Market update – Nov 21

Simon RoderickMarket updates

Notes from the park - monthly updates
Notes from the park - monthly updates

Market update – Nov 21

What makes a good employer? COVID has changed our perception of what a good employer is. I’ve never seen a time when employer/employee relations are so complex.
November 24, 2021
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I’ve been in recruitment over twenty years and there’s often the old gag “what did you do to deserve that” when I tell people. I’ve loved it, I love the industry I support, and I still find meeting so many entrepreneurial and talented people interesting. I have, though, now seen some highs and lows and you start to see patterns of behaviour. It becomes easier to see why some firms, some teams - which are all just a collection of strangers brough together for a common purpose - succeed, whilst others don’t. Next time I’ll write about these, but back to the highs and lows. Living in a boom is fun, but often not as memorable as the bad times. The first bad time I encountered at work was 9/11, the second the financial crisis, and now the COVID pandemic. I won’t even begin a macabre comparison of what was worse, they’ve all had a hugely negative impact on life, but the most profound in terms of its impact on the workplace has been COVID.

Last year, a good employer was defined as any firm who didn’t make redundancies. Redundancies are the choice of last resort for any leader and whilst some firms may have been financially better off trimming their payroll, many fought tooth and nail not to make their colleagues and friends redundant at a time when there weren’t many jobs. You could argue that firms were able to maintain their skill sets through the furlough scheme, but looking at resignation figures, this “skills capital” may soon leave many firms anyway. I think most employers were delighted to do their bit and we should be proud as a nation that we’ve seen lower than forecast unemployment.

This year a good employer is someone who lets people work for four days a week (of course for full pay), has hybrid working, has no dress policy, or too many targets. Or are they a good employer? Are they now only average or some would even say they aren’t doing enough?

I’ve never seen a time when employer/employee relations are so complex, but I think it’s healthy. It’s healthy that we’re asking “why”. Why did we go to the office every day? Why did we monitor progress? Why? Why? Why?

Too many firms never take time to look inwards, to reflect, and to adapt. This doesn’t mean endless away days spent naval gazing and throwing colleagues over an assault wall, but I think the firms that coped with the demands of COVID the best, were the ones who asked these questions early, who reflected and adapted, and who moved from internal reflection and reconfiguration to external action the quickest. What they really did was recognise that circumstances had changed, perhaps for a considerable period of time, and adapted to those circumstances.

Many of the changes from COVID are good and should remain. I like working in an office, but I understand not everybody does, and so I think hybrid working should stay. Whilst very clumsily put, the Prime Minister was right that offices and practices evolved because they were perhaps the best way to do things (and the only way pre-technology). I’m still bullish on office life, but a pared back and changed version. This is my best guess, and who can do anything else but guess? Circumstances are ever changing; they will change rapidly again once we’ve got more control over COVID (and we’re closer to this than we’ve been in the last 18 months). What I am surprised about is some of these changes weren’t choice, they were a necessity, and they won’t work for every business or for every role, and yet some firms are making irrevocable change without seeing where we settle.

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Modern leaders have three main responsibilities: to shareholders, to their team, and to society. I think it’s up to each firm to decide if some of these are more important than the others - if it’s even possible. However, the best leaders will find balance. It’s unfair to shareholders if working from home or a four-day week diminishes returns, but it’s unfair for shareholders to expect outsized returns at the expense of the health of the workers of those firms. Anyway, you will just churn staff and nobody will want to work for you. It’s no doubt a very complex time there comes a point where firms can’t keep paying more, giving more free time, because ultimately if the business suffers job losses follow. There comes a point where exhausted workers look for an easier life.

What can be done? Firms that navigate well have internal mechanisms to give leaders feedback. Whether it’s working groups on employee relations, great HR teams, or just a culture of openness and it’s the latter where an office is important. Informal conversations really help leaders. Lots of execs have missed bumping into more junior colleagues whilst making tea, when getting in the lift. They’ve been cut off to the honest feedback you get in informal settings. I also believe that leaders should have a network of other leaders to speak to. Whether this is a NED, a coach, or a group of peers they can discuss challenges with. Leading is lonely and we all need an outlet and we can all learn off each other.

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