Getting back to business now the borders are down

Many businesses were necessarily quick to adapt when COVID restrictions such as WA’s hard border came into force. But with the last state border in the country now open again, what’s the current situation for businesses and what adjustments will be required to adapt to the “new norm”? Acuity Group Director and Business Coach ROBERT BENTLEY spoke to The Yield about the issues and potential adjustments as the world moves forward.

As the COVID pandemic hit and started to send shockwaves across the country, many businesses quickly felt its negative impacts.

But others, buoyed by an ongoing mining boom and demand for Australian agricultural products, were quick to adapt. Or as quick as they could be.

According to Robert Bentley, Director and Business Coach with Acuity Group, booms bring with them a unique set of challenges.

Rob says anyone attached to the booming mining sector has had to grapple with a range of hurdles.

“Demand for products and services means there’s really been a fight on for the capacity and skills that are required in a very competitive landscape,” he said.

“We’re also seeing rising wages because of the strong economy, and that’s caused additional headaches, like people being lured away from hospitality to FIFO roles where they are being offered extraordinary remuneration for unskilled labour.

“Hospitality has been struggling to keep people and to find people for the past two years, plus the industry has been uniquely challenged every time there’s a lockdown.”

Rob expects there’ll be a rush of interstate people into WA now the borders are open, capitalising on the State’s buoyant labour market and comparatively low real estate prices. He also says the opening of international borders is vital.

“Foreign workers are an important part of the economy in WA because they provide a reliable, skilled workforce with a desire to work hard,” he said.

“A lot of overseas workers are happy to be indentured to an employer while they get their permanent residency. So I think there’s going to be a rush of people coming here. I think we’re going to really struggle for capacity to house people and there’ll be an increased demand for services, but that should balance out in time and see the claims for salary increases settle so employers can get back to more realistic and manageable wage bills in many sectors.”

There’s no denying the stiff competition for skilled workers in many industries will continue, particularly while mining sector demand remains high. So what’s the secret to attracting and retaining enough workers with the right skills, experience and aptitude?

Rob’s advice is to address it not as a recruitment issue, but a sales and marketing one.

“As an employer, we have to make our business so attractive that people will want to come and work for us and then want to stay,” he explained.

“If we’re not doing that, we can expect staff are going to be lured somewhere else, so first and foremost, we have to think about our employer brand. And then think about ways in which we can make the workplace so awesome that people will never want to leave.

“I’m encouraging my clients to flip things totally on their head and look at ideas like the global trend toward a four-day work week. It doesn’t mean staff are working less hours, they just squeeze the hours into four days and have three days off, as long as there’s coverage over the normal working week. That’s the sort of significant differentiators that could be required.”

A beneficial side effect of the pandemic was that a lot of organisations got smarter about how they were working, from providing necessary flexibility in work arrangements to adopting new systems and processes.

According to Rob, the degree to which those things stick into the future will depend very much on the business and the ways in which it intends to maintain a sense of team.

“One thing that COVID proved for a lot of businesses was that people were quick to accept online meetings – particularly in my business where I had to move to online coaching,” Rob said.

“I’d never have thought that would have been feasible or workable, but using a product like Zoom absolutely demonstrated to me that interstate and overseas clients – and even local ones when times required it – were quite accepting because what really mattered was the continuity of services more than the face-to-face contact.

“It also offers a lot more flexibility and is very cost effective compared to jumping on a plane once a month, so I’d say online meetings are here to stay for a lot of organisations.

“That said, we’ve been evolving as a social species over several million years and just because we had a two-year hiatus, we’re not going to change our DNA to the point we’ll stop interacting in person.

“Human beings have short memories and I think once we’ve got a few years of this being in the rear view mirror, we might start to revert to pre-COVID behaviours.

“From a business perspective, we want to develop strong and lasting relationships with clients and need to be in their environments – at least some of the time – to do that. But we don’t necessarily have to do it every time.”

Rob admits there’ll be a long and lasting tail to the pandemic, particularly as COVID has already been incorporated into daily work health and safety regimes for mining, construction and energy companies among others. And politicking aside, he says we will ultimately be guided by public health policy and government requirements.

“If the cost and larger imposition of the current rules subside, then I think the majority of people will most likely be happy to comply with measures that are designed to keep us safe and ensure business continuity,” he said.