At a glance
Decades of labour market deregulation, a global recession and the rise of the gig economy have made temporary workers a common feature of the modern workforce.
According to the 2018-19 Hays Salary Guide, a survey of more than 3000 organisations across Australia and New Zealand, 24 per cent of employers use temporary staff on an ongoing basis and another 42 per cent report using temporary or contract staff on special projects or during periods of high workload.
Pros and cons of a flexible workforce
A temporary workforce can supply the specialised skills needed on a project and provide a raft of economic benefits for employers, particularly in seasonal or demand-driven industries.
“You only pay for people to work for you when the work is there, which means you can link up your wage bill with economic activity,” says Peter Holland, associate professor in the Department of Management at Monash Business School.
Hiring people on short-term contracts is also an effective way to identify talent for permanent positions.
“You get to see the person in action,” Holland says. “There are a lot of upsides to spending time getting the right people and seeing them as key assets in your organisation and potential long-term employees.”
However, for all its perceived economic benefits, a workforce made up of temporary workers can create problems around culture and engagement, which in turn can contribute to absenteeism and a high attrition rate.
“A workplace filled with non-committed workers going through the motions until something better comes along (or before they are axed) does not make for high engagement,” Holland writes in The Conversation.
An over-reliance on contract staff can create instability, damage relationships and lead to a loss of corporate knowledge, he says.
“You might think that you’re saving wages but, in the long-term, customers might find it disconcerting dealing with different people each time.”
It pays to treat temporary workers the same as a permanent staff member, with equivalent perks and benefits. According to 2014 research in the Journal of Corporate Finance, organisations that treat all staff well – permanent and temporary – are more innovative and deliver greater benefits to shareholders.
“Productivity today is about engagement,” Holland says. “Most people want to be treated as part of a team,” he says, not an “economic unit” to exploit.
A positive employment experience also makes a contractor more likely to recommend an organisation to others. Offer a negative experience and “it can come back and bite you in the social media age – you might find a review of your company on Glassdoor”, Holland says.
“There’s a self-interest factor. If you’re a bad employer, you’re not likely to get the best workers.”
When recruiting a contract worker, Holland suggests involving the team members the recruit will be working with in the selection process.
“There’s nothing worse than working in a team when someone is dropped in that doesn’t fit,” he says.
A shining example
ShineWing Australia regularly deploys non-permanent staff in its Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney offices on projects, in secondment positions and through its internship program.
Every year, four or five secondees arrive from accounting firms in the US, UK and Asia.
“They’re hugely beneficial,” says David Meagher, head of People and Culture at ShineWing.
“They come and work with us during our busy period, so we’re able to flex up our resources. They can quickly support our clients’ needs because of their background and training.”
Reciprocal agreements allow ShineWing Australia’s employees to take up international secondment opportunities as well, which Meagher says contributes to their development. It also “means we can flex down when we’re not as busy”.
“During the summer months, when Australia seems to close down for three or four weeks, we’re able to send our people to places like Indianapolis, Houston, London, New York and Chicago, and into China as well.”
Each year, ShineWing Australia offers around 20 internships across its three offices to university students.
“Some firms take on a lot more interns than there are vacancies,” says Meagher. “I don’t like that approach. The intent is always to offer them a graduate position if they meet the standard that we’re after.”
An induction program for all incoming temporary workers “starts well before they even set foot in our business,” Meagher says.
“We provide them with opportunities to complete online learning modules prior to their start, and they’re provided with basic information about what is expected of them.”
Staff on longer-term contracts are offered the same support and benefits as permanent employees.
“We may not provide them with the same learning and development experiences that are aimed at long-term employees,” says Meagher, noting the exception of interns.
“Our aim is to get them back as graduates. We’re trying to give them the best possible experience that we can, so we overspend on learning and development. We see that as a long-term investment in our people.”
Meagher says that the presence of temporary workers has a positive effect in the workplace.
“It’s good for people to pass on their knowledge to new employees. There’s always a buzz around the office when the interns start in December and when the secondees arrive, people are always interested to find out what their experiences are when they’ve worked overseas, and how they compare to our own office.”