Professional Comment

What to Do Now to Weather the Winter Staffing Storm

By Scott Erwin, founder and CEO of the flexible workforce platform HireHand (

Even before the impact of COVID-19, many operators were already becoming increasingly reliant on agency staff to cover staff absences and dropped shifts, usually at far higher costs. And this year the added challenges have made workforce planning even more difficult.

Sickness and isolation are causing random volumes and patterns of absenteeism. Staff may need to care for family members who are sick or home school children who are isolating, with little or short notice. Thanks to COVID-related complications, staff sickness and absence rates could reach as much as 15% this winter.

To add pressure to an already stretched system, the Government is now proposing a ban on care staff moving between locations to reduce the spread of COVID-19 this winter. These restrictions will complicate staffing issues further and only add to the headache faced by many care home managers who need to fill every shift with adequate staffing levels to ensure patient needs are met.

Recruitment and staffing within the sector have long been challenging. But in an era where our ability to predict what is happening is gone, how can we possibly balance costs with such changeable staffing needs while delivering top quality care?

Fortunately, there is an approach that allows you to manage costs and unpredictable needs at the same time. The solution lies in rethink- ing your approach to staffing. In short, the answer is to set full-time staffing levels to the minimum required for operational stability and use dynamic reserves to cover all other levels of demand.

When instability reaches a certain point, static staffing breaks. Costs become unrelated to business needs. To survive the winter staffing storm, set your fixed-staffing levels as low as possible and fill as many roles as possible with dynamic staff.

Static roles are any roles that have a fixed rota pattern, and you would want in place no matter how low or high your site requires. Dynamic roles, in contrast, are those roles that can be filled from a pool of people who work non-fixed hours. Be mindful that the dynamic reserves are as important to the care home as permanent staff. They aren’t a band-aid – and their performance depends on their satisfaction and retention.

Dynamic staffing allows businesses to respond swiftly to unpredictability. Now is the time to act, to build a bank of staff against each site, thereby creating a flexible workforce allowing you to withstand the staffing demands of the weeks and months ahead.

Once you have identified the overall proportion of permanent staff numbers and dynamic reserves you can begin mapping your dynamic reserve skills against your care home needs. To do this, consider the following points:

Identify which skills are in demand.

Map the skills you already have available (in your reserves, or amongst staff you can transition to your reserves).

Map the skills you need against your operating hours to understand peaks and distribution.

Compare your operational needs to the skills and availability you have.

Recruit for skills gaps or availability gaps and prioritise those who can perform multiple skills.

Be intentional about hiring people seeking dynamic work and whose desired availability matches your shift needs.

Dynamic staffing gives maximum responsiveness and efficiency, but it is complex, particularly for larger operators. This is before having to build pools of labour specific to individual sites. The moving parts involved – the volume of workers, their availability, the necessary skills, performance feedback – is hard enough when setting schedules in advance. Dynamic staffing software can help take the operational headache away.

In mastering the art of staffing in an era of unpredictability, operators can not only survive this current period, but also help to boost efficiency for the business, satisfaction for staff and most importantly, contentment for patients as a result.