This is the second part of our two-part cover story taking stock of the UK’s talent crisis following 2021. If you missed part one - catch up here.
On brand and in demand
Shaking up the recruitment process is one thing, but if you don’t have the right image behind it, it can fall flat. The past year alone has seen several brands publicly called out by their own employees for not upholding company values and treating their staff fairly.
While not entirely free of criticism or talent shortages in its supply chain, which is handled by third parties, Asos was a relative ‘victor’ of the pandemic.
Where other bricks-and-mortar retailers suffered from lockdowns, increased time online meant Asos thrived, and in 2020 it was able to acquire new brands including Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge from the fallen Arcadia Group.
A reported 300 people were tipped to be moving from Arcadia to Asos as part of the deal, with another 2,500 expected to be made redundant. In the same year, the company also received 125,000 job applications. This put the brand in an unusual position.
Asos chief people officer Jo Butler says: “We had almost a broader talent pool open, and we actually saw a significant uplift in the number of applications that we received, so we haven’t necessarily seen a shortage of talent.”
While admitting they still face the same challenges in the war for tech talent as other companies in the field, Butler says the privilege of being a market leader to some extent keeps fuelling interest.
“There’s something about the culture and what we stand for that sets us apart,” she says.
“We’ve always been a trendsetter and so our biggest challenge is to make sure that we always stay ahead of the trends, not just in terms of fashion but as an enviable employer.”
Characteristic of other market leaders when it comes to enhanced policy, Asos announced in October that it would be supporting employees through various life events. More than just starting a family, the new policy will help staff going through gender transition, bereavement and illness.
Asos also offers employees more flexibility of when and where they work under a ‘dynamic working’ scheme. This style of working includes certain times of the week, like Friday afternoons, that are assigned meeting-free.
“Dynamic working is about being in a bit more than you’re out,” explains Butler.
“You need to come in to feel the culture, but we give people the confidence to come in when they want to come in, and to work in another way when that’s right for them as well.”
Both of Asos’ adapted policies are examples of how the brand works to make itself an enviable place to work, but flexibility of course is one of the hottest tickets for talent right now.
Timms argues that building more flexibility into jobs could help employers tap into disengaged parts of the talent pool, particularly younger workers at the start of their careers, and older employees facing retirement.
Rather than dropping young people in at the deep end with long hours, he advises a gentler graduation of work where they’re only doing high-octane work a percentage of the time, and a similar approach for older workers.
“I’d say give them [younger workers] a decompression into some admin and some support work, etc. And then for older people, I’d just say: ‘What can you do for us?’ Then let’s look at the work we’ve got and calibrate a role entirely to that, and stop trying to fill full-time positions with them if they don’t want to take them.
“The curse is full-time really,” he says. “The solution is: vary it.”
Sometimes the issue with brand image is sector-wide rather than employer-specific though. For example, though tech is seen by some as an exciting, high-growth industry to be a part of, it also has to contend with the idea of gender imbalance within the sector, and long, high-pressured hours.
In some industries, employers have come together to try and challenge such public perceptions.
Though missed by many during lockdown, hospitality still struggles with its media identity, and those in the field are keen to change its image.
Sally Beck, general manager at the Royal Lancaster hotel in London, explains: “I think our industry has always been misrepresented. People seem to think of hospitality as long hours and low pay, and I have to say it’s actually not the case.”
The Hoteliers Charter, founded by Beck, has been launched to raise the public profile of the industry and advocate work in hotels as a positive career choice. Hundreds of hoteliers have signed the charter, pledging to implement 10 fair and progressive practices including a commitment to training employees and supporting their work/life balance.
In Beck’s view, any employer not seeking to make similar moves, regardless of industry, will flounder in the months ahead.
She says: “Employers across the UK, whether they’re in hospitality or not, if you are not looking after your staff, you will not get them to stay. I think that’s a reckoning and it’s a good thing.”
Care faces a similar challenge in how it is perceived by the public. Benson explains: “It’s not seen as a ‘sexy’ sector.”
Her solution is for HR to work in a similar fashion to marketing and bring more change capability and internal communications skills into the team. “If I reflect on the last 12 months, I think the fact that I brought those two skillsets into my team is the only reason we’ve been as successful as we have been,” she says.
“In many service sectors, people are your product. Because the first thing people will say [when looking for a care home] is ‘tell me about your team. Are you pretty stable here? Or am I going to have a different person, potentially bathe my mum every day because you can’t keep your people’.
“So, it’s how can HR as a function think more commercially and more like marketers.”
Though the current climate may be helping HR win some of its long-fought battles in recruitment and retention, there’s a sense too that since lockdown has lifted (at least for now) the profession could be facing an even more challenging prospect than it did keeping companies going throughout coronavirus.
Shoesmith at the REC says for the senior recruiters she’s spoken to, now is the busiest they’ve ever been: “It’s not just that they’re comparing with the height of the pandemic and the lockdowns when things were really quiet and businesses were really struggling, they’re comparing their experience with the last 10, 20, 30 years through many different financial crashes and recessions, and they just said they’ve never experienced demand a quite this level before.”
Gaelle Blake, head of permanent appointments at Hays, agrees that her team has never been as stretched as it has been in the past few months, and the volume of work puts HR in an unenviable position.
“I feel for HR directors because when we picked up from the [last recession] it was a gradual change from 2013 to 2016,” she says.
“What you have seen this time is way more than that gradient of pivot in effectively three to four months.”
When it comes to pay, how do you stack up to the competition?
- HGV logistics provider Gist is offering sign-on and retention bonuses worth up to £5,000 payable over the first 15 months of employment
- Whitbread, the parent company of Premier Inn hotels, has given employees a pay rise costing it, nationally, between £12 million and £13 million. Retention bonuses are also being offered to new starters, which are expected to run up a company bill of £10 million
- Cornerstone, a specialist nursing facility operator based near Portsmouth, is offering employees up to a 5% bonus on their annual salary plus uncapped overtime. This is boosting its average nursing salary to around £46,000. In the NHS, those in similar roles are paid around £28,000
- Pro-rata bonuses ranging from £1,500 to £3,000 are being offered by Amazon for roles at its warehouses. The value of the bonus is dependent on location, and the shifts people work
Sources: The Grocer, BBC, Portsmouth News and The Guardian
Where the pandemic put an emotional load on HR leaders, Timms says that the challenge is now more cognitive and, if they aren’t careful, figuring out talent supply could be equally as draining. “We need experiments and evidence, adapting practice to inform, and then we replicate and rollout,” he says.
Time will tell how creative HR will be emboldened to be, but the hope is that whatever happens, collaboration wins.
Timms says: “This is a time when the profession as a whole should coalesce and say: ‘I know we work for competitors, but this is how we recruit’, and it works brilliantly. If you’ve got a purpose that’s greater than ours and people want to come and join you, great, we’ll just find the way to make sure we have the right pool, or conditions and benefits.”
2020 and 2021 will always be memorable for the people profession, but now the talent market has been taken off hold, 2022 could be the defining year for this generation of HR leadership.
The talent crisis may not discriminate from sector to sector, but one thing that is clear is that the right response from HR can make all the difference.
This is part two of a two part piece first published in the November/December 2021 issue of HR magazine. Read part one here or subscribe today to have all our latest issue of HR magazine delivered right to your desk.