Earlier this year it was reported that the rise of zero-hour contracts (or ZHCs) has finally reached its peak in Britain. These casual work agreements absolve both employees and employers from committing to a fixed number of working hours, and have been endlessly torn apart in the press. It seems that no decisive call has been made about whether the ZHC is a sturdy pillar of an employed society, or a superficial foundation that is crumbling under the weight of those at the bottom of the pyramid.
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Either way, the volatile economy and increased demand for flexibility at work and home means that the 1.7 million ZHCs in Britain are unlikely to end any time soon.
Why do people want zero-hour contracts?
The major benefit for the employer is that they are given a huge amount of flexibility within their shift scheduling. Additional team members can be brought in to cover peak periods (like holidays or promotional events), cover long-term absences (maternity leave, for example), or until a new business establishes a routine, all without the obligation of promising consistent hours to the same staff in the future.
Zero-hour contracts also afford the same flexibility to employees; they are more able to accept (or decline) shifts according to their own schedules, making it easier to hold down multiple jobs or work around family or education. They are still eligible to earn the National Minimum Wage and are entitled to the same statutory leave as other workers in the UK.
What are the drawbacks of zero-hour contracts?
The downsides of working under a zero-hour contract have been well-documented by the press! Workers are unlikely to enjoy much job stability, and are often forced to accept an inconsistent and unpredictable income. Shifts can be offered and cancelled at very short-notice, making it difficult to plan ahead when trying to balance different jobs.
Equally, employers can struggle to find staff to cover every shift, particularly at short notice. They can also end up building their teams with lots of part-time staff, who will all need to be trained to complete the same tasks and deliver the same level of service. This can end up being costly and time-consuming, particularly when operating in an industry with a high rate of staff turnover.
Working out appropriate holiday pay and annual leave accrual can be challenging, and can often leave both parties feeling cheated, adding to a further breakdown in efficiency.
What’s the secret to maintaining a zero-hour workforce effectively?
It’s clear that there is something to be said for zero-hour contracts. Certainly, if they’re managed properly then they offer a flexible work-life balance that comfortably satisfies the needs of both managers and their teams. Here are the three golden rules for getting it right.
1. Organisation is king
Excellent organisational skills are imperative for any manager who relies on zero-hour contract workers as the backbone of their team. That includes preparing rotas well in advance, and using a bit of foresight to anticipate shifts that you expect to be extra-busy. The more warning you give to your staff, the easier it will be for them to meet the needs of your business.
Tips for effective staff scheduling:
- Plan rotas at least 2-weeks ahead, so staff have plenty of time to check their hours and deal with issues or conflicts.
- Post your rotas at the same time each week so shift-checking becomes habitual.
- Be mindful of local events (or seasonal occurrences) which might affect customer volume.
- Keep track of which members of your team have other commitments, like family, school or other jobs.
Investing in a dedicated workforce planning software can make the scheduling process really simple. Not only will it make it easier to allocate shifts, but staff can use their phones to access their rota and manage their own admin (like requesting holidays and arranging shift-swaps). The result is better communication and a happier, more empowered team – all with less effort on your part.
2. Build your team carefully
The next secret to success is employing a diverse group of people. Yes, they should all be motivated, honest and generally pleasant to work with, but beyond that, they may have a broad range of skills, personalities and backgrounds.
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Experienced staff members will bring the industry knowledge that you need to keep business ticking over, while student staff may be more flexible to work at short-notice and pick up extra shifts during busy holidays. Introverts might freeze up in a customer-facing role, but they might be much more effective at managing your stock room than a more outgoing employee. Acknowledging the unique qualities each team member brings is more likely to make them feel valued, and keep your workplace running harmoniously.
You should also know how your employment fits in with your employees’ lives outside of work, and how that might impact their shifts. For example, an employee with a young family might be free to work during school hours, but asking them to cover a late-night shift will put them in a difficult position. Try to be fair (and a little flexible) in what you expect from your staff, and you’ll be rewarded with greater respect and a willingness to occasionally help out when you’re in a tight spot.
3. Communicate, communicate, communicate
The irregular nature of zero-hour work means that managers might not meet with (or even see) their staff on a regular basis. This can quickly lead to a break-down in communication, people feeling like they are out of the loop, and frustrations on both sides of the table.
As a manager, you might feel that you don’t “owe” any of your staff an explanation behind new policies, shift-changes or approving particular holiday requests. However, being as transparent as possible and establishing a forum for feedback makes everyone feel like an included member of the team, even if you still make the final call.
At the end of the day, few people choose to make a long-term living on a zero-hour contract. The nature of the work means that staff will inevitably move on to find other work, and without increasing wages or offering a more substantial working agreement, there will be little you can do to convince them otherwise. However, by implementing these three rules you’ll find that you retain staff for longer, engender a greater degree of loyalty and create a more productive zero-hour workforce while they’re with you.
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