73% Of SMEs Reassigned Their Staff To New Roles To Help Combat COVID-19

Published on 17/06/2020 by Anna Hammond

Less than half (49%) of decision-makers said their employer had a business continuity plan in place before the outbreak, according to Capterras survey. Those without one had to pull together last-minute recovery plans to safely navigate around the challenges of COVID-19 with minimal damage. 

For Australian small and mid-sized businesses (SMEs), 73% said their company moved individuals into different roles. Capterra’s survey highlights the important rationales behind their workforce realignment strategies.

Role reassignments

COVID-19 is driving workforce realignment strategies

Due to social distancing measures, not everyone can perform their usual job duties—or at least to the same ability as normal. For some, there are fewer clients than usual to consult. For others, there are no diners in their restaurant. 

One response to these pressures is to eliminate those positions. Another is to identify the most prominent-facing work priorities and reassign vacant employees to them. Capterra surveyed 458 Australians who are currently employed by a functioning SME. Three quarter (75%) of the survey panel include staff members that uphold decision-making power within their business—full details of the survey methodology are available at the bottom of this page. 

Key highlights:

To cope with the changing needs of the business:

  • 73% of decision-makers said they’ve shifted the roles of their employees.
  • 58% of the job reassignments are temporary. 
  • 15% are permanent.

One company operating this strategy is the Australian law firm, Net Lawman. The firm’s Director, Andrew Taylor, explained how reassigning some of their part-time staff to full-time positions has driven greater stability and security in a time of uncertainty:

‘Some of our marketing team, who are freelancers, were always on a temporary basis, but as we began to rock through uncertain times, we moved that to a more permanent fixture so that we could be certain our marketing campaigns would be handled by people who knew us well. This gave them security as well, which I hope was a positive for them.’ – Andrew Taylor, Director at Net Lawman

Short-term priorities drove job reassignments

Three main objectives are driving workforce shifts within Australian SMEs. These include:

1. Preventing job losses

The top two immediate priorities, according to the responses of decision-makers, were retaining staff and ensuring they remain productive. This finding is unsurprising given Australia’s current unemployment crisis.

In May, 69,000 people returned to work in Australia as the economy began to open back up. However, according to research house Roy Morgan, there are still 2.09 people without a job due to the crisis. Mostly, this is due to the financial strains that the crisis put on industries. According to ABS, ‘those aged between 20-29 and over 70 were the worst affected by the job cuts in the accommodation and food services sector, with more than 40 per cent losing work.’

Other cases have seen businesses standing down their workforce. Stand downs involve a business temporarily shutting up shop, rather than closing completely. Many industries (such as the hospitality, retail, and travel sectors) stood down large numbers of staff as a direct result of the virus. Qantas airline, for example, stood down 20,000 employees in May. 

According to The National Law Review, this difficult but vital decision sends an important message:

‘It is saying to your employees “We are shutting down now because we have to, but we will be back and we want you to be around when we re-open”.’ – The National Law Review


While this strategy allows businesses to press the pause button for a while to help them get through the crisis, it’s not ideal. Employees aren’t paid by employers because they aren’t performing their duties, which can add to pressure they may already be feeling.

2. Retaining customers

Retaining customers is an ongoing objective for small businesses in Australia, but during a crisis, it’s even more vital. Respondents listed this aspect as the third biggest priority for ensuring business continuity. 

72% of companies in Australia digitised their products or business model to adhere to social distancing guidelines. To stay functional and continue adding value to customers, Australian SMEs implemented six key changes to their business:

Business adaptions
Infographic 1: Australian SMEs were forced to adapt business models due to COVID-19.

To meet changing demands and deliver on new promises, it’s logical that businesses had to adapt their workforce and technology too.

3. Maintaining business continuity while social distancing

The fourth and fifth priorities included adhering to local guidance regarding quarantining and social distancing while increasing cash flow. More than half (53%) of respondents said their business had to tighten or cut their 2020 budget.

Spend adaptions
Infographic 2: Australian SMEs switched up their 2020 spending plan.

68% had to reallocate budget to areas of the business they hadn’t planned to spend on. For example, acquiring remote work software and video conferencing software to allow staff to work from home. Similarly, 52% of respondents said their employer had to delay their planned spend in the medium and long-term.

As a result of reduced budgets, many businesses in Australia decided to put hiring efforts on hold. Job advertisement platform, SEEK, reported in their April 2020 Employee Report that they’d seen a rapid and drastic decrease in vacancy advertisements being published. 

To fulfil business needs during a recruitment freeze, it makes sense that companies reassign existing employees to the most pressing tasks at hand.

Maintaining employee capability and capacity

As indicated by Michael Bertolino, EY Global People Advisory Services Leader, ‘People and HR functions are the first line of resilience for the workforce during a crisis.’ 

The multinational professional services firm, headquartered in the United Kingdom, suggests that in times of a crisis, company’s should consistently assess the situation that people are in and how they can protect, enable and move individuals and teams to provide maximum value. They released the four key pillars of workforce planning that businesses can apply to assess the resilience of their workforce:

  1. Cost: Money coming into the business versus money being spent is imperative for survival. Having the right mix and number of workers is a key part of this. 
  2. Capacity: Businesses should forecast what skills they’ll need for the future while also considering the potential impact of software acquisitions. For example, automation technologies help drive employee productivity; meaning they can do more in less time. 
  3. Capability:  Investigating whether the business has the in-house skills available is vital. Capterras survey found 72% of SMEs have changed business models. As a result, businesses lent on staff to carry out different duties than usual. 
  4. Composition: For any new skill sets required, businesses should try leveraging their existing talent ecosystem before looking elsewhere. 

Financial consultants, Deloitte, also set out an alternative framework for workforce strategising. The five critical actions to help businesses through the recovery phase of the pandemic: reflect, recommit, re-engage, rethink and reboot. These actions ‘help organisations to bring the crisis response to the new normal by laying the foundation to thrive in the aftermath of the crisis.’

As roles evolve, employees may require more training

As organisations and their workforce go head-to-head with the pandemic, several new realities are emerging. The length of the outbreak is uncertain and so businesses must prepare for the possibility of disruption until the end of 2021 at least. Businesses should consider whether they’ve equipped their workforce with the right type of knowledge, skill sets, and training to face what lies beyond.

Workplace policies

One key area where employees will require retraining is on workplace policies. The current and future work environment is continuously evolving, and so staff will need fresh briefings on these. 

Capterra’s survey found that 24% of decision-makers have briefed staff on health and safety since the crisis began and 22% have provided a remote work policy. It’s possible these numbers are driven by the previously-mentioned priority to ensure staff remains productive during the disruption. 

Concerningly, however, just 14% have implemented an IT security policy. Given that Australia is experiencing an increase in cyber threats, SMEs must do more to support staff on how to prevent a digital attack

Measures from COVID
Infographic 3: SMEs implemented new measures because of COVID-19.

Software training

68% of staff say they were trained on how to use the newly purchased tools within their business. Of this number, 15% received official online training using online learning management software, while 53% partook in informal online training (such as over video conferencing software with a member of the team). 

Around one-third of staff (32%) said they are yet to participate in any kind of training. Managers put this down to a lack of budget and time.

Idiosyncratic jobs have a place in the future workforce

There is a strong argument for the use of idiosyncratic jobs (positions where new duties accrue as a result of an external context) to help businesses see out foreseeable disruptions. Their existence can help company’s deal with changing circumstances and cater entirely to organisational goals. A business development staff member who has fewer clients spending during the pandemic may become involved in a team tasked with developing a new business offering, for example.

For the job holder, idiosyncratic jobs also serve them well. For one, they keep their job during a time of economic turbulence. However, it also enables them to build relevant skill sets as business needs transform. Job descriptions are likely to change as a result of this crisis. Idiosyncratic tasks help employees whose previous duties may no longer be relevant get the experience they’ll need to apply to future market conditions. 

The role of People and Human Resource (HR) departments are key to future-proofing businesses. Companies that keep that mind, consistently checking on the resiliency and relevancy of their workforce, are likely to fit better within the working world post-COVID-19.

Looking for HR software? Check out our catalogue.

*Survey methodology:

Capterra wanted to understand the strategies that functioning small and mid-sized companies took to navigate the pandemic. 

We surveyed people living in Australia and employed by an Australian SME. The panel included part-time employees (22%) and full-time employees (78%). Due to the COVID-19 crisis, 88% of survey participants were working remotely full-time or part-time. However, 12% were not working remotely due to various restrictions; such as not being able to perform their job remotely or not having authorisation from their employer.

Of the total respondents, 75% of them held management positions with decision-making power. A quarter (25%) were junior or intermediate level workers (with little to no influence over business decisions.) The participants come from various business sectors and levels of seniority.

We conducted an online survey around how SMEs are utilising technology in Australia between 19th and 21st of May. Capterra defines SMEs as companies with fewer than 200 employees, and more than one.


This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.


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