The hybrid era

Without stating the obvious, there is no going back is there? So I’ll start by asking you a few questions. When hiring to your leadership teams, how do you feel about where a person lives and how often they might be ‘on site’ with you? And has that view changed at all in the last 20 months? Plus, what distinction do you make when hiring to interim vs permanent leadership positions?

I ask because we are constantly told that the chances of senior officers ever returning to work full time in an office are almost non-existent. The office is dead, long live the hybrid office, but politicians expect us to be readily available, visible and present…Sound familiar?

Chances are that whatever the starting point for your views on hybrid working, those views have shifted. We’ve all proven we can work from home rather effectively and we’re at the point now where more and more activities are gravitating back towards taking place in an office environment. But you’d be hard pressed to find a local authority demanding its senior officers return to that office full time.

Furthermore, many now recognise the competitive advantage of attracting talented individuals to their organisations who are not willing or able to relocate full time. In that sense the goalposts have moved. Yes, some people have been doing it for years but I believe we are on the cusp of it becoming much more commonplace for senior officers to take on roles in locations far from home, family and other commitments.

When planning the future shape of your leadership workforce, I wonder if you envisage not only a smaller headcount but also leadership teams that are drawn from a much wider talent pool than previously?

It isn’t just technology or a horrific pandemic that has shifted thinking. This was coming anyway, but all of a sudden it is here and we are already seeing great examples of appointments being made that enrich leadership teams in a way that would have been unthinkable in the past.

That is because people are no longer relocating weekly or permanently, and shortlists are no longer only made up of those who can commute or move. Often candidates are no longer based anywhere near their employer.

We all refer to one another in local government as peers – think ‘peer review’ for example – but the reality is that not only is your neighbour your competitor for talent, actually any other local authority might be. The councils that are already hiring people who are not required on site more than say 30-50% of the time, who can therefore draw talent from just about anywhere else in the country,  are the ones able to dramatically diversify their leadership teams and create competitive advantage for their residents.

Working away from home has been common among the interim management community for decades. During lockdown we have seen numerous examples of local authorities hiring interim managers into senior, high risk and sensitive roles without those interims ever setting foot ‘on site’. I’ve hired monitoring officers and all sorts of executive directors and assistant directors in this way, not to mention folks leading the kind of governance review that 20 months ago it would have been unthinkable to undertake remotely. Now it’s the norm.

It’s not just technology that has moved our perspective on work defined more by action than location. Attitude has played a huge part. Plus we’ve proved the point. Many local authorities have long since shifted their transformation objectives towards a reduced office footprint and a complete reinvention of their relationship with their workforces coupled with harnessing technology advantages. With that comes an entirely refocused people strategy in which hybrid working plays a huge part.

Let’s face facts. There aren’t enough people to go round. You only have to look as far as the number of CEOs retiring in London boroughs let alone anywhere else to see how that opens up opportunity for the most creative and innovative organisations in our sector. And their target candidate audience will often be employed in other local authorities.

And that brings me onto something else. That idea of the increasing competition for talent and the concept of a ‘mass’ or ‘great’ resignation. The latter is neither new nor surprising. The phenomenon was first reported in the US back in April with the phrase being coined by a US academic. A great resignation is here and it isn’t. It’s here in the labour market in general but only time will tell just how prevalent it is in senior local government circles. The reality is that if anything many senior officers who might have retired in the last 18 months didn’t – precisely because of tackling COVID.

Part of what we are seeing now is that bottleneck in the market when a greater proportion of senior officers than might normally be expected are now looking to step away. Basically we’ve got a couple of years’ worth of retirements happening in a short space of time which is entirely understandable. I mention the turnover in the London CEO market – those of us who have been around a while have seen it before but around a third of those roles will have changed hands in under two years by the middle of next year.

It will settle down again but in an unsettled labour market our peers become our competitors when seeking talent and a compelling narrative and an open mind is everything when attracting that talent. Chuck in the looming spectre of a return of the exit pay cap and that narrative becomes ever more important.

So while hybrid working and people strategies are but one facet of a corporate plan, when it comes to attracting your next assistant director, director or chief executive – interim or permanent – these are factors that all parties need to think through very seriously indeed.

Neil Lupin is managing partner at Green Park Interim & Executive Search 
T: 07967 826026
E: neil.lupin@green-park.co.uk

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