Shift patterns and staggered starts: digging into the detail around safe working

Staggering start times is just one aspect of safe work design both during and after the pandemic

The government has issued guidance for employers on how they can adapt working patterns and environments so staff can operate safely during the pandemic. But Robert Crossman argues that the devil is in the detail, and many HR professionals face a difficult balance between employee wellbeing and operational efficiency.

Many of the HR professionals I talk to are dismayed at the lack of detail around shift patterns in the government’s ‘Working safely during coronavirus (COVID-19)’ guidance.

The concepts put forward, such as staggering start times and breaks were basic, and people were hoping for deeper insight and resources that could be tailored to their organisation.

Altering working time, either by introducing or changing existing shift patterns, is a sensitive area of organisational transformation that is often viewed as too complex and therefore filed under ‘too difficult’.

But as with so many things, coronavirus has changed this.

HR professionals must now urgently re-appraise resourcing models to ensure they balance the requirement to protect employee wellbeing with other factors such as volatile demand, variable capacity and maintaining operational efficiency and productivity.

Start at demand

Designing effective shift patterns in response to Covid-19 needs to be based on robust labour demand calculations. Modelling data is an opportunity to re-think the ‘when, why and how’ of current working practices.

Looking closely at demand, how it has changed, and how it may change in future will unlock fresh insights and ideas.

Ways of working that were in place because ‘that’s how it’s always been done’ may now need to be reorganised in a manner that meets new safety requirements but that also manages costs, enhances productivity and improves service levels.

Building a clear picture of minimal staffing levels, tasks, skills availability and interdependencies will help you identify the shift pattern options which will be most efficient and effective.

Consider supply-side

Demand data is key, but it must also align to your workforce’s availability. The impact of social distancing measures and hygiene restrictions will also have altered the capacity and shape of your labour supply.

In my experience, it’s fair to say many organisations would struggle to give you an instant picture of how many hours people have worked over a given period, particularly if overtime is a regular occurrence.

However, gaining visibility over supply factors is essential to create shift patterns that maintain the right capacity and level of cover needed to meet demand.

By modelling the impact of extractions through illness, self-isolation and holidays on key roles or skills, new shift patterns can be designed that factor in the required flexibility and resilience.

Be creative

Even when armed with robust demand and supply data, it’s important to maintain an open mind when exploring shift pattern options.There are a huge number of ways to structure working time to overcome the challenges posed by coronavirus restrictions.

We’re currently helping a diverse range of organisations design a range of shift patterns to support their return to work.

These include delivering extended operating windows, with some moving from five to seven-day operations as well as creating 11 or 12-day fortnights and rostering in holidays to avoid potential cover issues.

These sorts of changes are key for organisations that need to maintain output levels whilst overcoming productivity limitations created by staggered start times and physical capacity restrictions.

With persistent uncertainty, we’re also seeing a focus on scenario planning and resilience – organisations are creating contingency shift patterns alongside their core resourcing model to ensure they can quickly adapt to operational volatility and the potential flexing of restrictions.

Engaging with employees

Naturally, employee preferences and contract terms and conditions remain the key frame of reference for what is possible when making any changes to working time.

At the heart of good shift pattern design sits a balance between organisational need and workforce wellbeing and preferences. Any approach you take will be enhanced by employee involvement from the outset.

You will need to engage with employees around the challenges faced, the rationale for change and the nature and impact of any new shift patterns.

Co-designing solutions with employees can yield effective and popular shift patterns and avoids creating trust issues at this difficult time.

Any new resourcing models also need to be closely managed to ensure they are effective, compliant and responsive to any changes in demand, supply or employee feedback.

Decisions will need to be made around the scheduling of work on a day-by-day and even hourly basis if organisations are to adapt quickly to changing demand and supply factors.

It’s therefore key to maintain real-time visibility over the status and availability of your employees and ensure accurate working time information is constantly being shared with employees, managers and are visible in your HR systems, enterprise resource planning systems and time and attendance systems.

Keeping an eye on key metrics such as availability, hours worked or holiday allowance will help identify potential risks to compliance, well-being and service levels and enable you to make appropriate adjustments.

A positive change?

Whilst coronavirus has put organisations and employees in an almost impossible situation, the changes that are being forced upon us may ultimately lead to new, better ways of working.

I’m hoping that by taking a considered, engaged approach to introducing or adapting shift patterns, jobs will be saved and solutions will emerge that are more agile and responsive to change.

Ultimately the flexibility afforded by best practice shift working could be a win-win for society, creating more dynamic, productive organisations and providing the work-life balance, flexibility and choice that many employees are increasingly looking for.

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