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Ian Palmer

Client Partner

Is the employee rulebook being rewritten? And by whom?

We will explore the lasting impacts of the sudden and dramatic change to the standard global model of work practices that allowed businesses to prescribe how we work through industry standardisation (office hours are 9am - 5pm).

In the last two years, all businesses had to demonstrate a high degree of agility, open- mindedness, and flexibility to survive. As a result, fully flexible working practices became the only way for companies to functionally operate almost overnight, whether they liked it or not. Now that working from home and other flexible working arrangements are embedded, we aim to provide some insight into a few questions from the lens of each key stakeholder: The Employee / The Team / The Business / Their Customers / Clients and the broader talent market.

How likely is it that flexible working practices will be unwound?

The short answer is highly unlikely. Cast your mind to the hard-fought, decades- long gains of employee benefits such as parental leave and healthcare support. The speed of adopting flexible working practices transitioning from the exception to the expectation is breathtaking. Of course, employees won’t want to give up the personal benefits that working flexibly provides. That said, there needs to be some caution to ensure equity in the relationship between the employee and their employer. Are employees seeking flexibility becoming inflexible in their relationship with their employers?

The pandemic has driven most businesses to be task-focused to get through the last 24 months, “let’s navigate a way through this”. As the economy moves from crisis management to ‘post pandemic’ or ‘working with’ the pandemic, those companies will shift from a task-focused mindset to strategic, growth and transformation agendas, hence the tight squeeze in available talent we’re all experiencing whilst businesses resource up.

Transformation requires teams to come together to plan effectively, create, innovate and strategise. However, companies will quickly realise that working fully flexibly will be an inhibitor to this innovation and transformation mindset. So, how can teams manage to collaborate when there is no time during the week to get together because:

  • Sam works from home because it’s their day to pick up the kids from school and works amended hours from 9am - 3pm and 7pm - 9pm.
  • Charlie works extended hours, five days to four days, and is not available on Wednesdays.
  • Jamie does Pilates at 10am - 11am as part of mental health and wellbeing.
  • Alex works part-time across 5 days 10am - 2.30pm.

When everyone is working flexibly, teams needing to collaborate to deliver to internal or external customers can suffer. Equity from both employers and employees is required because, in reality, it is harder to replace a major customer than an inflexible employee.

What are the other consequences of flexible working that are trending right now?

There are many critical infrastructure services and businesses that rely on foot traffic. Newton’s 3rd Law is “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Unfortunately, for matters of public policy, when it comes to pandemics, there is a time lag for ‘opposite reactions’ to materialise fully and their impacts on the socio-economic landscape.

For example, Transport for London. Credit agency Moody’s has downgraded Transport for London’s (TfL) debt, saying that the transport network’s finances have “been durably and materially weakened by the pandemic”. In March 2020, they reported £11.7bn of debt, borrowing nearly a further £5bn in 2021.

How will TfL deliver this critical infrastructure operating with surmounting debt levels and in a high inflation environment? The only way is through either reduced services or increased pricing. This compounds the will of those wanting to work from home due to reduced services and/or more costly fares.

Pret a Manger, a high street staple in every major city in the UK, relies on office workers coming into cities. They recently announced a shareholder cash call as “uncertainties that cast significant doubt over its ability to continue trading”. Fewer workers returning to the office and a shift to hybrid working have led to an ”unpredictability of consumer behaviour”. Conversely, this is an opportunity for other regional business centres, towns, and villages to attract people and families with secure, well-paying jobs with more money to spend on locally owned businesses.

Is the negative impact of reduced footfall on big-city high streets an opportunity for regional town centres? Will the major retailers continue to move more online, creating opportunities for local entrepreneurial businesses?

This is further evidenced by several cross- industry projects Armstrong Craven has completed recently. These involved identifying and engaging with mobile, often out-of-sector talent, ready to work remotely, occasionally commuting to the major traditional business centres. However, the consequences for career progression are more concerning - will working entirely remotely limit career progression opportunities?

44%

A recent LinkedIn poll with 10,000+ votes suggests that 44% of people believe that working entirely remotely will not be an inhibitor to their career progression. If they’re wrong, that’s 4,400+ naïve professionals that may find themselves in self-determined isolation.

Does fresh country air make your career go stale? Only time will provide the answers.

What is the impact on businesses and the wider talent market?

Large complex businesses are now trying to determine their respective policies, often needing to explain different approaches to different job functions in the same company. This puts enormous pressure on HR. They must match each new policy to multiple teams, often with an eye on the future, knowing talent retention is critical given the challenging recruitment market conditions.

What of emerging and early career talent? How can a company realistically believe that they can build loyalty from a remote workforce? Yes, their mid-level and senior leadership may have increased commitment as a direct result of being able to work remotely, but their loyalty has already been earned.

Loyalty is the output of a workforce’s understanding and commitment to their company’s values, forged over time through the relationships colleagues build through collective experience. That collective experience acts as the twine, knitting together values to culture and loyalty. Try achieving that over “Teams” with the early careers cohort of your workforce.

A recent Qualtrics survey of 14,000+ corporate employees identified the following trends:

  • There are significant burnout issues within the mid-management cohort, particularly women, who (as a result) are more likely to seek flexible working arrangements causing a steep decline in women seeking promotional opportunities.
  • Early careers respondents revealed that a lack of progress in corporate gender diversity agendas will not be accepted and ultimately, only provides motivation for many female candidates to move externally.
  • Corporate employee wellbeing schemes and support mechanisms are more widely available. However, 30% of surveyed candidates reported they didn’t take sick leave in the last two years despite being sick, citing workload and job stability (82%) being the key drivers of not taking leave when sick. Therefore, improvement is still needed to support those needing access to resources instead of assuming employees will find them just because they’re there.
    For example, those who are introverted by nature and find it difficult to ask for help or those who need people around them but may not recognise it. Mental health issues develop over time, resulting in an unhealthy state of mind. For many, virtual 30min daily team stand-ups, and 30min walks at lunchtime unfortunately don’t fill the isolation of the rest of the working day.

Where are we now, and what’s next?

“Nothing changes when nothing changes”, except everything has changed.

All companies, even those with the best cultures pre-pandemic, are now dealing with an entirely new set of ingredients that form their talent strategies. Those that have the mindset of “let’s get back to the way things were” will struggle the most. The collective talent market has evolved and does not expect to return to the pre-pandemic way of working.

The immediate issues include the lack of capability and bench strength of emerging management/leaders. Experienced managers and leaders were in the office working directly with those in their early careers. This allowed management to share their knowledge through leadership coaching, providing real-time guidance, advice and on the job training that is critically formative in how companies shape their future leaders. Although offshoring had already significantly diminished the opportunity for people to develop their leadership skills, remote working has amplified this difficulty in recruiting early- stage people leaders.

The ‘Great Resignation’ was tagged as a pandemic trend, but for the most agile businesses, the ‘Great Resignation’ wasn’t their experience at all. Instead, it was the opposite. Access to a talent bonanza. Barriers to recruitment vanished as businesses adapted to dispersed teams, virtual recruitment processes and fully remote working.

Some commentators have now called the end of the ‘Great Resignation’, but what if it’s not the end? Rather, it’s the first rung on the ladder of a wider Talent Transformation as people re- evaluate their priorities. The best talent now seeks the ‘Dream Life’ not the ‘Dream Job’ as they know they can get both; such is the demand for talent.

The pre-pandemic dream often included a house, car, and accumulation of possessions as the tonic to offset the demands of high-stress work. But, will the post-pandemic dream include reduced expenses, increased savings, time as currency and more personal freedom? Isn’t that the thing with dreams? They are changeable sensations responding to thoughts captured from a moment in time. So, if you’re living back close to the family farm in North Wales and your London-based employer decides that they want everyone in the office 2-3 days per week, this will present a significant issue. However, the high number of location-agnostic projects Armstrong Craven is currently engaged with suggests there will be numerous opportunities for those with in-demand skills to remain working remotely.

I have experienced a significant migration from south to north. For this author, of the 13 friends who worked in London before the pandemic struck, only one remains. The common theme is people moving to access more affordable housing, reducing commute times, better work-life balance and be closer to their family and roots.

Many moved with their jobs; others secured work relatively easily, which offered the flexibility and benefits they sought. More time is needed to understand the consequences for work of this pandemic. Maybe it’s time to stop talking about pre and post-pandemic and ditch the innuendo of work- life balance? Instead, let’s accept it’s a new opportunity with new ingredients that allows people to achieve fulfilment in both their lives and careers, cognizant of not limiting career opportunities for women working remotely and those in their early careers.

What is known is that HR teams are being relied upon to provide answers, reshape policy and chart a path into new corporate frontiers. Is the employee rulebook being rewritten? Yes, it is! And by whom? Everyone! If you want to know more please contact me using the form below.

Want to know more? Speak to Ian Palmer