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Posted 13th June 2023

How Can Small Businesses Protect Against Unexpected Staff Shortages?

Small businesses rely on a tight-knit core of staff members whose contributions represent a significant percentage of their company’s output, whether that’s productivity, relationship building or management.

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how can small businesses protect against unexpected staff shortages?.


How Can Small Businesses Protect Against Unexpected Staff Shortages?

Small businesses rely on a tight-knit core of staff members whose contributions represent a significant percentage of their company’s output, whether that’s productivity, relationship building or management.

While a large corporation can handle the loss of an individual staff member more easily, as they commonly have enough in reserve to spread the load, SMEs are not so fortunate. For example, in a workforce of four, one staff member being off sick results in a quarter of the team unavailable.

That puts pressure on the remaining 75% of the team to cover or else 25% of the business’ operations will not be done during the period of absence. It is a difficult situation but one that small businesses can protect themselves against in a variety of ways.

What is an unexpected staff shortage?

Difficult to predict, an unexpected staff shortage is commonly caused by staff sickness, injury at work, people quitting or simple absenteeism. This can be highly disruptive to a small business and it’s important as an owner or manager that you have some systems and plans in place to help protect yourself. Absences impact all businesses and are estimated to cost the UK economy approximately £20.6bn per year.

Proactive protection

Prevention is better than cure in most cases and it’s true in business that strategy and planning are effective ways to manage almost all situations. There will always be surprises, but putting some proactive measures in place can minimise the downtime facing SMEs.

Flexibility around working hours

Small businesses must hold themselves to high professional standards to ensure they are taken seriously by their customers, clients and competition. However, SMEs also enjoy the ability to be more organisationally agile than larger companies as there is less bureaucracy and ingrained processes to follow.

This helps you, as a boss or manager, to allow for more flexibility and leniency when your staff are presented with problems.

For example, your team may have parents who need to take their kids to school so remote work or starting a little later would work best for them, likewise, allowing for short absences for doctors appointments can go a long way towards improving staff presence. Staff will feel as though you are prioritising their work-life balance and looking out for their best interests, which will be returned in kind.

Improved work culture

One of the best defences against unexpected staff shortages, but also perhaps the hardest to implement, is a supportive, balanced and positive work culture. At times for small businesses it can be a case of all hands on deck to help get large orders completed but this should not be the norm.

Long working hours are not only draining on that particular day but continually asking staff to go above and beyond can lead to negative feelings towards their job roles, management and the company they work for. Furthermore, it’s important that employees can switch off from their jobs during their free time to recharge their batteries and take a mental break. 

High safety standards

Staff shortages caused by workplace injuries are largely preventable but they require adequate health and safety, and wellbeing, practices to be implemented. This is important for small businesses because not only are you missing out on the productivity of the injured party but if your safety protocols are not up to scratch, then you could also be the subject of a personal injury claim.

According to personal injury experts, George Ide, staff can make a claim against their employer if there is “inadequate staff training provision, a failure to maintain safe premises, the issue of unsuitable or unsafe equipment, or the use of inappropriate tools”. Furthermore, “Employees can also suffer from industrial disease or work-related illness as a result of a particular employment”.

Monitoring staff absences

While there are several effective preventive measures you can take to reduce staff shortages, it’s also useful to continue to monitor absences. Complete a back to work interview with anyone who takes a day off and ensure that you record their reasons in a database.

Over time you can build up a picture of the main reasons why staff are not in work and create a plan to tackle the problem. Are staff typically taking Fridays off, does their absence come following an extended busy period or are several members taking time off for the same reason, whether it’s safety-related or other?

Knowledge of why your staff aren’t available can bring any issues to your attention while arming you with the information to put further preventive measures in place. It can also help you to create a staffing forecast, so that you can predict throughout the year where your staffing level needs to be to cope with demand.

Minimising disruption

In the event of a staff shortage, however, it’s important to put a contingency plan in place to ensure your business operations don’t grind to a halt.

Temp agencies 

By nature they are not a permanent solution but many small businesses can call upon a temp agency to provide them with short-term cover, often at the drop of a hat. Some temp agencies provide more generic workers while others specialise in particular industries such as manufacturing, office-based work, medical, etc., so it’s important to identify which agency or agencies will work best with you.

Expert retail recruitment consultants, Chimera Recruitment, explain, “Hiring temporary workers with the correct expertise will help your company run smoothly until your permanent employees return.” Adding, “A temporary worker can help lessen the strain if your regular crew is overwhelmed with extra work.”

Of course, using temps is not a sustainable model as they are typically more expensive due to the associated fees, will require some form of training and are not investing in working for your company. It’s a great way to help take pressure off your team but hiring a temp should only be seen as a stop-gap.

An agile workforce

Where possible it would be advantageous to spread the knowledge and skill load across your team to ensure that there are personnel on the team who can step into the void if needed. While this can result in reduced productivity, it prevents one area of your operations being totally neglected in the absences of a staff member.

This is also a great way to help increase employee loyalty through upskilling as a lack of career development is a key reason for people leaving their roles in search for pastures new.

Categories: Business Advice, News


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