This year started with many HR professionals scrambling to respond to staff shortages. As we learn to live with COVID-19, what short and long-term strategies are they implementing to stay afloat?
With each phase of the pandemic has come a unique and challenging barrier to overcome. In 2020, it was learning how to keep businesses running during periods of lockdown. Last year, it was about redesigning work to operate in virtual, hybrid and increased-risk environments. This year, it’s about preparing for staff shortages as absenteeism rates skyrocket with employees either getting infected with the virus or being forced into lockdown as a close contact.
HRM spoke with five HR professionals working across different industries to hear about some of their short and long-term strategies for dealing with staff shortages, and how they’re supporting those left behind to pick up the slack.
Utilise digital platforms and partnerships – Caryn Katsikogianis, Group Chief People Officer at Woolworths
Omicron is impacting nearly every link in the grocery supply chain, says Katsikogianis.
“In the first weeks of January, some of our distribution centres experienced between 20-40 per cent absenteeism, with more than 10 per cent absenteeism across our stores.
“Many of our suppliers and distribution partners faced the same challenges,” says Katsikogianis.
To respond to this, some of the short-term strategies they introduced included:
- Prioritising core functions and repositioning workers between departments or moving them to different stores to fill gaps.
- Utilising digital team platforms so workers can update their availability or desire for extra shifts in real-time, and managers could get an immediate view of the talent that was available if someone calls in sick at the last minute.
- Utilising the digital team platform to promote multi-skilling opportunities, allowing team members to opt in for training that interests them which would allow them to work in different departments.
- Streamlining recruitment processes to get talent in and working faster, and provided store managers with a toolkit to more effectively access local talent.
While absenteeism rates have since started declining, Katsikogianis felt it was important to be prepared for any future disruptions. So to complement Woolworth’s immediate response plan, she and the HR team also developed long-term strategies to manage staff shortages, including:
- Continuing to invest in partnerships with organisations such as The Clontarf Foundation, which helps to place young Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander men into employment.“[This helps us] to provide our business with opportunities to engage new talent, who can not only help fill vacancies, but bring new skills and perspectives to our team,” says Katsikogianis.
- A potential investment in technology that would allow them to identify talent within the organisation – such as university students working in-store – and offering them different opportunities within Woolworths.
“We know that COVID has had a significant impact on peoples’ resilience and wellbeing. It’s important we continue to be agile and flexible, while prioritising the work to be done and stopping or delaying work to sustainably manage the capacity of [our] workforce.
“In the first weeks of January, some of our distribution centres experienced between 20-40 per cent absenteeism.” – Caryn Katsikogianis, Group Chief People Officer, Woolworths
“As we look ahead, it’s all about investing in proactive strategies today that will allow us to rely less on reactive measures when we’re next faced with challenges like these. Continuing to invest in recruitment strategies for meaningful employment will return dividends when the next hurdle comes along.”
Don’t source all talent from the same place – Ebony Alexander MAHRI, HR and Office Manager, Veriu Group
Alexander has noticed many candidates are hesitant to move into the hotel industry over the last few years.
“Much of the industry talent has left for other industries that are more stable throughout a lockdown, and are not considering returning yet, if at all. Where we would have received in excess of 500 applicants each month pre-pandemic, we are now receiving less than a dozen.”
The lack of international workers has also impacted the organisation’s talent plans.
“We’ve kept the doors of our hotels open throughout the pandemic and, most importantly, [kept] people employed. However, we’ve faced significant talent shortages. As a business we’re not just ramping up to ‘normal operation’ but in anticipation of 8+ new hotel openings over the next 24 months alone.”
To keep up with this growth, Alexander put in place a ‘roving housekeeping hub’ to tap talent in the suburbs, as opposed to those living in Melbourne’s city centre where three of Veriu Group’s hotels are located.
“We noticed that [job] advertisements for hotels located in suburban locations of Melbourne were performing well above those in CBD locations,” she says.
Alexander realised the stress of having to travel on public transport during the pandemic was a barrier for many of the suburban candidates, as was the cost of having to pay for travel and parking. So the convenience of being shuttled to and from work, and having travel time paid for, made all the difference.
So they decided to zero in on that talent segment.
“We interviewed people in [the suburban] locations; we offered full-time, 12 month fixed-term contracts at a slightly higher rate of pay; we trained all new team members in that location; and, once they were trained, we hired a mini van to transport them to and from our CBD hotels each day for work.
“In return we’ve been able to support our current team, create a flexible team that can work across any location to fill talent shortages, and ensure we could continue business as usual. Most importantly, we have filled high-need positions for the short-term and bought some time to continue to recruit in ‘[priority]’ locations while [we wait for] the market to bounce back.”
Other short-term strategies that Veriu has implemented include:
- Developing an 8-week onboarding program piloted across the whole group to train and engage new hires.
- Creating a fasttrack Junior Hotel Management program to upskill duty managers into hotel managers over 12 months. This is due to be piloted in April.
- Focussing on actively using Growth Plans to hold everyone accountable for the continued growth of its people.
“The most important thing you can do at the moment is keep a clear line of communication open across the business and think outside the box. We’re not in ordinary times, so don’t feel limited by traditional strategies.
“It’s crucial that businesses are agile and quick to adapt to the wants and needs of their people. Think long-term, but don’t be afraid to implement short-term strategies to buy you time. It’s challenging now, but it won’t last forever!”
Rehire retired workers and think long term – Clare Murphy FCPHR, Human Resources Director, EACH
Staff shortages have had a “huge impact” on community health organisation EACH, says its HR Director Clare Murphy FCPHR.
“We’re not just trying to maintain current services across 150 different programs, but also manage the constantly fluctuating demands of COVID vaccination, testing and other COVID-response programs,” she says.
As a short-term response strategy, Murphy is deploying staff to work in service priority areas.
“However, this is very difficult when your entire business is there to support vulnerable members of the community.”
Murphy says EACH has also had success hiring retired healthcare workers on short-term contracts to cover busy periods. They know the ropes, so require far less training and onboarding.
Some of EACH’s longer-term strategies to respond to staff shortages include:
- Increasing staffing above what was originally budgeted. “This isn’t just to cover absenteeism while isolating or being ill with COVID, but enabling people to take annual leave without the fear of what will build up in their absence.”
- Developing a graduate and volunteer program to entice new talent.
- Scenario planning. “We’re being realistic and pragmatic. For example, at the end of 2021 we asked managers what they would need in 2022 if they lost 10 per cent of their staff, or 25 per cent, or 50 per cent. [We played out] scenarios to meet our clients’ needs in each of the various [situations], so we can be proactive in getting the resources we need rather than constantly reacting.”
“Having been at the coalface for the last two years, my advice would be to think long-term. COVID isn’t going away and we don’t know what the future will bring.”
Train your people to take on specialist skills and hire for mindset – Athena Chintis FCPHR, Head of People and Culture, Cliftons, and AHRI NSW State President
Low business confidence and lockdowns have knocked the hospitality and events industry around, but Cliftons has been able to respond to the changes and continue operating. However, staff shortages have proven to be a constant struggle.
“Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen a reduction in our permanent employee numbers by about one-third – largely through attrition,” says Athena Chintis FCPHR, Head of People and Culture at Cliftons. “Vacancies haven’t necessarily been filled, unless they are business critical roles.”
So far in 2022, Chintis says many staff have been absent due to catching COVID-19 or being identified as a close contact.
“People who work in corporate or sales roles are able to do their work remotely, but there have been some hairy situations in front-line teams, where technical staff have had to self-isolate.”
To keep the wheels turning, Cliftons introduced some short-term strategies, including:
- Cross-training floor coordinators in how to do basic tech set-ups in the event that the onsite venue technician cannot be there.
- Delaying the start dates of new hires so they didn’t commence during lockdowns and have a less-than-optimal onboarding experience.
- Seconding people to different parts of the business and expanding people’s responsibilities.
- Introducing a mandatory vaccination policy.
In the long-term, Chintis plans on continuing to develop a pool of ready-to-go casual employees, which includes anyone from students to retirees, and refining the qualities they look for in interviews.
“When filling full-time vacancies, we think it’s important to take into account the individual’s mindset. Do they bring a can-do attitude? Can they work collaboratively with others in a small team? Are they going to be flexible enough if asked at the last minute to cover for someone who can’t be onsite as they have COVID, but the client event must continue?
“Everyone is asked to be flexible in their thinking – and they may need to take on different responsibilities to their original job description. Some people see this as a great opportunity to learn, whereas others might not.”
Diversify your existing workforce – Paul Birch, Chief People and Culture Officer, Transdev Australasia
At Transdev, an international company that operates public transport, getting talent in and of itself hasn’t been a challenge. In fact, its Chief People and Culture Officer Paul Birch says in the last few years they’ve had more applicants than they do roles available.
However, getting suitably qualified workers is where they’ve faced difficulty.
“Now, with industries such as hospitality and tourism reopening, there is greater competition for frontline customer service staff. This has been further exacerbated by a stagnation of skilled migrants.”
In order to be able to respond to last-minute staff shortages, they’d need to build out a larger workforce, but Birch doesn’t want to grow for the sake of growing. To get the right people behind the wheel and in the office, Birch says Transdev is working to diversify its hires and move away from the traditionally male-dominated image that the transport sector sometimes presents.
“We see ourselves as people serving people,” he says. “This vision has helped to attract talent from a broad spectrum. We’ve introduced programs that support a more diverse workforce, such as our Employee Mentor Program, [developing a] Reconciliation Action Plan, our nationally recognised Graduate Program, and our Female Bus Driver training program.
“While initiatives like sign-on bonuses are good and can be effective in the short term, our experience has been that investing in initiatives that improve workplace culture and employee satisfaction are stronger drivers for recruitment.”
Supporting the staff who remain
Not only do HR professionals have to worry about filling gaps left by last-minute absenteeisms, they also need to support remaining employees who are often managing bigger workloads.
Murphy says this is particularly challenging in the healthcare industry as the staff have a “strong calling to support those less fortunate than them… so they’ll take on more if the work is there”.
To alleviate this risk, Murphy often directs people to take leave or adds additional resources to prevent burn out.
EACH also allocated managers with a budget to do what they felt was needed to support the wellbeing of their teams, such as providing meals, care packages and virtual professional development.
“We’ve also had regular ‘Cuppa with the Exec Team’ sessions, with two members of the Exec hosting around 15 staff from anywhere across the organisation. There was no agenda; our questions were things like, ‘What’s happening in your area/program right now and what do you need?’ Then we listened. These sessions were very informative and built relationships and trust across the organisation.”
It’s also important to eliminate any stigma associated with testing positive or being sick, says Employment Hero’s Chief People Officer, Alex Hattingh. Since the start of the year, many Employment Hero employees have had to take time off to recover from COVID-19.
“This was especially challenging for our leaders to schedule enough team members to cover those too unwell to work. Fortunately, the omicron strain is less extreme with symptoms and people have required less time off work. On average, we have experienced people needing three days off work and then they are well and able to work from home while still in their isolation period.”
For those who’ve had to cover extra workloads in their colleague’s absence, Hattingh says they’ve been having daily meetings to discuss the redistribution of workloads. They also have a strong focus on rewarding and recognising those who are willing to go above and beyond.
“Make sure you’re recognising those who are stepping up,” she says. “We use ‘Values Champions Awards’ that have a monetary reward where our heroes can spend their money on something meaningful for them in our discounts store.”
“Where we would have received in excess of 500 applicants each month pre-pandemic, we are now receiving less than a dozen.” – Ebony Alexander MAHRI, HR and Office Manager, Veriu Group
Woolworths has been very mindful of the strain that increased customer demand and supply chain challenges have had on their workers over the last two years, says Katsikogianis.
“We believe it’s important that our team members continue to take leave, to ensure they have the opportunity to decompress and recharge throughout the year. We have offered a ‘take a break’ incentive at key times to award our team members a ‘free’ day of leave when they book four days or more of leave in a row. This has been an effective way to encourage team members to take meaningful breaks.”
Katsikogianis also took time to assess projects that could be paused during peak times so teams could focus on their core responsibilities without interruptions and facilitated resilience training for staff as well as “round-the-clock access” to mental health support.
Hattingh says to remember that this isn’t just an HR issue.
“Talk to the leadership team… talk to the entire organisation about it.
“Transparency during tough and challenging times is key to giving your people the confidence that you’re coping. Allow yourselves, as leaders, to be vulnerable and open to saying it is not easy – that you need everyone to band together to get through this.”
Katsikogianis is conscious that HR professionals have rarely had a moment to stop over the last two years, so her final advice is to look after yourself.
“Make sure you and your own team have the opportunity to rest and recharge. It can be easy for HR people to forget to look after themselves.”
Birch says now is the time to be innovative and think outside the box when addressing staff shortages.
“Many of the traditional strategies to retain and attract staff aren’t as effective as they once were,” he says. “The pandemic poses extreme circumstances and all of us are in this together. Wherever you can, reach out to your networks and HR colleagues across the industry, as we are always on hand to provide strategic and moral support.”
Want to hear more from your HR peers? AHRI members can join the AHRI LinkedIn Lounge to continue the conversation about how they’re responding to staff shortages and more. Join today.