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Arrow Professional Services president and managing director Sam Ibrahim

Michelle Siu/The Globe and Mail

Each week, we seek out expert advice to help a small or medium-sized company overcome a key issue .

When it comes to his company's financial information, Sam Ibrahim can predict well into the future.  But when it comes to his employees' daily workloads, he says projections are almost impossible.

The  workload unpredictability has led to staff-retention issues for Mr. Ibrahim, who is president and managing director of Arrow Professional Services, a Toronto-based recruitment firm with six locations and about 200 employees, which generated revenue of $11.6-million last year.

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Mr. Ibrahim says that short notice and quick turnarounds are the norm for the recruitment industry, and, as a result, there are often wild swings in how much work needs to be done in a day.

"We work with [our clients] as much as we can to get as much projection in the forecast as possible, but the reality is that we're lucky if we get a week's notice."

This means employees need to be flexible. "There are certain expectations. At 3,  if a client just ordered some staff for tomorrow, then you've got to stay until it's done. On the flip side, the next day, it's okay to come in at 9:30 or 10."

Arrow tries to prepare new employees for this unpredictability. "We really try to make it extremely clear in the interview process what someone is going to get themselves into," Mr. Ibrahim says. "However, the reality is that they've got to see it firsthand."

Some new hires simply can't handle these wild swings in workloads, and end up resigning, he says. "I would say about 20 per cent, within the first three months, are completely overwhelmed by the expectations," Mr. Ibrahim says.

Because Arrow's training and onboarding costs are high, "we do lose a lot of money, directly and collaterally, when an employee doesn't work out. It's extremely detrimental," he adds.

Arrow has tried to address its retention issues by hiring employees with demonstrated time-management and multitasking skills. Once on board, the company's training program helps new employees further develop these skills. Additionally, Arrow tries to reduce wild swings by distributing work across its six locations.

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These tactics have helped to reduce retention issues somewhat, but not as much as Mr. Ibrahim would like. "Overall, this year, it has gotten slightly better, but not enough to say that we've now figured this out."

The Challenge: How can the company help employees better manage their unpredictable workloads, and reduce retention problems?

THE EXPERTS WEIGH IN

Dick Finnegan, CEO of Longwood, Fla.-based C-Suite Analytics and author of Rethinking Retention in Good Times and Bad

Two ideas can work well for you, and these are: employee referrals and realistic job previews (or RJPs). Both work for the same reason…they tell people the worst parts of the job and scare away the wrong applicants.

For referrals, tell your team about your openings and encourage them to refer colleagues, but only after they have described the short-notice levels of turmoil and extended hours.

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Then, when interviewing candidates, demonstrate those two things in creative ways, such as have them sit in a work chair and turn the clock to 8 p.m., or replicate the situation when a large order comes in late in the day. How many people are moving swiftly across the floor? What precisely do you instruct them to do? What is your true voice tone and volume? How often do you check on their progress…and with how much intensity?

As you describe these experiences, watch their eyes and listen to their questions and tone of voice. If you don't believe they will love this workstyle, don't hire them.

Athena Varmazis, vice-president and general manager of small business services, American Express Canada, Toronto

To ensure employees remain motivated to tackle the inevitable peaks and valleys of work cycles, a flexible environment is crucial.

In fact, when asked [in a recent American Express survey] about what incentives were most effective for small businesses looking to attract and retain staff, flexible hours were on equal footing [with] higher pay…This can mean the option to work from home certain days or the ability to customize the hours you work to accommodate individual needs.

A dynamic corporate culture, which helps shape policies like flexible hours, is also considered to be a top motivator as it makes employees feel valued for the work they put in.

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Chad Stedham, corporate recruitment manager, Burnaby, B.C.-based Best Buy Canada

As a previous agency recruiter myself, you want someone who understands the nuances and complexity of an HR role, but also thrives in a results-oriented, constantly changing atmosphere typically associated with roles on a sales team.

Take a page out of your typical sales role and allow recruiters to work remotely and tie their compensation to results. Cultivate that level of freedom and engagement by ensuring your employees' values clearly match your company culture. As long as they are meeting targets, empower them with ownership of the process and the ability to control their own workload.

One way to manage an unpredictable workload is with prevention, so finetune the on-boarding process. Launch a mentorship program and incentivize the process for both participants. I have yet to meet a recruiter that isn't truly motivated by results and money. Set clear goals that allow them to work as a team, hold regular review sessions and reward as a team.

THREE THINGS THE COMPANY CAN DO NOW

Create an employee-referral program

Set up a program that rewards current employees for referring successful hires. Make sure they've been frank about the work style with those they refer to increase the likelihood of success.

Incorporate "realistic job previews" into the hiring process

Vivid descriptions or a simulation of the job's difficult aspects may help scare off the wrong applicants.

Give employees more flexibility

Allow more flexibility in hours and being able to work remotely. As long as they meet targets, this can give employees more control over their own workloads.

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