"Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans."

This quotation, often attributed to late Beatle John Lennon, refers to the daily randomness of events that interrupt the best-laid plans.

This dynamic has major staffing implications for all businesses, but small businesses are affected disproportionally. How can you manage unforeseen employee absences brought about by changing lifestyles?

Vacations and holidays are known in advance, but consider these unpredictable reasons for employees to miss work:

• Illness or injury - brief or extended.

• A death in the family.

• Legal appearances for jury duty or personal disputes.

• Child care - single parents can't always find coverage.

• Elder care - arranging for assisted living or doctor appointments.

• Home emergencies.

These are all legitimate reasons for people to miss work and it is very likely that every employee will experience one of these events in a year. Personal day allowances minimize the economic effect to the employee but that does not erase the fact that when an employee is absent, the business suffers.

The best solution is to hire people and cross-train them to perform multiple tasks outside of their everyday responsibilities. Baseball teams call them utility players - they can play multiple positions and fill in for injured stars.

This process starts with the hiring interview. Does the new employee understand that cross-training and reassignment are part of their job description? Management must schedule the time for cross-training and recognize that the benefits may not happen overnight. Employees' compensation must reflect the added value they bring to the firm.

In the long run, it's better to have a smaller team of dedicated, cross-trained employees than hire additional staff with limited skills and range.

Ralph Hershberger is president of SCORE Southern Arizona, a nonprofit group that offers free small-business counseling and mentoring by appointment at several locations. For more information, go to www.southernarizona.score.org, send email to mentoring@scoresouthernaz.org or call 505-3636.