Small businesses across South Africa face the challenge of keeping their best staff and skills during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure that they can survive these hard times and can thrive when the economy picks up again.

For small and medium enterprises (SMEs), keeping top talent is vital to ensuring that these companies deliver effective products as well as services to their clients.

This comment comes from a “thought paper” published in June this year about talent management and penned by six University of Pretoria master’s students.

The right talent is a differentiator

The right talent was a key differentiator for companies to gain a competitive advantage and attain future success, they wrote.

They defined the right talent as “giftedness, individual strength, meta-competency, high potential and high-performance workers”.

“Employees are a crucial and valuable element of any organisation. They are the life force that drives innovation, profitability and sustainability,” they added.

Nishan Pillay, Gordon Institute of Business Science’s (Gibs) executive director for open programmes, said during an interview that it was vital for small businesses to keep their high-performing staff.

A quote to bear in mind

The master’s students’ paper included a quote that is worth bearing in mind when considering strategies to keep top people.

It comes from the former chairman of the Citicorp, Walter Wriston, who said: “Human capital will go where it is wanted, and it will stay where it is well treated.”

“In a time of…disruption, evolving technology, stiff competition, and increased demand for limited talent, no organisation wants to lose their top talent that they have invested so much in to acquire and develop,” the master’s students wrote.

Costly to replace staff that exit

Adding to the picture is that it is expensive and time-consuming to replace staff.

Alex Nieuwoudt, manager of recruitment firm Michael Page’s finance and legal team in Johannesburg, said during an interview that it could cost between R150 000 and R350 000 to fill a middle to senior role.

“Hiring people, getting them to know your culture and systems, is hugely expensive. Recruitment costs aren’t just about the agency costs of bringing someone in, it’s about the training, development and the cultural assimilation,” Gibs’ Pillay said.

Changing candidate questions

It is also worth noting that candidates that Michael Page interviewed before COVID-19 focused their questions on the job in question.

But now the critical issue for these candidates was how the company doing the hiring was coping with COVID-19, Nieuwoudt added.

It was essential to answer these questions accurately, as a new hire would find the truth once he or she joined the company and could leave if what they discover wasn’t to their liking. Thus the company would have to incur all the hiring costs again, he said.

Given this, it is essential that when small businesses advertise for a post that they have their answers ready for this burning topic.

Four strategies to keep staff

There are many strategies that companies can use to keep staff.

Nieuwoudt suggested four strategies that SMEs can consider for keeping staff. These four strategies are:

  1. Allowing staff flexible working conditions,
  2. Empowering employees,
  3. Providing virtual wellness, which is where the company gives their employees the means to operate successfully remotely while maintaining staff motivation,
  4. Promoting staff and acknowledging their achievements.

Virtual wellness is also determined by a company’s reputation, including its corporate social responsibility schemes. This measure impacts on employee mood and decisions about whether to join and then stay with the company, Nieuwoudt said.

The desire for flexible employment

Michael Page ran a poll recently, and 84% of the respondents wanted their companies to give them a permanent option to have flexible conditions of employment, Nieuwoudt said.

“This gives you an understanding of how the mind-set of employees has changed in South Africa,” he added.

“Flexible working conditions are now at the forefront of hiring conversations. It is very critical to keep that in mind,” Nieuwoudt said.

Digital working is vital

Geoff Jacobs, president of the Cape Chamber of Commerce & Industry, advised that for companies to keep their staff, it was vital for them to move to the digital way of working, especially given the COVID-19 social distancing requirements.

Jacobs also suggested in response to questions that to allow for easier retention of staff, SMEs should review all expenses, especially rent.

A third retention tactic that he suggested was that small companies remodel the roles of their staff, so they take on extra duties or get the employees to help the company offer new services and products given the opportunities because of COVID-19.

If a company had to retrench staff, it was critical that the business part with its staff on the best possible terms so that when the economy grows again, these former employees would be keen to re-join the business.

Recruit from your pool of alumni

Karel Stanz, a University of Pretoria professor, said during an interview that hiring a company’s former employees or alumni was one of the most cost-effective ways of recruiting staff.

He is a professor in industrial psychology at the Department of Human Resource Management at the university.

Jacobs also advised that as part of the staff retention strategy, small companies should ensure frequent interaction across digital platforms.

“Build online communities that aid in social interactions for employees preferring flexible work arrangements. These online communities allow employees to interact with colleagues, superiors, and clients. It also allows the organisation to monitor the employees’ engagement levels and needs,” the University of Pretoria master’s students wrote.

These students in their paper also listed the following measures to ensure a company keeps its top staff:

  • Have a conducive company culture,
  • Provide staff with meaningful work,
  • Offer employees career advancement
  • Provide staff with a sense of belonging.

They also referred to respect, recognition and rewards as necessary means to keep staff.

Opportunity to gain scarce skills

In a surprising turn of events, Stanz said that the COVID-19 pandemic had provided specific companies with a chance to gain scarce skills.

He said that a former student of his was working in a human resources role for a timber company in Nelspruit.

Before the lockdown, it was difficult for this company to find people with technical skills such as artisans.

But ArcelorMittal South Africa retrenched many people, including artisans, and this has provided the timber company with access to these skills.

Digital skills important

Dr Jabulile Msimango-Galawe, Wits Business School programme director for business and executive coaching, said in response to questions that during and after lockdown, some businesses would continue to work online.

“People in the digital space with the required skills will need to get businesses trading again, and marketing online will be in demand,” Msimango-Galawe said. These skills would include analytical and digital capabilities, she added.

Attitude is key

“From what we’ve seen in the past few months, it’s not so much skills that you need to keep, but the attitude of your staff that supports the values of the business,” Jacobs added.

Individuals with multiple skills would be in demand and the era of having one critical skill was over, Msimango-Galawe said.

Michael Page’s Nieuwoudt said that essential skills right now included candidates that helped companies achieve their employment equity targets.

Gibs’ Pillay identified types of people and critical areas of skill where small businesses needed to keep staff, and these included staff with high levels of creativity as well as those with strong people skills.