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Coronavirus: The challenge of re-focusing and re-skilling employees at speed

Ed Hussey, Pirector of people Solutions - Menzies LLP.

While some businesses have been forced to furlough staff during the lockdown, others such as supermarkets, distribution centres, utility repairers, foodbank organisers, care homes and the NHS, are struggling to recruit the staff they need to meet unprecedented demand for goods and services. Some are even turning to other industries for support.

Desperate to fill the skills gap that has emerged as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, employers are seeking support from unchartered sectors and talent pools. For example, cabin crew at EasyJet and Virgin are being drafted in and asked to retrain at new coronavirus hospitals across the UK, and council workers are being redeployed to run food banks for vulnerable people.

Shortly after the lockdown was announced, Morrisons revealed plans to hire over 3,500 new staff that were required in order to meet a sudden spike in demand for groceries. Aldi also has plans to hire 9,000 people and Tesco has openings for 20,000 new workers. For these large employers, which have access to significant HR resources, managing recruitment processes and attracting candidates is unlikely to be a problem, particularly at a time when many workers in the hospitality and leisure sector have lost their jobs. Nevertheless, the need to access large numbers of candidates in such a short space of time will bring challenges.

In order to expand their workforce quickly, it has been necessary for businesses to transform certain recruitment processes significantly. Some have altered their online recruitment processes, by providing more focused ‘key questions’ for candidates to answer and inviting them to upload required documents as they go. The use of video-based interviewing programmes has also become commonplace as employers and HR teams seek to minimise non-essential face-to-face meetings. Some websites are also offering an online chat facility to guide candidates in filling out application forms.

Alternatively, for smaller employers, such as food banks and care homes, who are operating essential services, a lack of access to HR resources could present significant challenges. In order to hire additional staff quickly and efficiently in the current climate, these employers may need to consider reaching out for external support.

For businesses such as retailers who are temporarily shutting up shop and expanding their online operations, there may be a need to re-skill workers to support with processing online orders or fulfilling deliveries. In some cases, employers may have the difficult task of choosing which workers to keep on and re-deploy in this way, and who to furlough.

In order to minimise the level of risk involved in such decisions, it is vital that employers remain objective and ensure their selection is well evidenced to avoid potential discrimination claims. Where possible, employers should look to ask the workforce for their input, allowing them to make choices for themselves and their colleagues regarding their suitability for a potential new role, or continuing in an existing one. Involving staff in these kinds of decision-making processes can have a positive effect on well-being, giving workers ownership and a sense of control around shaping the future of the business.

Where training is required to re-skill workers quickly, processes may also need a shake-up. In place of the traditional training packs and courses, HR professionals should be providing individuals with access to self-training programmes and online materials to ‘watch and learn’ while at home. To ensure workers in new roles also learn from more experienced members in their team, a ‘buddy’ system can help to nip any teething problems in the bud and boost workplace morale.

The impact of coronavirus has altered ways of working in a short space of time and continues to do so. Employers should be alert to this, recognising the pressure being placed on their workforce and extending their support – not just in connection with their individual roles and responsibilities, but their home life too. In a busy warehouse or distribution centre for example, manager visibility is paramount to boosting morale and staying in touch with how workers are feeling.

With the UK employment landscape rapidly changing, flexibility is key. For sectors fortunate enough to be experiencing increased demand for goods and services, fast-tracking recruitment and re-skilling at speed should be top of the agenda. No matter what’s in store for the next few months, a continued increase in support and collaboration between sectors – albeit at a distance – will be essential to protect the future workforce.

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