(5-minute read)

With the higher education sector facing uncertainty on multiple fronts, it’s all too easy for universities to take a piecemeal approach to recruiting staff and managing vacancies. SUMS Associate Consultant Debbie England (FCIPD) points to lessons learned from other sectors in how to benefit from taking a more strategic, long-term view.

Although numbers of vacancies in the UK employment market have fallen over recent months, the ability to attract and retain talent continues to be challenging. In this environment many organisations are recognising the importance of long-term workforce planning.  Emma Ogden provided insight into effective workforce planning in her article which can be found here.  It is clearly important to understand your organisation’s long-term skill needs and put in place plans to secure these skills. It is equally important, given current economic challenges to ensure that the current workforce is optimally and sustainably deployed.

This article pulls together the findings from my conversations with contacts from across a variety of industries, desk research and my own experience of working across a variety of sectors. I particularly looked at organisations which are traditionally staff intensive and need to provide services to their customers outside the typical 9 to 5.  This research included food retail, hospitality, the care sector and sectors including financial services whose service provision increasingly relies on contact centres.

So what do these organisations focus on to ensure optimal alignment between customer need and workforce utilisation and how might this apply in Higher Education?

Five key areas of focus emerged:

1) Staffing Data

Organisations are maximising the use of their staffing data to inform their staffing decisions. For example, there are several financial services and retail organisations who are developing sophisticated artificial intelligence to predict staff turnover and enable action to be put in place to retain talent and plan recruitment activity.

Whilst HE may not currently deploy AI tools like this, it is possible to extract useful data from HR systems to identify typical length of service in key roles, understand the length of service of current staff, identify areas of high staff turnover and, using this data, target tailored activity to retain staff. These tailored retention solutions might include promotion and progression programmes, reward and recognition, training and development and more flexible working opportunities.

2) Extending the use of the functionality of HR systems

Most of the major HR systems available include time and attendance and rostering functions. The care sector, food retail and contact centre operations increasingly maximise the use of this functionality to ensure they best organise rotas to meet the needs of their customers and their staffs’ working pattern preferences. The functionality enables managers to define the rota requirements for each required skill set. The system then develops and communicates rotas based on staff contracted hours, preferred shift patterns and known absences (annual leave, training courses etc). The rostering systems also enable staff with the equivalent skill sets to swop shifts, accept additional shifts, and sends data direct to the payroll.

Use of time and attendance and rostering functions may not be applicable to all parts of HE but there is a demand from students to be able to access services at weekends and evenings.  Use of rostering functionality technology would enable best possible  alignment of staff availability and work pattern preferences  to meet student service needs.

3) Flexible and part time working

The retail, care and hospitality organisations I researched default to offering flexible working as part of attracting and retaining staff in their organisations. This enables them to access a larger section of the workforce by offering flexible shifts which work around other commitments.

These organisations recruit and retain more part time staff who can take on additional work at peak times without working excessive hours, improving resilience, reducing the cost of overtime and reliance on agency workers.  The typical contract for a store assistant in food retailing, for example, starts at around 20 hours a week.

Whilst levels of vacancies in the UK remains significantly higher than the average over the last 20 years, levels of economic inactivity are also higher than average particularly in those aged between 50 and 64. There are more than 300k less 50 to 64-year-olds in the workforce compared with pre pandemic numbers.   There are many reasons for this drop in employment levels.  The government is seeking to tackle this through taxation reform e.g., removal of lifetime allowance pension cap and benefits reform.  Legislative reform is also planned to include the ability for new employees to apply for flexible working from day one of employment.  The lack of access to flexible high-quality roles, however continues to be  cited as a key barrier to bringing people back into the workforce.

Looking at the main HE UK jobsite at the time of writing this article, there were just over 6000 vacancies being advertised.  Just under 15% of these vacancies appeared if the search was narrowed to part time opportunities. Could removal of the default full time job advertising and requirement for full time working enable your organisation to attract and retain talent and help make it more resilient?

Could removal of the default full time job advertising and requirement for full time working enable your organisation to attract and retain talent and help make it more resilient?

4) Reward management

The retail, hospitality, care and contact centre organisations researched carefully and regularly review their reward packages to attract and retain staff.  Flexible working is a key part of their employment offer, combined with carefully designed and communicated pay and benefit packages.  These may include, for example, paying a base hourly rate which is consistently higher than local competitors, providing flexible benefits and access to discounts and making optimal use of tax and national insurance allowances through salary sacrifice and use of personal allowances. This active management of reward helps to retains staff and reduces the cost of unplanned overtime and need for use of agency staff.

In HE some aspects of reward are negotiated at a sector level, however are you ensuring that your organisation is making best use of benefit options available? For example, do you promote and enable staff access to the vast opportunity for learning and development which all Universities provide for their students?  Do you provide flexible access to benefits, use salary sacrifice schemes and ensure that the total value of reward packages is really understood by current staff and job applicants and promoted as part of a comprehensive Employee Value Proposition (EVP).

5) Process design

The organisations researched included sectors which are staff intensive and typically experience much higher staff turnover than the 15-17% reported UK average. Consequently, they place significant emphasis on process design to ensure resources are invested in value-adding activities and that productivity is maximised.  For example, many online retailers have very carefully reviewed their online order picking processes to identify the reasons for picking errors. They  have then made changes to their warehouse lay outs and product identification codes  to reduce picking errors and reduce the need to process returns. The care home sector is increasingly utilising resident monitoring technology to both increase safety and reduce the need for regular checks on residents particularly at night.

In HE, can we identify the processes which do not add value and waste staff time enabling staff to spend more of their time on value adding and satisfying work. Are there processes which could be more student self-service or chatbot enabled reducing the need for staff and enabling students to have more access to services 24/7.

In these challenging times, workforce planning and current workforce optimisation are critical to long term sustainability. I am not saying that any of these sectors are getting everything right in terms of their employment proposition, but I do think there are areas of workforce optimisation focus that the HE sector could learn from.

If you’d like to know more about SUMS Human Resources Service, more information is available on our website. 

For more information about workforce planning or workforce optimisation or to discuss these topics in more detail please contact Debbie England or Emma Ogden at sums@reading.ac.uk


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