The top five challenges facing small businesses during the Delta outbreak

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It’s been written about everywhere, but this pandemic is undoubtedly not good for business, with shutdowns across the eastern seaboard hampering many, in terms of being able to ply their trade. However, quite apart from the obvious, Delta is creating far-reaching challenges for companies now and into the future across several other areas.

Companies need to assess and meet these challenges to manage the road to recovery. Some things are within a company’s sphere of influence, and others will require some creative thinking to address and overcome obstacles beyond your control.

The first three issues are around your workforce, where you can find solutions, and the last two are external factors all businesses need to be aware of:

1. Recruitment and the labour shortage

It’s not just the agricultural sector struggling to find seasonal workers, but the labour shortage is being felt across the country, including professional services and trades. Analysis of 800 jobs by the National Skills Commission earlier this year revealed that one in five occupations in Australia suffers from skill shortages, with regional areas being the hardest hit. It showed 265 jobs in high future demand, including IT, aged care and disability workers, and labourers.

Part of the issue is the stagnant migration rates, stopping the influx of skilled workers from abroad to fill professional and other roles and limiting the number of seasonal workers for agriculture. 

I would counsel companies to start to think laterally about how they might fill positions. With the increase in work from home arrangements, don’t limit recruitment searches to the city you operate. If your business can manage the role from anywhere, advertise Australia-wide to increase the pool of potential candidates.

In terms of agricultural and manufacturing roles, it’s time to accept that increased labour costs might need to be passed on to consumers at the check-out if that means attracting a local workforce with higher wage expectations. 

If units and lines aren’t profitable within your business, consider dropping those and reallocating the workforce to the areas reaping profits. 

Consider upskilling existing employees or taking on additional apprentices and training them into the tradespeople you need. 

2. Staff mental health

According to Allianz, workplace mental health claims, or psychological injuries, are rising, going up 5% in the 2020/21 financial year from the previous corresponding period.

There’s no doubt the emotional toll of lockdowns is reverberating across Australia, with figures from insurance industry research showing two-thirds of us are struggling to find the balance between work and personal space.

While it’s not an easy fix, employers need to check in with their teams more than ever to discover who may be struggling and identify ways to build a feeling of camaraderie and inclusion, despite the lack of physical presence. Employers need to provide support and solutions for staff who are doing it tough and identify preventative measures for the whole team.

Activities like step challenges, sending appreciation cards to staff, remote cocktail evenings, and trivia challenges are great to keep teams feeling connected to the real world, but these should be balanced with a review of HR policies and procedures, updating them to reflect the workplace environment COVID has created.

Consider more flexible working arrangements for parents — these employees are also trying to balance home schooling with work, which can considerably contribute to burnout and low mental health.

For companies without a dedicated HR resource, there are plenty of consultant HR practitioners who can assist with the more serious policy elements of HR. 

Consider incorporating half days off into the work calendar. Far from reducing productivity, a refreshed and revitalised team with higher morale is more likely to give more back when they are at work. You can also nominate someone to take charge of company morale with some team building activities.

3. Vaccination policies

Vaccine passports are a hot topic at present. In NSW and Victoria, post-lockdown incentives for the vaccinated are being touted. In Queensland and WA, the debate rages about when to open borders to COVID-affected states. At a more micro level, retail, travel and hospitality businesses are grappling with whether they only open their doors to vaccinated people and what the backlash of that might be among a loud and substantial group of anti-vaxxers.

And what rights do businesses have to insist on employees being vaccinated before returning to the office?

The federal government has made no official announcements beyond mandating health, education, and aged care workers must be vaccinated, which leaves companies trying to navigate a potential legal minefield if they do it themselves.

The Victorian government intends to introduce a “no jab, no entry” policy for people going to major events, restaurants or pubs as part of its reopening strategy. Melbourne’s metro roadmap published on September 19 highlights weddings, real estate, tourism, health and beauty and other industries, including personal services, will only be available to the fully vaccinated once the state hits 80% double vaccination. 

It also mandated that all construction workers were vaccinated (one jab) before September 23, which did not go down well with some CFMEU members, and has since resulted in the industry being shut down for another fortnight — highlighting how fraught a vaccination policy will be for some industries.

Airlines have taken it upon themselves to mandate all flight crew and passengers be vaccinated. And Telstra, which has nearly 29,000 employees, is proposing compulsory vaccinations for 8,300 roles, including retail staff and technicians who have dealings with the public. It will accept medical exemptions and redeploy those staff, but it won’t excuse those who refuse to be vaccinated for personal reasons. It is, however, facing some tough talks with unions to get the proposal over the line.

SafeWork NSW has indicated businesses “may require workers to be vaccinated for COVID-19 if reasonably practicable to do so”. However, it will come down to whether a challenge is brought before the courts about whether employers will be able to mandate vaccinations. So, for now, the exact consequences of the law uncertain. Under the current employment laws, employers can issue “lawful and reasonable” directions to their workers. They have to take “reasonably practicable” steps to keep staff safe. It remains to be seen whether vaccination will slot neatly within that legislation.

The Fair Work Ombudsman has also published some handy guidelines for employers, but has also cautioned: “Employers should exercise caution if they’re considering making COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory in their workplace and get their own legal advice.”

It advises that “employers and employees are encouraged to work together to find solutions that suit their individual needs and workplaces”.

4. Cyber crime on the rise

With an increasingly distributed workforce accessing the office via mobile and other devices, it’s no wonder that cyber crime has seen a dramatic increase during the pandemic. 

According to the latest Global Threat Insights Report from Hewlett Packard, there was a 65% rise in the use of hacking tools downloaded from underground forums and filesharing websites.

The report found that 75% of malware detected was delivered via email, while web downloads were responsible for the remaining 25%. Threats downloaded using web browsers rose by 24%, partially driven by users downloading hacking tools and cryptocurrency mining software. The most common email phishing lures were invoices and business transactions (49%), while 15% replied to intercepted email threads.

While there is no doubt cyber criminals will continue to evolve and find new ways to dupe unwitting victims. Companies can still be on the front foot by reviewing their IT protocols, systems and processes and ensuring they have the most up to date software to mitigate the risks.

A full audit should include training all staff in governance and policies, primarily as 95% of cyber breaches occur because of human error, such as opening attachments or emails. While many companies don’t have the budget for a dedicated IT team, businesses can outsource the function to address the growing issue of cyber crime.

5. Supply chain challenges

Many businesses are starting to feel the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks on the supply chain. Australia’s biggest trading partners and manufacturers are China and other Asian countries. China’s latest Delta outbreak has been so bad that one coronavirus case was enough to shut down a critical part of the world’s third-busiest container port for two weeks at Ningbo.

Australia also faces competition for the limited stock from countries like the US, where consumer spending is way up. The flow-on effect is that shipping rates are being driven up. The increased freight cost will need to be borne by consumers.

All of this is not helped by our current “cool” relationship with China, resulting in less priority for Australian businesses than other markets. 

The evening news is urging consumers to start ordering for Christmas now. And many retail businesses find themselves in a difficult position where they are trying to order Christmas stock early and are considering cancelling some of the lucrative pre-Christmas sales to meet the likely demands of the festive season.

The supply chain issues have a knock-on effect for local manufacturing, which often relies on foreign-made parts. It brings into sharp perspective our reliance on other markets to keep the cogs turning.

Where possible, Australian businesses will need to look closer to home or other markets for the products and parts they relied on from COVID-affected countries. The issue also creates an exciting business opportunity for local manufacturers who may be able to pivot and offer locally made parts and products. 

Of course, the knock-on effect is that local wages are higher and that cost will need to be borne ultimately by the consumer, but it seems that prices will rise either way — whether it’s shipping or local wages.

There are undoubtedly several challenges facing Australian businesses, but with some lateral thinking, foresight and sensible planning, many of them can be addressed to allow companies to head on the road towards recovery.

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