Zero hour contracts are a controversial topic in the UK labour market.

Ed Miliband has announced his plans to outlaw most zero hour contracts, claiming this action will raise living standards and boost Britain’s levels of productivity.

Despite this political stance from Labour and additional criticism from unions, the Institute of Directors (IoD) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) both felt compelled to speak out and talk about the benefits that using zero-hours contracts, as part of a highly flexible labour market, can bring.

Zero hours

For those unfamiliar with the concept, a zero hour contract means that the employer is not obliged to provide the employee with any minimum hours, and the employee is not obliged to accept any of the hours offered. These types of contracts are prevalent in industries such as hospitality, retail, healthcare and education.

Last month the Office for National Statistics (ONS) reported that 697,000 UK workers are on zero hour contracts – that’s 2.3 percent of those in employment, a figure that is likely to rise in the future. On average, someone on a zero hours contract usually works 25 hours a week, the ONS research stated. The majority were women and students, often aged under 25 or 65 and over.

Regardless on which side of the fence you fall on, analysts at think tank the Resolution Foundation say that they are here to stay and are “more than just a recession-related phenomenon”. Handled badly, however, zero hours contracts can lead to high levels of employee disengagement and ultimately high levels of churn.

So, for employers managing a workforce on zero-hour contracts, what are the key areas to consider to maximise performance and ensure a culture of success?

Fast on-boarding 

Some retailers and hospitality businesses use zero hour contracts to boost their workforce during shopping and spending peaks, making the matter of on-boarding new staff important to achieve productivity fast.

Our tip: prepare targeted training and goals, as well as access to resources so that your new employee is equipped with the tight tools and knowledge from day one.

It’s also important to ensure that the new joiner gets to know their team quickly. This immerses them in the company culture, and means that they know who to turn to for advice and on-the-job training.

Indeed, the new joiner should ideally be connected with the team virtually before the actual start date, with training also being made available in the pre-boarding period. To encourage candidates to connect with their future colleagues, and begin training before their first day, they should be enabled to do this on their mobile devices.

Automating and digitising the process takes the headache away when there is a large number of new workers.

Staff engagement

On zero hour contracts, the level of engagement between the employee and company can be patchy as an employee’s presence in the workplace may not be consistent. Poor engagement leads to poorer performance levels and can lead to employee disenfranchisement.

Our tip: create better engagement through interactive media messages and videos to keep employees informed. Enabling collaboration and feedback through social technologies also helps to make the employees feel part of the team, and also give a sense of empowerment. Another proven tactic is using gamification techniques to reward colleagues for great work – also providing a good indicator as to who are the high performers.

Social and volume recruitment

As zero contract workers are not obliged to accept the hours offered, it may be necessary to find new staff, and fast.

Our tip: capitalise on the growth of social media by using it to target workers directly, cost-effectively and at high volumes. Especially for retailers, aligning with the commercial brand on social networks means you can create a potential ‘talent pool’ of followers, who can be quickly and cheaply reached by posting on Facebook or Twitter, for example.

Many industries (such as retail and hospitality) require high-volumes of zero hour roles to be filled very quickly, depending on seasonality, demand and geographies. As such automation is key. This automation can include processes to manage high volumes of interviews and facilitate self-scheduling, and by giving decisions makers – whether its manager, HR or recruiters – a way of rating and reviewing candidates quickly and easily.

In summary: making zero-contract hours work

Our software can bring to life all the above through a cloud-based solution – making it easy to set-up and track progress of zero contract workers. Whatever type of contract a firm decides to use, the same maxim for success applies: employees and their managers should feel empowered and that they have a stake in the business’ future.

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Vincent Belliveau is Cornerstone OnDemand's Senior Vice President and General Manager of Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA). He is responsible for overseeing all of Cornerstone's European operations including sales and marketing, implementation, services and support.