Having survived the unprecedented financial issues of the late 2000s, many organisations are using the current period of economic and political uncertainty to prepare themselves for the next few years. However, that doesn’t simply mean preparing for the worst. It means becoming flexible enough to react quickly to risks and opportunities.
Driving this preparation is our shrinking ability to make predictions. We don’t really know what the impacts of Brexit will be, or what the Government will do in light of the Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices. We also have the lowest unemployment level for 43 years, which is continuing to have a huge impact on recruitment.
Naturally, a flexible organisation needs flexibility with its workforce. Although your options will very much depend on the nature of your product or service offering, here are some of the strategies you might want to consider in a push for greater flexibility.
A good place to start is assessing whether your existing employees are on an appropriate contract for the role they perform. The aim is to optimise your use of full-time, part-time, fixed-term and other contracts to ensure you can scale your workforce according to peaks and troughs. The best way to approach this is to apply different scenarios and consider the outcome. Do certain roles become under or over-resourced, and what could happen to the business as a result?
Employees have the right to request flexible working from their employer, and typically this relates to start and finish times, or the ability to work part-time. This can be a great opportunity to increase the flexibility of your workforce, while helping employees to achieve a better work-life balance. You can also consider offering flexible working opportunities during quieter periods.
Annualising and time off in lieu
Annualising is the practice of paying employees in equal monthly instalments but with a flexible approach to the number of hours worked. In effect, employees work more hours per week during busier periods, and less hours when it is quieter. This arrangement can be very popular with employees, while helping to reduce the number of overtime hours you pay. Often, it centres on a set number of ‘core hours’ per day, with additional hours worked as required.
Time off in lieu (TOIL) is similar to annualising in that employees work more hours during busier periods and have time off during quieter periods. Take care how you manage these arrangements though as an extended busy period could burn through everyone’s hours, when the solution was actually to bring in other people.
Outsourcing can be off-putting because it tends to be more expensive than having work undertaken in-house. However, short-term outsourcing can pay-off during busy periods as you don’t have the ongoing overhead when things return to normal or go quiet.
Another innovative approach is to move employees around the organisation according to demand, and this can even go as far as training staff members to undertake more than one role. Employees are often taken on board to fill a specific role, with no consideration of transferable skills. An ‘out of the box’ approach to assessing CVs could expose a wealth of deployment possibilities within the organisation according to need. Make sure that the additional role is something that the employee wants to do though.
If you have multiple sites in a commutable distance for employees, then you may also want to consider flexible site deployment. For example, staff members could have a core site that they tend to work at, but can deploy to other sites as required. This can be a very useful approach for a group with a number of subsidiaries in the same area, even if the various sites don’t do exactly the same thing.
There is also the option of partnering with another organisation to exchange employees depending on demand. If one organisation is quiet and the other is busy, then employees can transfer over. This simultaneously reduces the salary burden on the quiet organisation, while giving the busier organisation a source of employees without the need to pay recruitment agency fees. Again, make sure employees are happy with the arrangement, as being forced into unfamiliar surroundings is extremely unsettling.
Putting it into practice
Communication and collaboration are of course key to creating a successful flexible workforce. You may be surprised at how receptive employees can be to ideas about flexibility and their work-life balance. You may even be open to encouraging them to submit ideas of their own.
Naturally, the worst thing you can do is discuss ideas purely in the context of your organisational flexibility, or in a way that makes the future of the organisation look unstable. Similarly, it is best to present ideas as a discussion rather than an enforcement because forced change can be unsettling.
Anything you agree or decide will be an amendment to existing contracts, which can be a legal minefield if employees perceive the amendments don’t reflect what they understood the arrangement to be. Some associated communication may be required to explain the more legalistic phrases.
Whatever you choose to do, tread carefully. Keep the old adage ‘we are all in this together’ at the front of your mind when engaging with the workforce. This will help you avoid inflicting a negative hit on employee morale that simply gets everyone brushing up their CV.