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Re-shaping tomorrow’s workforce, re-defining your employer brand

As ex- (and potentially future) US presidential hopeful, Andrew Yang, memorably expressed things earlier this month, ‘We’ve had ten years’ worth of change in the last ten weeks’. 

Yang has, for some time, been vocal about the stark employment impact technology and automation will have on US jobs. His feeling too is that tens of millions of roles lost to Covid-19 will never re-appear. 

Covid-inspired change seems to be impacting so much about the workplace – witness the introduction of sanitiser stations, temperature readers, reduced seating density, one-way movement, shift systems and, obviously, a multitude of working from home and blended working arrangements. 

But if workplaces as we know them are changing exponentially, does the same sense of reinvention effect the workforce?

The unique combination of Covid, Brexit and accelerating technology automation mean that the work many of us have done to date will disappear, evolve or be completely transformed tomorrow. 

The idea of both organisations and their workforces changing is hard to ignore. 

LinkedIn reports a 20% increase in internal mobility and upskilling programmes, with half of all talent acquisition professionals anticipating a reduction in their recruitment budget, but two in three of them suggesting that their L&D spend will either rise or remain the same.

A major report from earlier this month by McKinsey, commissioned by the CBI, claims that 90% of UK workers will have to reskill by 2030 due to accelerating employment expectations driven by Covid. 

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report 2020 indicates that for those workers remaining in their current roles, no fewer than 40% of their core skills will need to change.

A survey by Robert Half states that 29% of UK employers are already redesigning roles given the threats (and opportunities) of the virus. Interestingly, the same piece of research suggests that whilst digital skills remain important, 41% of those firms surveyed feel that softer skills – such as creative thinking, agility and effective communications – are key. Particularly, I suspect, given the ambiguity and opacity created by lockdown.

Employers should not see this as a one-off, Covid-inspired trend, according to Carolyn Fairbairn, DG of the CBI, rather to ‘hardwire a culture of lifelong learning’.

And the future hinted at above has a hint of familiarity about it. Up until the 1980s, around 90% of all open vacancies were filled internally through promotion and internal mobility, according to an article from last year by Peter Capelli in the HBR. A desire for instant resourcing gratification and a wish to reduce training costs sees that figure today at around a third or less of all roles. 

Might then we be going back to this form of the future?

“I think this is something highly important, particularly based on pre-Covid trends of key skill shortages. These skill shortages will still exist in a post-Covid world, despite higher levels of unemployment. Internal mobility, with effective succession planning, is a strong way to ensure key roles are always filled with suitable candidates”, Mark Williams, Talent Partner at Arden University.

Certainly the size but also the nature and balance of many workforces are likely to be changing significantly. The impact of Covid is likely to see fewer face-to-face roles – retail and hospitality are likely to be recalibrating how they deliver to customers. Technology and automation, too, will be replacing many service and transactional jobs. 

Done successfully and as an alternative to mass redundancies, internal mobility and up/re-skilling should be a massive boost to internal engagement and morale levels, enhancing an organisation’s culture and its employee value proposition. According to LinkedIn, employees working at organisations with high internal mobility tend to stay twice as long as the industry average.

“Having high degrees of internal mobility is nothing new to us at BT, but that doesn’t happen without constant change and reinvention of people’s lives and job roles.  In the last 20 years, BT has transitioned into a leading global research, innovation, security, media and broadcaster. This has impacted on job functions, our culture and our engagement activities – and at the heart of all that is our focus on learning and development and the considerable investment we put behind this”, Laura Price, Employer Brand Lead – BT Security.

But as with any change, there will be challenges and objections. Many organisations will be reluctant to invest in such internal training given the damage that Covid has wrought to their balance sheets. 

How will certain line managers feel about such initiatives, particularly those who want to hire in oven-ready skill sets? 

“There’s definitely something to be said for placing emphasis on talent management, keeping your good people and the institutional knowledge that they have, rather than losing them (and it) to competitors.

The problem is when you are looking at redeploying and reskilling those that might not immediately fall into your ‘high-potential’ category.  You have then got issues in terms of convincing your stakeholders to ‘give them a chance’ and about equipping those line managers with the skills to support people who aren’t necessarily ‘ready-cooked.’ Especially from a ‘pastoral care and wellbeing’ point of view”, Julie Griggs, Greenhill HR and Talent.

Will those people moved around the business feel quietly like second class citizens, in the way that many on furlough have darkly suspected?

“It depends, as with furlough, how it is handled and communicated, and what level of choice is left to the candidate/employee. Forced moves will always be viewed negatively, whereas well promoted opportunities, even if it is not a promotion, will be perceived as upskilling and looking after employees”, Mark Williams.

Will peoples’ years of previous experience be taken into account either at their current organisation or when they choose to move on? 

A month or so before the impacts of Covid really began to bite, Josh Bersin wrote a piece entitled ‘The Talent Shortage’. In this, he posited a view that organisations, given the massive challenges, at that point, on talent acquisition had to create candidates rather than attracting them. His point was that organisations should do much more internship, apprenticeship and graduate hiring – bringing in the people with the potential to grow, to be trained and to be nurtured. 

The world has clearly moved on somewhat from February 2020. Large swathes of organisations’ employee bases will be under-employed. Their current roles will be increasingly fragile and exposed. The candidates that firms seek to attract, in part, are likely to be already working within their organisation, to develop Bersin’s point. Such people, then, need to demonstrate the personal and professional flexibility to take on new skills, new challenges, new internal surroundings. 

I think the opportunity we have is to improve internal mobility through development, breaking down silos, re-skilling/re-training, but I also think there is a necessity to think more creatively and digitally about how we do this. When I have been comparing the cost per employee of old-style training to the new – face-to-face to digital – the prospect of making training and development available to everyone is much more realistic. We must ensure that we don’t think of training in the old sense, but take the lessons learnt through Covid, of having a remote workforce and ensuring they have the right tools and development, rather than revert to old ways and old thinking”, Catherine Schlieben, HR Director, Talent at National Grid.

And whilst much responsibility sits with employees to be open-minded and willing to embrace new opportunities, such flexibility has to apply to employers too. 

“It does, but the employee also has to recognise that there is also a responsibility for self and you have to embrace the change and reskilling mindset – not everyone does.  We’ve now identified real career pathways for people to ‘bridge the gap’ if they are looking to join Security from another part of BT, so the opportunities are there.  And it’s not just about training – mentorship can also play a key role in building confidence, networks and skills for individuals across any organisation”, Laura Price.

It is naïve to think that all organisations will harness internal mobility with absolute enthusiasm. 

“Skills analysis, internal mobility and redeployment should be seen as a win-win for employers for the rich diversity it brings, as well as job protection. However, I fear that for many organisations, especially those without Senior Talent Leaders in situ, it simply won’t be a consideration.  As you so rightly say, the human cost of such decisions will stick, either positively or negatively, to their employer reputation for years to come. Is there too much apathy around employer reputation currently as leaders struggle to see the wood for the trees? Those who invest now will reap the benefits later on. Those who don’t, could find themselves on the reinvention wheel”, Adele Swift, National Recruitment Manager, Handepay.

The other note of caution around internal mobility is that we don’t end up in a situation where we adversely affect diversity – by promoting and keeping people who are like ourselves, rather than opening up the organisation to new talent.

The flip side is that you can definitely reduce your hiring costs, and be sure that you have strong organisational fit by moving people around internally rather than by recruiting in fresh talent”, Julie Griggs.

I suspect such a choice will shape an organisation’s employer brand and reputation moving forward. Those enterprises which show imagination and compassion will add lustre to their employer reputations. Those that find it easier simply to jettison employees rather than understanding what sort of value they might add elsewhere within the organisation will be doing just the opposite.

“This is absolutely vital. As with all things internal or external, it will add to an organisation’s reputation (either positively or negatively). An awareness of the importance of maintaining an employee-focused process during such necessary change should allow a positive reputational boost”, Mark Williams.

For some time, I’ve made the point that an organisation’s employer brand is how they have treated their people during Covid. This certainly applies to how they supported and communicated with such people during, particularly, the first lockdown. It equally applies to how they re-shape their organisation and workforce balance going forward. 

“I’ve had the job of launching a new employer brand campaign in the middle of Covid-19. Having to focus on the internal comms and engagement, rather than external recruitment and branding has meant a shift in priorities, but it has been embraced from the word go.  It has hit the right note for so many people across the business all around the world. A strong employer brand is as much about employee engagement, experience and retention as it ever is about attraction and we are now bringing it to life in more ways, to more people and more quickly than I ever thought possible”, Laura Price.

There are major challenges to getting internal mobility right – much of this will be attitudinal. Deloitte’s recent, but pre-Covid, Global Human Capital Trends survey suggested that two thirds of employees feel they are given no incentive to learn new skills. And a similar ratio of employees – in more Bersin research from last year – felt they had more chance of getting a new job outside their current employer rather than with it. 

“Even employers with strong L&D resources in place can struggle to promote such benefits successfully, or put together individualised development plans for staff, mainly through lack of line manager training, or an absence of genuine structure for internal mobility programmes”, Mark Williams.

Successful internal mobility faces the dual challenges of candidate ambitions and an organisational reluctance to invest in training. The two are likely to have an umbilical relationship. Employees have, hitherto, jumped ship because they see little chance of progression. And because of such constant churn, employers are wary of investing in training.

It’s a cycle that the effects of the virus and the associated lockdown have a chance of breaking.

Whilst the importance and deliverables of recruitment for roles such as digital and healthcare will not be going away any time soon, organisations will be choosing whether to shed staff, with all the external reputational and internal cultural damage that brings, or to move them around their changing businesses. 

This latter option represents a significant opportunity for many organisations. As well as doing the right thing, they will bolster retention, morale, engagement and culture. They will create richer, more diverse employee journeys through their organisation. People moving within the business will apply previous perspectives to new challenges. There should be a much more joined up sense of cohesion to the organisation, with far less evidence of siloing. The stories such employees are likely to tell will have more depth, understanding and knowledge.

Upon such decisions are employer brands made.