A two-part peek behind the curtain at HR Assured’s Telephone Advisory Service (TAS), who they are, what they do and how they weathered the storm of pandemic panic to help thousands of business owners, managers and employees.

When you think about the age of the average worker in Australia, you realise that in early 2020 most working Australians had never actually experienced an economic downturn before. At that time, Australia had gone through approximately 20 years of successive economic growth. By and large, the GFC which kicked off in 2007-2009 didn’t impact Australia because of the mining boom, and one has to go back to the early ‘90s to find the last recession in this country.

This meant that when Prime Minister Scott Morrison shut down the nation in March 2020, millions of people panicked, picked up a phone and called for help. HR Assured’s TAS was one of the numbers they dialled, but where most helplines, public and private, simply fell over, unable to cope with record-breaking numbers of calls, the TAS team at HR Assured were not only able to deliver an uninterrupted service but continued to provide exceptional levels of responsiveness meaning that they were there for their clients when needed.

That’s not to say that March wasn’t still incredibly difficult for everyone, given the nature of the calls that we were experiencing. Wes O’Donnell, National Workplace Relations Manager for HR Assured describes the feeling at the time:

“Business owners, even owners of extremely large businesses, were incredibly emotive about having to close their business and potential insolvency, possibly losing their life assets and not being able to support their families. There was a real sense of panic in the calls that we were initially taking.”

And the calls were not just from employers. HR Assured supports many industry associations whose members are both employees and employers.

“So, we were also taking calls from people who were losing their jobs,” says O’Donnell. “They were being made redundant, concerned that they wouldn’t be able to make mortgage payments, put food on the table, or put kids through school. And it was really stressful for our team members, taking a huge number of those calls every day, where people are incredibly emotive and distressed.”

And when O’Donnell says ‘huge’, he means record-breaking…

Record-breaking call volumes

For the TAS team, a record day before the pandemic hit in March 2020 was around 200 calls per day. Then the Prime Minister announced in late March that the entire country was going to be shut down, and call volumes overnight went up to around 500-600 per day, peaking at 650 per day, and remained at that level right through April and into the first two weeks in May.

Despite the spike in calls, the TAS team still maintained their high levels of responsiveness, tracking in excess of 95 per cent first-time response rate throughout.

It wasn’t easy, though, according to O’Donnell: “In the peak time, when we were getting over 600 calls per day, our responsiveness dropped. We weren’t answering the majority of calls within 10 seconds, our usual standard, because of the sheer number of calls. But, looking back at the data, we find that the overwhelming majority of our calls, in excess of 80 per cent, were still responded to within 20 seconds. It’s a credit to the team and the systems we have in place that we’re able to maintain that level of responsiveness, which has really stood us apart from any other provider in this space.”

When the JobKeeper scheme was announced, call volumes plateaued almost overnight. JobKeeper threw businesses a lifeline, and many employees no doubt felt a sudden sense of security, knowing that they would be kept close to their employer and not necessarily lose their role. It created a sense that perhaps the pandemic wasn’t going to be as grim as people thought.

With the plateau in call volumes with the introduction of JobKeeper, the needs of clients shifted, with a significant reduction in the volume of enquiries relating to insolvency and redundancy, while enquiries relating to the JobKeeper scheme and eligibility increased to fill the void.

Standing tall while others fall

Many other providers in the space – internal organisations, industry associations and competitors – didn’t handle the surge in demand so well.

“Many others just didn’t have the internal capacity to handle the massive influx and spike of calls, which meant that they were unable to service clients and members, as their servers or phone systems fell over, or they experienced huge delays in the provision of advice,” says O’Donnell. “We were able to maintain excellent service standards throughout, which meant that for our own clients, and the members of the associations and commercial organisations we support, we were able to provide an amazing level of support to businesses during that time. Now we’re taking around 200 inbound calls per day, which means that we’re running at a current capacity of around 40,000 calls per year. But, of course, as the business grows, that number is always increasing.”

2020 is a series of ‘waves’

The volume and types of calls to the TAS mirrored the economic times. O’Donnell looks at 2020 as a series of waves, and paints a vivid picture of the year through the concerns of clients:

“After Christmas, we had what I call phase one. This phase related to the introduction of COVID-19 and uncertainty on how to treat returned travellers and those exhibiting symptoms. Essentially people were ringing up saying, ‘I’ve just come back from Europe. My employee has come back from Europe. Can I direct them to stay at home? Do I have to pay them? Do I not pay them?’ A lot of focus was on returning travellers and whether one could stand them down or direct them to remain at home, or what to do if they have COVID-19 and so on.

“We then moved into phase two, which was not necessarily concerned with people returning from overseas, but rather the impacts of the economic shutdown generally. We had questions around the massive slump in consumer demand and whether that enabled an employer to shut down a business.

“Then we had phase three, which was the implementation of government restrictions and what impact that had for business – and this occurred almost overnight. The feeling from businesses was, ‘We can’t trade; therefore, we can’t pay our bills, how can we remain viable’.

Phase four was the introduction of JobKeeper. ‘What does that mean for me as a business? What does that mean for me as an employee? How do I apply? Who’s eligible? What are the eligibility criteria? What’s the process?’ This went for quite a while, until around June when things started to settle down as people who were eligible started operating under the JobKeeper structure. People were essentially starting to return to work.

“We then had phase five, which was the outbreak and lockdown in Victoria. At around the same time was what I’d call phase six: businesses starting to make plans and preparing for JobKeeper ending in September. A lot of businesses were looking at the economic support that was keeping their business afloat and seeing it coming to an end in September. A lot of people were calling it the fiscal cliff. ‘We’re about to fall off a fiscal cliff. We need to start preparing. We need to align our business, make redundancies, alter our business practices, etc.’ Businesses wanted to ensure that when they came to the so-called fiscal cliff, they weren’t going to drop off it but could continue to trade and operate.

“Sensible businesses were already starting to undertake that review process around the same stage as the Victoria pandemic. And then we had phase seven, which was JobKeeper 2.0 – the announcement extending JobKeeper into next year. Now we’re dealing with questions around altered eligibility requirements and what the reduced entitlements mean.

“So, when I look at January to September 2020, I break it down into about six or seven phases. And it’s always busy for the TAS team, because just as businesses start to get a handle on one particular phase, something changes, meaning that the needs of our clients evolve, and everyone gets pushed into the next phase.”

And if the rest of 2020 is anything to go by, for O’Donnell and the TAS team there’ll always be something next!

In part two, we’ll take a closer look at the people behind the TAS team, explore exactly what they do (and why they do it so well…)

If you’re a business owner or manager looking for workplace advice or support, get in touch with us today to find out how we can help.