When an employee steps out of their role for some reason, but their job still needs to be done, sometimes companies will backfill the position. This means that they will hire someone for a temporary period of time until the original employee is able to return to their role.
This happens regularly on project teams where a subject matter expert is seconded to a project role on a full or part-time basis. Their day job still needs to be done, so their manager may backfill the job with another person.
Backfilling can be tricky, but with our guide, you’ll know everything you need to in order to successfully fill the gaps in your team and budget for project resources.
What is backfilling a position?
The term “backfilling” is used to describe the process of filling a position that has been vacated, normally on a temporary basis and often because the person has been moved to do another role.
It’s very common on large projects because these need a dedicated resource. A subject matter expert might be moved into a project team if they are needed for more than a few hours a week. If they can’t fit their project commitments around their day job, they might need some ring-fenced time.
For example, on one of my projects, we seconded a couple of radiology managers out of their hospital, front-line jobs to help set up and implement a new radiology system. We needed their expertise every day, and they led large portions of the implementation to help their peers get to grips with the new system.
They were backfilled in their hospitals by their deputies, experienced colleagues, or temporary contract resources.
Why would you need to backfill a role?
There are lots of reasons why you might need to backfill a role, including:
- A key resource is out of the business for a while due to planned absence such as maternity leave. You’d backfill the post with someone else while she was off.
- A key resource is asked to commit some or all of their week to another initiative like a project. You’d backfill their day job.
- Someone goes on secondment or sabbatical and leaves a gap in the team that would need to be backfilled.
- Someone is asked to leave the business, and while a permanent replacement is found, another person backfills the role so their responsibilities can be met.
3 Different ways to backfill a position
When a team member leaves their position, whether it’s voluntarily or involuntarily, their employer must then decide how to fill the void that’s been left behind.
The options to do that are typically:
- Promote from within
- Hire someone externally (a contractor)
- Replace the role with a mixture of both internal and contract resources.
There are a few different ways to go about this, but the most common is to simply promote someone from within the company to step up into the job on a temporary basis. This is a great way to backfill a position because it is less expensive, and the person is already familiar with the company.
Their manager gets to see them operate at a different level, and it can be a stepping stone to a permanent promotion.
Another option is to hire someone from outside the company to come in and take over the role, again, often on a temp or fixed-term contract. This can be a great way to get fresh talent and perspective into the company. However, it can also be more expensive, and there is a risk that the person may not be a good fit for the company.
When the original employee is available again, the temp resources will be let go or moved into different positions.
Finally, there are times when a company will choose to do a combination of both. Whether that works or not depends on what the role was and how responsibilities can be split. It might be possible to redeploy some of the responsibilities to a colleague and then get a temporary, part-time contractor in to fill the rest of the role.
If you take the time to consider all of your options, you should be able to find the best way to backfill the position and keep each team, the project, and the wider company running smoothly.
No matter what route an employer decides to take, the goal is always the same:
To fill the position in a way that is best for the company and its employees.
Backfill vs replacement: which is right?
Typically, you would only backfill a temporary gap, for example, when someone is on maternity leave or they have been seconded to a different team.
You aren’t replacing theme permanently as they’ll come back. Therefore HR rules would say it’s not appropriate to replace them permanently as that would mean they would not have a job to come back to.
In layman’s terms, you are replacing them, as they aren’t there in their job anymore. But technically, it’s not a replacement, it’s just a patch over the hole of their absence to keep things going until they come back.
Considerations for backfilling a post
There are a few different factors that employers must consider when backfilling a position.
The first is to decide what the job will entail. This includes looking at the duties of the position and the skills required to perform them.
Once this has been determined, the next step is to identify the best candidate for the job. This is where the decision of whether to promote from within or hire from outside the company comes into play.
If the company decides to promote someone from within, the next step is to identify who that person will be. This is usually done by looking at colleagues who are best suited for the job and who have the necessary skills.
Once the decision has been made, the company will then provide the employee with the necessary training to perform their new duties. If the company decides to hire someone from outside the company, the next step is to identify the best candidate for the job.
This is usually done by conducting a search of the job market and interviewing a number of potential candidates. Once the decision has been made, the company will then provide the employee with the necessary training to perform their new duties.
In either situation, the original employee is often around to help with the transition and handover, especially if they have been seconded full-time to a project. When they have handed over their work, they can focus on their role in the project.
Why you should budget for backfill resources in your project budgets
Does your project budget include funding for backfill? If not, I’d recommend adding it in if your project relies on subject matter experts giving up their time.
There are a few reasons why you might need to budget for a backfill resource in your project budgets, including:
1. If someone on your team leaves, you will need to replace them in order to keep the project on track. That might incur a cost.
2. If someone on your team is not able to perform their duties, you may need to hire a replacement in order to keep the project on schedule.
3. If you are expanding the scope of your project, you may need to add additional resources to your team in order to complete the work.
4. You might need to pay a team manager to backfill a position in their team while you used their skill resource in the project. This is the most common scenario that affects project managers, in my experience.
When you are budgeting for a backfill resource, you will need to consider the cost of the replacement, the cost of training the replacement, and the cost of lost productivity while the position is vacant.
The cost of the replacement will depend on the skills and experience of the replacement and the going rate for those skills in the marketplace: your HR department and the hiring manager will be able to advise on this.
The cost of training the replacement will depend on the amount of training necessary and the availability of training resources. The cost of lost productivity will depend on the duration of the vacancy and the impact of the vacancy on the project.
In conclusion, you should budget for backfill resources in your project budgets in order to ensure that your project is able to stay on track in the event that someone on your team leaves or is unable to perform their duties.
How to know if you need to backfill a position
You may not realize it, but there are certain tell-tale signs that indicate when you need to backfill a position. If you’re starting to notice any of these signs in your workplace, it might be time to start thinking about finding a replacement.
1. You’re not getting the same level of productivity from the team
This is probably the most obvious sign that you need to backfill a position. If you notice that team members are not meeting their usual standards of productivity, it could be because there’s a vacant position that’s not being filled.
They might be doing two jobs instead of one – filling in their day job while they can and juggling their project work around the edges.
When there’s a hole in the workforce, it can put a strain on the rest of the team.
2. Morale is low
Another sign that you might need to backfill a position is if morale is low among your employees. If you notice that people are skipping work, calling in sick more often, or just generally seem unhappy, it could be because they’re overworked.
When there’s a vacant position, the rest of the team has to pick up the slack, which can lead to burnout and low morale.
3. Stakeholder engagement is falling
If you notice that you’re losing the attention of stakeholders or that your customer satisfaction ratings are slipping, it could be because you’re not providing the same level of service that you used to. When the team is under pressure, things like risk management, communication, and engagement activities drop off. Perhaps the work is being delivered more slowly, or people are realizing the team no longer meets its commitments.
When you have a vacant position, it can be difficult to maintain the same level of quality control.
As a result, stakeholders might start to drift away from the project because you are not actively engaging them as you were before.
4. You’re making more mistakes
If you find that you’re making more mistakes or that things are just generally going more slowly, it could be because you’re missing a key player on your team, or that person is struggling to do their day job and their project role because their position has not been backfilled.
When you have a vacant position somewhere in the organization, it can be difficult to fill the gap and maintain the same level of quality.
5. You’re spending more money
If you find that you’re spending more money than usual, it could be because you’re trying to compensate for a vacant position. For example, you may be hiring temp workers or paying overtime to existing employees.
These are all signs that you need to backfill a position – so look for the hole! If you’re noticing any of these signs in your workplace, it’s time to start thinking about finding additional resources and plugging the gaps where necessary so everyone can get on with doing their best work.
Backfilling a position can be a difficult and time-consuming process, but it’s necessary in order to maintain a high level of productivity in your workplace.
Tips for successful backfilling
When you’re looking to fill a position that’s been vacated, you’re essentially looking to backfill that role. And while it may seem like a daunting task, there are a few things you can do to set yourself up for success.
First, take some time to assess what the previous person in that role was responsible for and whether or not there are any areas that can be streamlined or improved upon. This might be the responsibility of the hiring manager if you are a project manager who has ‘borrowed’ one of their team members.
This will give you a good starting point for what the job description should look like for the new person.
Next, reach out to your network of contacts and see if anyone might be a good fit for the role. Sometimes the best candidates are right under your nose.
Typically, we would look first at the department’s senior leaders, like the deputy manager, or experienced colleagues. Sometimes, someone in a different office location or different team is looking to make the jump to a new role, and they might be a good fit.
Finally, when you do find the right person for the job, be sure to onboard them properly. This means giving them a thorough overview of the company, their responsibilities, and what is expected of them. Again, if you are a project leader budgeting for backfill resources in other areas of the company, this will be the responsibility of the ‘home’ team manager as that is where the person will work.
Work with HR and the department with the vacancy if it is not you who will be working directly with the new hire.
Read next: How to pick up a project from someone else
- The goal of backfilling a position is to find the best candidate for the job, whether they are promoted from within the company or hired from outside.
- There are a few different ways to backfill a position, but the best way is to use a combination of promotion from within and hiring from the outside.
- When budgeting for a backfill resource, you should consider the cost of the replacement, the cost of training the replacement, and the cost of lost productivity.
- When you have a vacant position, it can lead to decreased productivity, morale, and quality control.
When an employee takes a break from their role, perhaps to step into a secondment or project team job, it can be difficult to know how to backfill their position. In this guide, you’ve learned about how to successfully backfill a position.
By following our tips and budgeting for backfill resources in your project budgets, you’ll be able to ensure that your company is able to keep running smoothly even when team members move around for different opportunities.
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