In June we published our research paper "Leading agility in a post pandemic world", which investigated the relationship between leadership, decision making and sustaining agility as we enter the crisis recovery period. Four months on, and the pandemic continues to present businesses with new challenges.
Contrary to the expectation in March 2020 of mass unemployment, the economy is suffering an acute shortage of workers. The Recruitment and Employment Confederation reports job vacancies rose to a new record high in August 2021 and data from Reed suggests staff shortages have worsened into the autumn despite the ending of furlough support. The statistics match what our clients are telling us: finding and retaining staff is increasingly challenging.
Pay and working conditions have of course risen up the agenda as sectors such as logistics, agriculture and food processing struggle to operate. However, the challenge is also being seen in the wider service sector as businesses compete for both skilled and unskilled workers. The situation is so difficult that that the top job advertised on LinkedIn in October was for recruiters, according to the FT.
At Howard Kennedy, our own programme of research, comprising surveys conducted before and during the pandemic, suggests businesses were alert to the difficulties during the depth of the crisis. Despite the challenging circumstances, companies were already recognising the importance of their employees to the future of the business and its adaptability. We found the value placed on staff investment and development rose up the agenda during the crisis.
However, it’s clear that this extends well beyond the "HR remit" but instead needs to be embraced by leadership teams and embedded in culture.
For example, our research revealed differing attitudes between younger and older workers. On the topic of business strategy, younger managers placed greater emphasis on the benefits for innovation and idea generation that come with a broadened input into decision making. Working from home has made many staff expect more autonomy and trust. Sarah Drinkwater, a former Google executive and investor, recently wrote in the FT ("How to adapt your leadership to a multigeneration workplace" Sarah Drinkwater, FT, September 30 2021), that leaders need to "adapt their style to meet the needs of Gen Z employees who expect more from both their jobs and those who hire them."
Meanwhile, at the other end of the age spectrum, we have seen the loss of large numbers of over 50s from the workforce for various reasons during the pandemic. This exacerbates the existing problem of loss of skilled older workers (e.g. many women leave the workplace due to menopause symptoms and lack of employer support). This has been a significant contributor to lower numbers of job seekers in the recruitment market. Again, solutions to this require a shift in workplace culture – valuing the skills of older workers and finding ways to retain them.
The Resolution Foundation puts forward a number of proposals to support older workers and arrest the decline in economic participation. Flexibility is a core theme in the recommendations and research from the ONS finds the shift towards working from home during the pandemic may help older workers remain in the labour market for longer (ONS, "Living longer: impact of working from home on older workers", August 2021). But true flexibility is about more than changes to working hours or location – it's about shifting mindset, acknowledging that different groups of staff have different priorities (at different times in their life) and finding ways to accommodate those needs. The need for such flexibility was certainly emerging pre-pandemic, but COVID has accelerated the pace of change.
It is perhaps not surprising that one of the key areas of investment businesses in our study reported they would make to support the future agility of the business is in people. However, to secure the most from this investment, a strategic vision that speaks to the people businesses wish to attract and more importantly retain is essential.