This autumn marks a new phase in the evolving situation with Covid-19 in the UK. With restrictions loosening and vaccines rolling out, businesses are looking to bring their workforce back to the office.

While this alone would be enough of a challenge for companies to undertake, it’s further complicated by the demand for continuing flexible working practices, the “Great Resignation” – the flood of resignations across businesses worldwide – and the subsequent pressure on talent acquisition and retention.

To get a deeper understanding of the situation, we spoke to aspirational HR leaders across a wide swathe of businesses, from media and advertising to healthcare, to get their take. At the frontline of managing, recruiting and maintaining talent, not to mention navigating the changing rules, they have a unique perspective on the situation.

What does the current recruitment market look like?

The recruitment market is buoyant right now. Even a few months ago, employees wanted to keep their heads down and stay in their jobs. Now however, with the perception that “we’re coming out of it”, as one panellist observed, people are moving past their desire for security and reevaluating their priorities. They’re looking to take the leap and find new roles, and companies are happy to oblige.

“For the right person, companies are more than willing to offer the earth,” said one panellist. “It’s really challenging in terms of how we hold onto people. We’re losing people we managed to hang onto during the early stages of the pandemic, when it was more turbulent.”

It’s not just about the job – the thinking is wider. Candidates are reconsidering what’s important to them. They’re asking themselves what kind of companies they want to work for, and what kind of values and culture those companies create, support and pursue.

The market is, to a large extent, candidate-driven at the moment, and candidates know it. “They’re becoming more demanding,” said one panellist. “They have higher expectations. Now, as an interviewer, I feel like I’m being interviewed. The questioning turns more towards what we as an organisation can do for them. It’s an interesting flip.”

This is making businesses reevaluate their offerings. “There’s a war on talent right now,” explained one panellist. There’s a sense that if you don’t keep up and adapt, you’ll lose people, both in terms of attraction and retention.

What are companies doing?

For many of the panellists, the pandemic allowed companies to look at their businesses and infrastructures in a new light – for better or worse. “It helped show our organisation the holistic picture, in terms of who we appear to be externally, how candidates engage with that, and how we sell who we are and attract candidates.”

It’s not just about salaries. Ideologically, many of the panellists’ companies don’t want to just throw cash at the recruitment problem. They want people to connect with what they do – and with the opportunities they offer. So there’s a big focus in the market about improving the employee value proposition (EVP), and boosting diversity and inclusion (D&I) in particular.

“Industries are really pushing D&I up their agendas,” said one panellist. “We’re looking at how we can bring in fresh thinking and get more diversity. We’ve got a long way to go, but there are glimmers of absolute brilliance. For us, our internal discussions on what is expected of our leaders have been helpful.”

How does flexible working fit in?

Understandably, flexible working is a hot topic right now. “People will go to companies that provide flexibility, and allow people to maintain the work-life balance they’ve achieved in recent months,” said one HR leader. “We have to be mindful of that and not be too rigid.”

With more and more companies trying to boost their flexible work offerings and meet the expectations of candidates, there’s more competition. This has proved to be challenging for one panellist, as flexible working was already the norm for their company pre-pandemic. “Our USP has been wiped out,” they explained.

With the “return to the office” taking place across the country, companies are taking a variety of approaches to incorporating flexibility, due to the variety of attitudes in the workforce. “We’ve recognised that what’s okay for one person doesn’t necessarily work for others,” explained one panellist. “There are a lot of people who don’t want to go back into offices, whether it’s because they just don’t want to, or they’re anxious. That’s why we’re giving our approach time, and reviewing it regularly. Not everyone’s in the same place.”

Some are trialling a phased return of a few days per week, giving employees a chance to work out what works between now and Christmas. Other companies are more direct, going to the source and asking their workforce what they want to do. Not all industries have that luxury, or that inclination, however, while some companies can’t even have a uniform approach across their business, due to the number of different business lines involved – not to mention the difference in rules across the UK.

Any internal difficulties with the return to the office?

One particular challenge reported by the HR panellists is coordination. Different teams have different requirements. And it can be hard to get people in the office on the same day, negating the benefits of being back in the office in the first place.

Operationally, team leaders, managers and line managers are making decisions on the return to the office. While some can handle the responsibility, others look to HR to be told what to do. “They don’t want to own the message or have difficult conversations,” explained one panellist. Similarly, the candidate-driven nature of the market is throwing some managers off their game during interviews. “There are some uncomfortable managers in the room now,” said one HR leader. “When a more demanding question comes up, they look to me to provide the answer.”

HR personnel are trying to help them by offering coaching, seminars and training programmes, or providing broad guidance for them to follow until they find their feet.

Have perceptions of the HR function changed?

The panellists agreed that while many of them already had a seat at the table prior to the pandemic, the perception of the HR function has shifted – for the better – over the past 18 months. “Our strategic value was understood back then, but now they really respect and see what we can do,” said one panellist.

Another agreed, adding: “The pandemic hit HR teams hard, but we had to sort things out, so we did. Even when the rules changed from day to day. People saw the pace at which we had to do things, and the agility with which we did them. They appreciate us more now.” 

BIE hosts quarterly meetings for Future HR Directors to share experiences and discuss challenges they all face, if you would like to understand more or participate in the discussion, please contact Lisa Vigurs.

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