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Interview | The Staffing Industry in a Post-COVID Environment

Our subject matter experts from across Advantage Resourcing and Crone Corkill regularly interview key industry specialists on a variety of topics raised by our clients. These can include legislative updates, sector news and trends, and latest technology innovations, as well as people matters such as mental health, wellbeing, and equality, diversity, and inclusion. We hope that you find our insights interesting and informative, and if you have a specific topic you'd like us and our partners to cover, then please drop us a line at communications@rgfstaffing.co.uk

TomHeadshot

Tom Dejonghe is Chief Financial Officer at RGF Staffing. Prior to his post as CFO, Tom worked at RGF Staffing as Global Director, where he was responsible for global group controlling, operating companies in the EU, US, APAC, and Japan. Before RGF, Tom worked as Director Corporate Control at USG People, and Senior Manager for Financial Assurance Services at PWC. He is a veteran finance professional, and a believer in keeping things simple and streamlined, with a focus on efficacy and a less-is-more approach - as you'll see below.

AndyHeadshot

Andy Normile has worked in recruitment for over 25 years, placing Accounting and Finance professionals within the London market. As the Manager of our London office at No.1 Waterhouse Square, Andy has full P&L responsibility for Consultants managing Banking & Operations, Accounting and Finance, and Interim Change Management. His strengths include developing strong client relationship with senior executives and hiring managers by delivering innovative solutions for their staffing needs. 

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Andy: Thank you for talking to us, Tom. How has the recruitment industry been impacted by the COVID pandemic from RGF Staffing's perspective? Which changes have you seen take place within RGF Staffing?

Tom: The volume of blue collar workers went down very quickly. For instance, France, for us, was -50% in a week, so that was pretty amazing. For white collar, it's been more like the Nike logo - we had a sharp downturn and now we're seeing a slow upturn, so we're getting back to where we were. 

We've found that our companies and clients are reaching out to us more regarding government subsidies - can you help us, what do we do, please send us the right documents, etc. We've also had companies asking us for COVID allowances and payment extensions from a financial perspective, such as cashflow forecasting, which is obviously very important. The (Dutch) government gave some deferrals for social and payroll tax, and that helped, but cash is king and in the short term everything has to be very visible. The government subsidy helped from a financial perspective, certainly.

A: Yeah. I think it's similar to the UK to a certain degree. The furlough scheme in the UK has really helped, especially with smaller businesses, to keep a workforce in place, and hopefully now that workforce is coming back. What we found over the last 12 months is that we had to be a lot more consultative with our clients than we have been in the past - previously we'd been a very transactional business, but now we've had to look at other areas in which we can help our clients such as staff onboarding, securing their offices, and running webinars dealing with important topics like IR35, Brexit and EDI. We've had to offer these services so that our clients remember our assistance fondly when they're able to get up and running again!

T: Yes, likewise. It's the exact same here.

A: And what would you say has been the biggest challenge for you over the last 12 months?

T: Obviously there are a lot of challenges, but if I had to pick one, it's timing. Our business obviously deals in GDP, so if GDP takes a hit then we do as well, and if the pound is strong then we see a profit. Timing also comes into furlough - when do you start, but also when do you stop? When do you get your people back online?

Timing is also crucial when it comes to restructuring your business. If your business was already breakeven before COVID, then during COVID that's going to be very tough. Do we start restructuring the business with the information we have, that COVID is going to be over in 6 months, or do we wait? The whole thing has come down to timing. 

A: Definitely. On the upside, are you seeing a bit more positivity coming back into market now?

T: Absolutely. We can't share any data yet, but across sales we are seeing a lot of confidence. People are fed up, obviously, and they want to return to normal business, and they are investing again. People are also now quite used to being in a COVID world, and they've already made whatever necessary adjustments they needed to make, such as COVID-proof offices, masks, etc, and are keen to return to their previous relationships and businesses, so yeah - we're seeing a lot of positivity. So as for the future, yes - we have hope! 

A: You talk about some clients refocusing and investing - are you seeing clients being more agile, tapping into markets they might not have done otherwise? 

T: Good question. I feel like you have to, especially as we've seen business disappear overnight. We were already branching out into logistics and ecommerce, so that was just an increase of existing business, but you have to provide the right candidates of course. We've done a lot of refocusing in other areas though, and being agile is a key point that almost every business has had to adopt.

A: Definitely. I work at our office in the City of London, and we can see the FinTech industry is booming. They've secured funding to increase their growth, and because of that they've been able to grow their operational teams as well. Our London business has had to be agile in order to combat the wind down in industrial activity we've seen, so we've had to be as adaptive as we possibly can. 

T: Yes, FinTech in particular has been interesting. It's definitely growing, and there's been a lot happening in that space. Due to the low interest rates in the US we've picked up some business with mortgages, refinancing etc, and it was almost overnight that we placed lots of candidates, which is perfect for us.

If you have a quality pool, you can act very quickly. Having knowledge of your local businesses and understanding global flows is really important. 

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A: I know it differs between countries, but have you noticed an increase v. decrease in temporary and permanent workers in regard to manpower and revenue?

T: Yes, it was very obvious. So for in-house, blue collar workers, things like light industrial manufacturing, that shot down almost to -60% within a few weeks. But when supply chains came back online, that went up quite quickly again, so July/August '20 was okay for us. Everything related to white collar such as finance, legal, etc. is still not at the level we want here. Businesses are increasing their flexible layers first, which I suppose is logical for the staffing industry. 

A: Yes, it was similar here too. Overnight we lost a large chunk of our temporary workforce and a lot of business panicked. As a CFO, what do you think your focus, and the focus of other CFOs, will be for the near future?

T: Good question;

  1. Communication is key. Tell it like it is, have a vision, have a story. If you don't have a story, people will make one, and that's even worse. Personally, I make sure my communication is as clear as possible and as honest as possible.

  2. As a CFO, and I know it's a cliché, but the more you know about your operations, the better. Not only how much money we make, because anyone can do that, but how we make money, and if you understand that there's a financial element, you then understand the nice-to-haves, the need-to-haves, the smart-to-haves, and you know where to go when things get tough. So knowing the operation is very important.

  3. Having a backup plan is also really important. Again, it's a cliché, but the phrase "plans are useless, planning is invaluable". - I truly believe it. We planned an exercise in October 2018 that was centred around the idea of "if something happens, what do we do?". This planning really helped us in 2020 because we made this resilience plan and by 2019 we were pretty much ready for any crisis. Of course, we didn't want a health crisis, that's pretty obvious, but we were ready should something bad happen. What's the phrase, again? Luck favours the brave? No, luck favours the prepared! You can't control what happens, but you can control how you respond. 

    I'm not a big believer in having a strong, corporate HQ with a billion guidelines. I'm much more of a believer in a decentralised model. Why? Because it's quicker, and they understand what is needed. We do of course have guidelines, but within those guidelines we have enormous manoeuvrability. I also don't like having the burden of reporting. A lot of financials like to have a lot of data - but I find it gets very distracting and detracts from the important parts of your business, i.e. what I said earlier about knowing your operations. Don't waste time calculating risks or inventing a million scenarios, and keep things transparent with your teams. 

  4. Adaptability is also crucial, as is swift decision-making with incomplete data. Within staffing, and within a COVID world, we really appreciate those people who could adapt. 

A: I've been in recruitment for 25 years, and it should be a simple industry. Staff retention is incredibly important, and that always kills my business, that turnover of staff - finding the right people, adaptable people, is key. I'm an optimist like you, and this is probably the 3rd recession I've worked through, but the best years I've worked have always been the ones that followed recessions.

T: That's a very good point. This time is also very exciting, I think! Now you know your people - when times are tough, you get to learn about your people, and you get to learn about your structure, what does work and what doesn't, etc. But you're right, coming out of a recession is the best! 

A: One question that's coming up all the time with our clients during workshops and roundtables is the return to work and returning to the office - will there be a need to offer more flexible work-life balance for their employees? Do you think that's something companies are going to have to start to offer?

T: I see a lot of cultural differences - it's obvious that Japan isn't quite the same as France. However, you're right - most countries are now thinking about a 50/50 split or something. It's early days, and I do struggle a bit with the fact that I have so many meetings now it's so easy to book a meeting - and it's just not the same as meeting physically. I truly think it's not possible, nor particularly healthy, to all be in our homes - so I think an even split might be good. Online meetings are effective, but in the physical world, you can read people better. You can look at someone and maybe tell that something is not right - we're people, and we have almost a sixth sense that we're almost unable to use on a Zoom call. So for me, personally, I'd say a 50/50 office/WFH split might be the best.

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A: Yes, me too. As a Manager, trying to train junior staff remotely...it's very difficult. 

T: Yes, it's horrible. I have two new people in my team, and to start anew in a company? Online? Horrible. 

Normally you'd do training on the job, and develop a relationship with the other person who's also learning. Now, you have to formally plan it, with someone you do not yet know...it's awkward and not desirable. Also, when you're the new starter, joining a company is hard. You have 50 Zoom calls with people you do not know...it's not easy, compared to being physically in a branch. You really do miss the human connection.

I drove all the way from my home in Belgium to HQ in The Netherlands just to meet one of my new starters, because I wanted to know them in real life, for these reasons. It's incredibly important for building relationships with your people.

A: I agree. I think we definitely suffer from Zoom Fatigue by the end of each week. 

T: Definitely! Definitely.

A: If you had three pieces of advice for companies looking to grow in 2021, what would that advice be?

T: Firstly, just embrace constant change. There is no way back, so embrace change and be anti-fragile. 

Secondly, have a margin of safety - focus used to be on efficiency, but efficiency alone is not enough. Resilience is key, and you need to have a backup plan. 

And finally, recruit the right talent. Again, a cliché, but it's true! 

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