Balancing the Need for Operational Flexibility and Staffing Flexibility unlike Sports Direct

Distribution warehouse - fluctuations in workloadUnfortunately, Sports Direct hit the headlines for the wrong reasons but their underlying aims may not be so different to many organisations in the private and public sectors.  Managers at Sports Direct went about it in the wrong way.

Statistics from ONS indicate that employment on zero hours contracts has risen by 21% year on year and 903,000 individuals have such contracts. This may raise a cry that such contracts should be halted in the light of the inquiry into Sports Direct but many organisations need flexibility in staffing to accommodate seasonal and other variations in workload and staff holidays and illness. To meet such needs, senior managers should be able to introduce a range of contracts such as variable hours, zero hours, temporary and/or fixed term contracts and/or use agency workers.

The issue is not whether such contracts should exist but whether they are used in a responsible way
This is not a new dilemma nor unique to Sports Direct

A Greater Understanding of the Options – not more legislation

Sports Direct is in the headlines but is not alone in this need. Further legislation is not the solution but organisations do need:

i) A deeper understanding by operational managers of the range of options that are available to address flexibility of staffing;

ii) The support of senior managers to experiment and learn what mix of arrangements is appropriate for different operations/sites. Managers should not be hampered by an across the company imposed pattern (which may make life easier for HR staff but not for managers). Moreover, such across the board models may not be cost effective nor meet the real needs in different types of operations such as warehousing, distribution, food and beverage services;

iii) HR managers who are able to devise working arrangements that balance the needs of both operational managers and employees, as far as practicable. Before enlarging the hr team, Sports Direct, and any other organisation, should examine whether it has the appropriate mix of skills and experience in its hr team as employing more hr staff will not lead necessarily to more effective staffing patterns but will increase the support costs;

iv) The willingness of senior managers to take action against individual managers and hr staff who can not or will not manage the grey areas of flexibility which is difficult but is part of their role.

Redressing the Balance of Flexibility to Meet Operational Needs

The headlines continue to focus on the negative side of flexibility and especially zero hours contracts. The reality is that both public and private sector organisations have a need of variable staffing levels but their context differs.

Managers should consider what options are suited to their needs. For example, will some or all of the following contractual arrangements provide an effective way forward in your organisation?

  • zero hours (true casual)
  • variable/average hours
  • annualised hours
  • cross trained hours
  • tradeable hours
  • agency workers
  • temporary employees
  • fixed term or fixed task employees
  • contractors/self employed.

You can read more about those options in my earlier article.

Allowing managers and staff to work out what is appropriate in their context will work if managers approach the issues with maturity, bearing in mind the needs of individual staff to pay their way in life and not be treated as a labour tap to turn on and off at will without regard to the consequences for an individual’s earnings and commitment.

Devising the Mix of Staffing Arrangements

Managers need to ask the following types of questions to determine which options will be appropriate in their circumstances:

  • Why does the fluctuation in staffing needs arise? Are those reasons within the control of the organisation and if so can you reduce the need?
  • Do you need extra staff for certain periods only or more or less across the year?
  • How will you ensure that ‘flexible’ staff are kept up to date with the firm’s operations i.e. that they can pick up the role without the need for retraining because their knowledge is out of date?
  • Can you devise ‘valued’ roles in which individuals are cross trained in other skills/sections so that they can step in when the demand rises (even if that means paying for additional hours)?

Zero hours are still a lawful and useful way of obtaining additional help at short notice. If it was your partner, son or daughter how would you want him/her to be treated if the work requirement was only a few hours or the demand petered out not long after asking the individual to come in? Will you pay expenses and/or a minimum flat payment to an individual who is asked to report to work but then cancelled at short notice i.e. upon arrival or shortly after starting?

It is useful to ask questions such as the above for any of the contractual options to check that the contracts will be used responsibly and thus build commitment among the workforce rather than alienate individuals/groups

Overlooked Safeguards

Confidential Information Clauses

As a worker may accept work with other employers while under a zero hours arrangement with you, ensure that you have effective clauses covering the use of confidential information obtained whilst in the course of your employment. This also applies to other types of contract.

Self Audit

Allow a group of managers to review the way in which zero hours and other flexible contracts are used to see if there are ways to improve how you meet your ‘staffing’ needs. Encourage those managers to counsel, as a ‘friend’, any managers whose management style is not in tune with the company’s values going forward.

© 2016 HR Management Dimensions Ltd

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Practical Help and Advice

If you would like to discuss and review your options for more flexible staffing, please contact the author, Jim Harrington, via the contact details on our website.

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