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Reflections on 2021

Written by: Julie Towers is managing director of Penna
Published on: 16 Dec 2021

It’s at times like these when I wish I kept a diary. Not the Outlook type though – instead, one that reminds me what was going on, what I did and where I went so that my reflections could be truly year-long, and not overshadowed by where we are now or have been in the last few weeks. In short, not just about COVID!

I’m going to try and reflect on what has been changed forever within the last year, what still needs to be changed, what the talent and recruitment market looks like as a result of these changes, and what good employers need to be focused on.

What has changed forever?

How we work. We used to go ‘to’ work – a place, a building…now we work from a range of places; our homes, coffee shops, shared spaces, etc. Employees have been empowered to see and count the benefit of this.

Professor Lynda Gratton, future of work thought leader, writer, speaker, influencer and professor of management practice at London Business School, reminds us that ‘coming into the office comes at a cost and it needs to count; home gives space to work while minimising interruptions and allows control of commuting. The office can enable face-to-face serendipity and induction, coaching and mentoring’.

These changes cannot shape themselves, they have to be led and exampled by our senior managers and leaders.

Our relationship with work. Whether you work to live, or live to work, you’ve had to think about why you work, when you work and who you work for. This has led to significant change, a great reset as set out by Peter Cheese, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development at their conference in November. Peter said that ‘organisations have to be outward-looking, agile and resilient, but also responsible in all that they do’ and that the pandemic created ‘a once in a generation opportunity to respond and lead with a sustained focus and belief’.

Peter rightly points out that ‘people have new expectations, including about how the organisation looks after them and whether they are in the right career’. These present major challenges for organisations, particularly the public sector where remuneration and development may not be as progressive. This needs urgent attention by all leadership teams – update your employer value proposition, be clear about your agile working plans, live with the consequences of whatever your decision and get on with reshaping your workforce. Don’t wait for them to come back to the office would be my advice.

The nature of work. Many say the truck driver shortage was a pre-existing challenge that Brexit and COVID exacerbated. Perhaps in the future these drivers will be replaced by driverless vehicles and these types of staff shortages will become a thing of the past? But until some of these shortages are perhaps replaced by AI and technology, it is clear that upskilling and reskilling will be needed to transition our workforces and enable entry to the workforce for those leaving education and training.

In the General Assembly and Modis workplace trends survey, 80% of decision-makers in technology and engineering saw a mismatch between the skills workers have, and the skills companies need to capitalise on emerging opportunities in tech. Employers will need to develop informed, cost-effective hiring and development strategies lest they fall behind. In the public sector we’ve mostly looked to buy or borrow talent – perhaps more focus on the build or bot (AI) may be needed?

We need to grow early careers talent in most of the professional, corporate areas of local government as well as those in high demand, low supply – such as planning, procurement, digital and social care. Local government investment in apprentices, internships and graduate placements are still way too low for its future demands and set against a highly ageing workforce. Reports say we’re heading for the 100-year life and working into our 70s but we shouldn’t rely on it.

What needs to change?

Equality to Equity. There is no doubt that 2020 and 2021 will be the years we remember for starkly reminding the world of the shocking inequality still present in society; George Floyd’s murder was a devastating reminder of how far we have to go.

David Lammy, MP for Tottenham and shadow foreign minister, has spoken of getting beyond equality to equity. He has encouraged employers to set targets for action, and like many has been disappointed that Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith’s report was not acted upon. His ask has definitely been heard and acted on in local government, with all of our clients this year stepping up to make change happen. Increased awareness, conversation, targets and commitment to improving diversity and inclusion are to be celebrated – but it is action and outcome that we must continue to strive for.

Investment in change. With so much for the leaders, people and OD officers to do it begs the question about investment in them and their services. Often much depleted, the HR and OD function has to come into its own – it needs resource, the right talent and innovative attitude to support leadership teams with developing new operating models, cultures and values. We are pleased to see more councils recognise this need.

Leadership teams began 2021 under pressure with COVID, and sadly it is still with us. But 2021 has also added burning new challenges around resource, talent and a tired workforce.

Yet in a year of ongoing challenges, disruption and uncertainty, there has been many positives too. Conversations have become more direct and specific; there has been a revived focus on inequalities; people, their wellbeing and work life blend are front and centre of employers’ priorities; and as Baroness Louise Casey said at our chief executives networking event recently: ‘Local government has been amazing, and more people should recognise that.’

Here’s to 2022 and all it brings – the leadership of the sector is definitely up to it. 

Julie Towers is managing director of Penna