Managing workforce risk during the era of COVID-19

Managing workforce risk in the era of COVID-19 has become a hot topic. And as our annual Emerging Workforce Summit was moved online this year (due to the COVID crisis) we’ve delved into this topic with three of the industry’s greatest minds when it comes to workforce risk:

Natalie James

Natalie James: Partner, Deloitte and Former Fair Work Ombudsman

 

Nick Duggal

Nick Duggal: Partner, Moray & Agnew and legal expert on workplace legislation

Charles Cameron

Charles Cameron: CEO of the RCSA, the recruitment industry body

In a series of blog posts, we’ll provide insight of the discussion from this webinar as well as footage of our speakers in action. This is the first of such posts.

NATALIE JAMES – PARTNER, DELOITTE, FORMER FAIR WORK OMBUDSMAN

With most people working remotely, what responsibilities does a corporation have for its non-employee workforce including contractors and SOW suppliers?

In essence, not much has changed from the standpoint of the organisation’s responsibilities especially around the duty of care for workers, and managing workforce risk. Ethically, there’s debate as to whether this current situation would have actually materialised, if imposed on a workforce (or city or country for that matter). Hence, these are incredibly unique times.

There have been some changes to accommodate certain elements of the law in this current scenario, made by government and the Fair Work Commission. These changes, implemented incredibly quickly in response to the pandemic situation, are largely around work patterns, hours and related working issues.

In meeting the same workplace obligations but in the current scenario where workers are largely remote, requires some creative thinking and a lateral approach to managing workforce risk and to people management. Health and safety is a good example of this. And worker wellbeing is increasingly under the spotlight, particularly as workers adjust to the new paradigm of working during COVID.

Health and wellbeing are, first and foremost, underpinned by health and safety rules, which apply to varying degrees to contract workers and employees.

Yes, we have to modify how we work, at both the employer and employee level. And this is placing added strain on the working dynamic for many people and organisations.

Organisations need to take action to ensure workers are okay; protecting worker wellbeing is critically important in this time of uncertainty and change.

NICK DUGGAL – PARTNER, WORKPLACE RELATIONS, MORAY & AGNEW

During the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses are asking the government for flexibility on their obligations. Are you seeing any difference on the enforcement and governance of these obligations during the pandemic?

In terms of flexibility around traditional obligations and regulations, after the economic consequences of the pandemic hit – day one being the Monday following the Melbourne Grand Prix in March – it felt like the labour market and the economy was falling off a cliff.

It almost felt as though everyone was months away from going under. As a consequence of that, the liberties employers were taking was extraordinary. For the following month, it felt like the ‘wild west’. Employers were doing anything they could to contain labour costs – and in drastic timeframes.

There was evidently a relaxing of regulatory compliance, in respect of workplace relations. Some examples of this included reductions in salary without there being a genuine opportunity for worker consent. And contingent workers were at the front line of that. This was due to organisations identifying labour costs and working relationships that are the most insecure – contingent workers.

There’s been something of a reconciling of that, where we’re starting to see more of the employment decisions made during the pandemic, being challenged. But not nearly as much as what could have been possible.

CHARLES CAMERON – CEO, RCSA

What are suppliers and recruiters experiencing during the COVID-19 pandemic and what’s being done to change how they are operating?

There’s been a large-scale movement of recruitment agency workers, working from home. There’s also been government committing to maintaining these agency worker contractor roles, and in circumstances where the client hasn’t been able to sustain the supply of agency workers, we’ve seen many of the recruitment firms, especially the larger ones, with a diversity in their client mix, able to transfer workers from one segment to another. Managing workforce risk in this scenario, has been largely a transfer from onsite to offsite.

So in many ways, contrary to Nick Duggal’s assessment – although he wasn’t necessarily referring to agency workers as the noted ‘insecure workers’ (above) – what’s been evident, is the capacity to adapt, and the ability for workers and recruitment firms to pivot under these new circumstances.

As a result, this has held many recruitment firms in good stead. Some, especially those who supply the industries badly hit by the crisis – such as hospitality, retail – have obviously not fared as well. But what’s been incredible to observe, is how many agency workers have been retained, how many are working from home, and also how quickly recruitment firms have been able to respond to that in terms of maintaining worker health and safety, and ensuring communications with workers is stepped up accordingly.

In many ways, for the recruitment industry, it’s been a success story. Why? Because this shock to so many organisations and recruitment firms, has forced a more realistic and holistic look at total workforce management. Particularly agency workers and people working from home.

The thing we’ll see now is that remote workers have a face. And a voice. And organisations, governments and others are going to need to realise that this is a valid means of working. And they’ll need to assess what this means for working as we look into the future. And they’ll need to include their approach to managing workforce risk accordingly.

NATALIE JAMES – PARTNER, DELOITTE, FORMER FAIR WORK OMBUDSMAN

How many companies actually have visibility of their workforce, regardless of their engagement type i.e. what are they doing, where are they located and how are they communicated to?

Technology has been an incredible asset in this era of COVID, with the proliferation of ‘face to face’ meetings via Zoom, Teams, Skype and Webex. It’s made actual visibility of remote workers a reality with online meetings.

But there are issues with this. At first, workers were happy to have their cameras on. To see their colleagues in the same meeting. As time went on, people were inclined to turn off their camera once they’d clocked their co-workers. Their mindset started shifting as the reality of COVID set in. “Is this going to be long-term?”, or “I don’t like online meetings”. This has exposed worker strain. The stress of this period has been immense for many workers. Job insecurity, a lack of community, isolation. All these factors can play on a worker’s health and wellbeing.

Having said that, workers and organisations have also been surprised about the opportunities that have arisen from the COVID era.

Case example. A worker with an illness, who now works from home, is far more productive. This worker no longer takes as many sick days and eliminating the commute has had a positive impact not only on output but also engagement with the job.

Yes, there are benefits from this new way of working, but organisations and managers do somewhat lose sight of the team. So it’s wise – and important – for organisations to consider the learnings from this period. For example, barriers to remote working have proven, in the most part, to have been removed. How can the organisation take advantage of that in the long term?

And of course, communication is a critical element of worker visibility and engagement when distance is an issue. As are different channels of communication. Being aware of worker’s fragility at this time, not only about the change in how work is done, but also in how people are feeling about their personal lives. For example, vulnerable and elderly relatives. All these factors need to be considered by employers. And, taking a deeper interest and insight on workers, as most of us are trained, when asked ‘how are you?”, to say “yeah… fine”. As business leaders, demonstrating real empathy and having awareness that workers may not be fine, is critical.

Finally, on this point, using engagement surveys and pulse surveys to get a handle on how workers really are during this time, is a great initiative. These will provide worker insights at both an individual level, and at a workforce level.

As one of the world’s leading providers of contingent worker management solutions, CXC is well positioned to optimise all elements of your contingent workforce strategy. With operations in more than 50 countries across five continents and decades of experience, we can assist with every aspect of your program.

If you would like to find out more about how we can help please contact us here.

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