Build it to last
As Australia eases back stimulus measures, employers should be focused on structuring a workforce that will roll with the punches.
If the past few months have taught employers anything, it's the value of their core business and key staff.
As the initial COVID-19 crisis phase transitions to an extended period of uncertainty, business owners should be focused on reviewing their workforce structure - who they employ and how they employ them, says HR specialist Rob Sheppard.
Sheppard, Director of WA-based Quantum Human Resources, says SMEs should be planning for a bumpy ride in 2021 by locking in key staff, addressing non-performers, looking at outsourcing and building-in the ability to flex up and down with genuine casuals.
"It's a really good time to start thinking about what your organisation looks like post-COVID because there will be a reckoning as JobKeeper eases. Businesses will have to say, 'Well, who do we need, when do we need them and where do we need them?'" says Sheppard.
"The proactive businesses are those ones that are already saying, this is how we've changed our business; these are the skills we will need in the next six to 12 months."
Key considerations are homing in on profit drivers and high-performing staff, while maintaining the flexibility to react to unexpected changes in the market.
Permanent or casual?
"You should be looking to make good staff permanent, whether that's part-time or full time," Sheppard says. "It's generally cheaper, but there's also that commitment. People that are permanent are generally more committed to the organisation.
"I saw a client this morning who has roughly 40 employees, a lot of them casuals. Having them commit to doing hours and working during the pandemic has been problematic for him."
Sheppard expects to see an uptick in long-term casual employees exercising their right to request conversion to permanent part-time status, with job security front of mind. This can be a win-win with both employee and employer gaining certainty. "What you are doing is establishing a stronger bond."
Once employers have a skilled core of permanent staff, they can use casuals to flex up and down.
Contractors
The ease with which most businesses transitioned to working from home has shown that many tasks can be done remotely - but not all of them should be.
"Contractors are brought in on the basis of taking on the functions the clients might not be capable of doing well and allowing the SME to focus on developing the internal permanent workforce around the core functions of the business. A 'do what you do best and outsource the rest' approach."
"While they reassess their post-COVID needs, it's a great time for SMEs to consider what non-core business functions should be sent externally," Sheppard says.
With everything, he stresses, it's about having open and honest communications.
"Conversations remain important when explaining to fearful staff why a business might pursue an outsourced model."
Before businesses leap back to outsourcing functions offshore, it is important to consider the lessons learned from COVID-19. Many offshore locations have been disproportionately affected by lockdowns. Although working from home (WFH) has been successfully done offshore, it does pose other risks. When dealing with sensitive customer personal information it is important to be satisfied that your outsource provider can comply with Australian Privacy Principles. Breaches of the Privacy Act can cause significant financial and reputational damage so satisfy yourself that the risks of data leakage are minimised.
Attitude trumps skills
"Anecdotally, those in HR have noticed a recent spike in behaviour-related issues, as the stress of the year takes a toll," Sheppard says. "We're getting an inordinate amount of questions around underperformance and discipline. "It's strange times and people are feeling a bit scared. Equally people are more likely to say, 'I'm not putting up with this'. It can produce strange behaviours from all concerned."
It's a reminder to consider attitude on par with (or above) skills when evaluating staff. "Colleagues and clients I've spoken to in recent weeks are saying, 'you can teach skills, what you can't bring onboard is the attitude and behaviours'.
"Think about what you learned in the past six months about those people that you've suddenly decided are underperforming. Why is that? What have they failed in? It's rarely to do with skills."
Expect the unexpected
The laws haven't changed around redundancies. So, businesses that genuinely need to cut staff - even those on JobKeeper - can do so, but need to tread carefully and take advice. "Employers can point to a downturn in the business and the fact it looks highly likely it's only going to get worse," Sheppard says.
However, he has also fielded enquiries from owners who have made staff redundant, then experienced a sudden surge in demand. They were concerned they may be penalised for hiring so soon after firing.
"Navigating complex layers of employment legislation put an additional burden on SMEs when they should be focused on economics," Sheppard says. It underlines the need for a simplified industrial relations framework for genuine small businesses.
The Federal Government announced five IR working groups in May this year that aimed to simplify the hiring process to help reboot the economy. However, late last month it appeared little agreement had been reached between employer and employee groups.

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