s responsibilities are, allowing for a reasonable window of flexibility all the while.
To ensure a healthy path toward growth, however, the relevant questions to ask are: which activities give employees the most energy, a sense of intellectual stimulation? If you optimize these areas for an employee, he or she has the greatest odds of thriving in the role at hand. Luckily, gauging this information is as simple as asking: “how invigorated do you feel, from one to seven, about this area of your work?” If the answer is nearing seven, you should follow up with: “how developed is your expertise in this area?”
“To ensure a healthy path toward growth...the relevant questions to ask are: which activities give employees the most energy, a sense of intellectual stimulation?”
In so doing, multifamily companies can align critical functions with people’s genuine strengths and motivations. Ultimately, this plants the seed for a frictionless way to track responsibility. Indeed, once a multifamily company’s leaders and supervisors have assessed what gives internal employees the most energy, they’re in a prime position to craft a thoughtful organizational structure and, where necessary, a conscientious hiring strategy.
Above all, by asking straightforward questions surrounding job functions, multifamily companies can help de-personalize conversations about work responsibilities. People are spared feeling personally targeted when they discuss “job functions”, “motivation”, and “energy” rather than their “performance” or “position description.” These exchanges may always feel high-stakes, but leveraging a function-based framework can do wonders to reduce the emotional weight involved. As it’s so rewarding to see what’s possible when these discussions are done right, I’ll share some highlights.
When a company can successfully align critical functions with employee strengths, the CEO is one of the first people to reap the benefits. Instead of navigating needs and requests from all sides, this top leader can suddenly enjoy work like the days when the team boasted just 12 people.
With tough conversations under their belts, middle management can suddenly start to feel a lot more confident about work design strategy and team balance. Finally, direct reports become aware of just how important their efforts are to the overall mission, a major boost toward company loyalty.
Ultimately, employees on every level of the company are able to feel something powerful (and, frankly, something unusual): that they can bring their whole selves to work, feel safe and thrive as a result. All of these atom-level functions come together, and there’s at long last a clear sense of what people should be doing — and why it matters.