As we bubble along in this ongoing stew of uncertainty, business owners are finding operational challenges are heating up on several fronts, not least of which is the skills shortage.
Exacerbated by current immigration policies, there is no doubt whatsoever that it is harder and harder to retain staff. One company I know has lost seven staff in recent weeks – two changed professions entirely, three have gone to competing firms and two have gone overseas to be reunited with their loved ones. The company had done all it could to keep the staff but external pressures put paid to their efforts putting them back in the recruitment market looking at a rapidly evaporating pool of talent.
There are macro-economic needs that have to be addressed at government level in order to resolve this and other pressures but what can business owners do in the meantime?
At the time of writing, New Zealand is at the start of Mental Health Awareness Week and the internet and social channels are abuzz with ways to help others – and yourself – manage your mental health. For employers, employee wellbeing has moved to centre stage. As we all deal with the challenges of prolonged lockdowns and restrictions, for some households significantly reduced incomes, home schooling, distance-caring and a host of other concerns, our employees’ wellbeing is paramount. We have to consider how workload can be managed, communication maintained and skills improved in a radically altered operating environment. Money is no longer the only motivator – employees are looking for genuine consideration and a purpose-driven employer – which means wellbeing policies have to be developed and implemented. And not only policies develop – in recent years the management of wellbeing has become a job in itself, with larger companies introducing the role of ‘chief wellbeing officer’ or ‘employee wellbeing director’.
The other great motivator is personal development – which is the cue for all business owners to get training today. Find the right people to sit in the right seats undertaking work they are suited for – trying to ‘fill the job’ with the wrong person will only make things worse. Training and development from within will help you grow your people along with your vision. If you are not sure about the qualities and strengths needed for a role, run a skills audit and identify what’s needed and, if you still find yourself struggling, ask for help – this is one of the many areas where a peer board or business mentoring can be invaluable.
The skills shortage will be with us for some time – building a reputation as an employer of choice with genuine concern for employees is one way to tackle the challenge.
There’s no doubt about it – things are tough. Several weeks of lockdown have done nothing to ease the mounting pressures on businesses and we can all see the business blues are creeping in.
We know the hard hit sectors are hard hit once again and as much as possible is being done to help them through this current hiatus. Those sectors that have not been hard hit to date are also feeling the pinch as the problems that have been building over the last twelve months have compounded to create an operating environment that serves up one set of instabilities after another.
Supply chain interruptions have reached crisis point for many and with Auckland in extended lockdown even local supply chains have stalled.
Working capital is under pressure with businesses having to order stock far in advance – six months in advance is not uncommon – and, as well as ordering far ahead, owners are having to order more and carry more stock, clogging up cash flow, not least thanks to slower payments out of Auckland.
All things considered it is a much tougher environment and although many business eased into lockdown which, despite its sudden arrival was not a new experience for us, many appear to have hit a slump. Emails and phones are going unanswered and in some parts of the country it feels like some operations have ground to a halt as they wait for someone to press the restart button.
How then do we cope with all this? As business owners, how do we tackle the operational issues, the nationwide slow-down and, perhaps the biggest issue of all – our own motivation?
My first suggestion would be start with scenario planning. Forget about ‘best case’ scenario completely and work instead on ‘most likely’ and ‘worst case’. Those who are faring best at the moment took time out months ago to think ahead. They looked at the ‘most likely’ scenarios and realised that lockdowns and COVID problems would be with us for some time, so they adapted their business models and operations to allow for alert level disruptions. Interestingly, worst case for many isn’t an alert level change. It is bound up with the supply issues or working capital and that is certainly something that can be addressed through good scenario planning.
If you have slowed down, stop and restart. Take some time to look at where you are, how much you’ve achieved in the last 18 months simply by staying in business and then look forward. You will be staring uncertainty squarely in the eye and pushing on with ‘more of the same’ may seem daunting, sapping your motivation even further. And this is where my second suggestion comes in – focus on your good leadership habits and get some support. Don’t try to go it alone. Our peer boards have been invaluable for members throughout the pandemic as it brings business owners together to tackle the issues we are all facing right now. When you are the one everyone is relying on to get the business through, find the back-up you need – don’t struggle on trying to cope alone.
Beating the lockdown business blues isn’t easy – but talking with your business buddies on a peer board can certainly lighten the load.
Employee wellbeing was top of my mind when I started to write this post earlier in the week – then suddenly lockdown was announced and our working patterns were upended once again.
There’s lots of messaging around ‘we’ve done it before and we can do it again’ swirling through the networks and media and, yes, we have and we can – but that doesn’t make it an easy task for anyone.
Each lockdown brings different stresses and pressures for business owners who have to switch into crisis mode to keep their enterprise alive and balance the wellbeing and needs of their teams. Unless you are on the list of essential services, it is inevitable that activity will slow or stop and, as the daily list of locations of interest grows, the probability of your team members spending their day waiting for a test rather than working is considerable.
As we stare at the possibility of a longer lockdown and a significant outbreak what’s the best course of action? Our Winter Pulse Check told us that while owners were confident about the future of their business there was no room for lockdowns. Yet here we are.
Hard as it might be to hear, my first suggestion would be relax. Go for a walk – locally of course – and give yourself a chance to breathe. When you come back, look at the various scenarios that might result from the current situation. Many business owners will have contingency and continuity plans in place drawn from experience after our previous periods of restriction but others won’t. If it all feels overwhelming, ask for help. The challenges will be common to everyone and, as the old saying goes, a problem shared is a problem halved, so talk to others – and talk to your team. Let them lead, provide suggestions and solutions. It may be your business but you don’t have a monopoly on good ideas. Involvement, collaboration, inclusion and managed change are all positive outcomes for businesses in these trying times.
When you think of your own – and your employees’ wellbeing in the coming weeks – remember your values and work to them. Sharing your concerns, open communication, empowering others to speak up and trusting people to do their jobs in the most difficult of circumstances will ease the stress, address the challenges and strengthen your business bonds for the future.
Listening to an audiobook this week, I found myself reflecting on some of the issues raised in our Winter Pulse Check, particularly the reports of exhaustion and stress among business owners.
The book – Move by Caroline Williams – takes a look at the science behind movement and the problems that moving very little can cause us all. As well as urging us off the couch, Move looks at how society has slowed down to a sitting position and the harm that results.
Many of our jobs today involve sitting for long periods of time and, for the business owner spending longer and longer at their desk because of the external pressures of a pandemic, shifting economic conditions and government regulations, they can, in a world moving too fast, find themselves not moving at all.
It is easy to unwittingly become trapped by the computer screen and this enforced immobility is without doubt detrimental to the business owner and the enterprise.
Long periods of inactivity at a desk slow the mind, sap creativity and increase anxiety – all of which undermine good mental health. It is also the fastest way to disconnect with your people and your business so my advice would be – get up and move. Walk round your premises, chat with your team – get up and explore your workplace and leave the screens behind. A ten minute move once an hour will make an enormous difference and, if you are completely absorbed by what’s on your laptop and likely to forget an hour has passed, set an alarm or borrow a fitness tracker that will remind you it is time for you to shift gears.
Making a move isn’t the answer to everything – but it will refresh you, heighten your problem solving ability and boost your creativity all of which will help you manage your business in our increasingly challenging times.
That said – I’m going to take my own advice, leave the screen behind and take a walk. I know it will be a wise move.
The most talked about subject at recent board meetings has been the skills shortage that has really started to bite in New Zealand. Many sectors have been affected by shifting government policy regarding immigration but members are now finding it is inching beyond the hospitality, agriculture and health sectors and into most other skilled professions.
I’ve listened to many heartbreaking stories of families separated because of visa delays or refusals, actions that have left husbands and wives, parents and children, partners and friends stuck and alone on different sides of the world.
Many are now considering whether the promised work and career in New Zealand is worth the pain of separation and, as other countries begin to ease their border controls, the very people we need to retain are preparing to head elsewhere so they can be reunited with their loved ones and obtain well-paid, rewarding employment.
Policy changes at government level are proving challenging to say the least and at our regular board meetings we have discussed what businesses might do to influence or at least highlight the need for action at government level. Then the talk turns to what we can do as business owners to retain the skilled staff we have got – and how can we help them negotiate the maze of red tape that now envelops both the business and our employees?
With those conversations in mind, here are six suggestions that might prove to be a starting point if you are struggling with the skills shortage.
Pay. In the last month hospitality workers have said that there isn’t a skills shortage in their sector, there is a pay shortage. Minimum wage jobs do not meet living costs for many workers who face sky rocketing rents, accommodation shortages and rising prices. It may be worth running a skills audit within your business so you can determine if you have a skills shortage – or a pay shortage. Undertake a competitor analysis, compare sector pay rates and look at the cost of living in your region. Offering competitive pay may be the first step to retaining your workers – or attracting new ones.
Purpose. When was the last time you considered your business purpose? Today’s employees look for employers with whom their values align and a business purpose that resonates with their beliefs.
Place. What’s it like to work at your place? Is there a healthy workplace culture? What do you do to foster an environment where people want to come to work? Take a long look and see if it matches employee expectations.
Potential. Is there room for growth? Will you develop your employees’ potential and encourage their development? Is there a pathway to learning or will their skills stagnate? What can you do to ‘home-grow-your-own’ employees as a way to combat the shortage?
Participation. Do you offer opportunities for participation and collaboration or are you stuck in the ‘command and control’ systems of the past? Employees – particularly the new generation – are looking to be involved in the business, contribute ideas and innovate.
Policy. How good are your employment policies? And, if you have employees separated from their families because of COVID19 restrictions are you prepared to go into bat for them at government level?
There’s no doubt we are in difficult times and we are likely to face more difficulties in the next couple of years so discussing the issues, working on innovative solutions, developing strategies and strengthening the small business owner’s voice at government level are some of the steps we need to take if we are going to knock the skills shortage for six.
We’re deep into rugby season and, just as the first All Blacks team of 2021 was announced, I had the good fortune to find myself sitting with legendary former All Blacks coach Sir Graham Henry. He was in town to speak with the team at PCL Contracting and, before he shared his wisdom with us all, I had the opportunity to ask him a few questions about team culture and motivation.
I shared with him a description of a slide I’ve used for many years when I talk with businesses and peer board members about culture. It is a picture of Wayne Smith with the caption ‘Vision Driven, Values Led’ – very much the All Blacks approach and one that aligns closely with the business world.
He elaborated on this, telling me that in a values led organisation, success is driven by the team – not the coach. Culture has to come from the top down with the leaders in the team upholding the agreed values. When behaviours reinforce those values they need to be acknowledged but when behaviours are at odds with values, that’s when the difficult conversations have to happen. If no action is taken and bad behaviours are ignored, those bad behaviours become the norm by default. He also said that one of his most empowering moments was the realisation that success is down to the team, not the coach. The coach harnesses the collective knowledge of the team – knowledge that exceeds that of a single coach.
We do know that what works for sport often works well for business and harnessing collective wisdom is very much the business of The Alternative Board. Our board members are drawn from all types of businesses and together they address – and find solutions for – the challenges and opportunities they face. We can take the team approach back to our our own enterprises too – as business owners if we constantly take full responsibility for everything we will be permanently exhausted and our employees will not achieve their potential.
The message then is let the team lead. As a business owner – and coach – you facilitate the harnessing of collective wisdom, monitor behaviours and their alignment to your values. You encourage the team to be guardians of the vision and values that have been agreed and in doing so, you’ll give them great opportunities to develop – and be the best that they can be.