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Keeping business productivity going when Swine flu hits


As companies continue to stem the loss of workers suffering from Swine flu, how can you keep your organisation on track? Mary Clarke advises.

The UK has been hit by swine flu once again with recent National Health Service reports showing that the outbreak has affected 66 schools throughout England. Additionally, the Health Protection Agency estimates there were 9,000 new cases of swine flu in England in the last week of September alone, up from 5,000 in the previous week. Sir Liam Donaldson, the Government’s chief medical officer, said that the increases, “suggest the early stages of a second wave” of swine flu, after a lull in cases over the summer.
For businesses, the effects of swine flu related absenteeism could be extremely detrimental to productivity and workflow. Many companies have already struggled to cope with high absentee levels caused by the outbreak as well as from the rising number of swine flu ‘skivers,’ who some employers believe are causing more disruption to businesses than the virus itself. With experts fearing the next strain of the virus will be more virulent than the first, as more people acquire immunity to the current H1N1 virus, now is the time for businesses to put contingency plans in place to ensure that output levels remain steady despite a much reduced workforce.

Using employee assessments to prepare a contingency plan

Implementing employee assessments is one helpful solution that managers can use to prepare for increased absenteeism. Employee assessment and knowledge development programmes provide managers with a complete view of their workforce, so they can identify where the knowledge lies within their employee base, and where there are gaps. These customised assessments are designed to deliver a holistic view of the individual employee.

They measure not only employees’ knowledge and competence, but also their confidence in that knowledge, providing an additional layer of insight into the individual. If workers don’t have complete confidence in their knowledge they will be less likely to perform to their highest ability; even if the knowledge is sound, any doubt in their minds will prevent them from excelling to their full potential.

"There were 9,000 new cases of swine flu in England in the last week of September alone, up from 5,000 the previous week."
Conversely, employees that have complete confidence in incorrect knowledge are more likely to pose a risk to the company. This type of insight helps managers determine where knowledge lies in their companies and how it can best be utilised when coping with a reduced workforce.

Companies need to identify employees with transferable skills

One of the main steps that companies are urged to take to prepare for the epidemic is to identify employees who possess transferable skills, or specific skill sets that can be successfully reapplied in other areas of the company. Assessments help identify who possesses these attributes, allowing managers to ensure that essential positions are always filled and business processes continue at the same level. The isolation of these skills allows managers to see the bigger picture of where in the company these employees could be best utilised, should workers need to be rearranged among departments.
By understanding employees’ transferable skills, job redistribution is quicker and easier, thus reducing business downtime. This knowledge also helps guard against business risk resulting from unprepared or under qualified employees attempting to take on new work that they don’t fully understand. Knowing who can easily and effectively take over positions of staff affected by the virus is critical information for managers trying to maintain business levels in their absence.
"With contingency plans in place managers can ensure that their businesses remain healthy, even if their employees don’t."
In addition to identifying those with transferable skills, assessment programmes can also identify employees who have particular expertise in a specific area or department. Highly knowledgeable and skilled employees are more likely able to take on increased responsibility if worker numbers drop due to illness. They can also serve as leaders and internal references if there are reduced numbers and less experienced people need to step up and fill the gaps. Having an idea of who can be considered a company or department expert will make it easier for managers to redistribute roles and responsibilities within a given department.
Another recommendation for businesses that may be facing increased absenteeism is to consider hiring part-time or temporary help, if budgets allow. Assessments are helpful in this respect as well. By having an assessment programme in place, managers can develop an internal standard for successful and productive employees. Once this standard is established, new recruits can be assessed and measured against it. In this way, managers can get a better idea if temporary staff have the appropriate skills and are well-suited for the given position. This extra insight into the knowledge and confidence of new hires can help managers avoid wasting money and time on ill-suited recruits. This is especially helpful information when working with temporary workers, who may only be on board for a limited time and don’t warrant a huge time or monetary training investment.
Whether or not there is a swine flu epidemic, now is a good time for executives to put in place contingency plans that would enable their companies to manage the impact of swine flu, continue to function at a high level and maintain their productivity levels. Government and health organisations have sounded the alarms for what companies can expect in terms of absenteeism rates. To plan ahead with confidence, businesses need to have a clear view of the skills and knowledge within their workforce. With contingency plans in place managers can ensure that their businesses remain healthy, even if their employees don’t.

Mary J Clarke is chief executive of Cognisco. Prior to this, Mary spent over twenty years in the IT and telecommunications industry and served as vice president for Lucent Technologies, formerly AT&T Network Systems.

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