Workforce shaping is about aligning your company’s business and human resources needs to make sure you’ve got the right employees with the right skillsets at the right time to help it run efficiently and effectively. With technology disruption coming from all sides, it can be difficult to know where to start the conversation. Unfortunately, far too many times, companies put off conversations about the impact that technology will have on their workforce, as they think it won’t become a reality for another five or 10 years. The reality is that these issues need to be addressed today.
So, joining us around the Influencers table is Jennifer Williamson, Head of Culture and Values at Kreston Reeves; Joe Brown, Managing Director of Peopleforce Technical Recruitment; Pam Loch, Managing Director of Loch Associates; Julie Kapsalis, chair of the Coast to Capital Local Enterprise Partnership, and MD of the Chichester College Group; and Sam Jones, tax manager at Kreston Reeves.
MH: The first question is for Pam. As an employment law firm at the sharp end of this, what do you see in your day-to-day workings?
Pam Loch: I think currently the challenge for most employers is recruitment and retaining their staff. I would say there’s a relatively short-term view being formed by a lot of businesses, particularly smaller businesses that are finding it more challenging. They are not looking far into the future. And they’re probably not thinking about technology and how it’s going to impact on them necessarily, because I think there is a significant issue that’s hitting them in the short term as to how they retain their staff. There are various surveys that are coming out showing the number of people that are thinking about changing that job.
I think it’s a big challenge for most employers, dealing with the ‘here and now’ and resignations. How do they deal with that when you’ve got a supply, which is very small in terms of the supply people out there with the right skill set? So you’ve got this huge challenge for them to overcome in the first place.
Jennifer, would you agree with that? What are you seeing as the issues in shaping our workforce?
Jennifer Williamson: I think there is a ‘here and now’ need, and that people just have a resource issue they need to fill to get work done. We have people that have contemplated what they want their career to be, where they want it to be. And as we have a growing business, we need to make sure that we have the right level of resource in order to fulfil the work we’ve got.
For us, technology is inevitable. We’ve seen it accelerate so far in the last few years that we know now that we really can’t ignore it. Clients are expecting services, particularly compliance services, at a reduced cost or added value in the service they’re getting. And the only way for us to manage that, with increasing wage bills, is to use technology and other resources. It gives us some really good tools to talk to clients about.
Sam, are you seeing the same things?
Sam Jones: Definitely. We’ve talked here about the short-term issues they’re seeing now. And I think we need to encourage businesses to look forward to make sure in five years’ time, those key people are still there. So it’s not the short term years, we need to backfill the gaps that we’ve got, but actually, who are your key leaders; your key management team? And how do we keep them with us throughout that whole journey?
Julie, as the only one of us responsible for the workforce of the future, is it just shaping the candidates for the next generation of work, or is it all getting a little bit confusing?
Julie Kapsalis: The priority for us is to try and match supply and demand. It doesn’t always match though. If you’ve got a group of 16 to 18 year-old students that all want to study one area, and that’s not where the jobs are - you can’t just click your fingers and change that mismatch. What we’re trying to do is to look at what core skills we can be giving that are transferable to a wide variety of sectors.
A lot of the employers that we talk to, talk about - in terms of employability skills - having the right attitude; somebody having that work-ready approach. And it’s really important to us that in any of those subjects, you’ve got those core employability skills because more people are not staying in one sector for their entire career. With the increase of technology that’s only going to happen more.
Pam, do you find the new staff coming into the workforce are ready for the workplace?
PL: Employers sometimes make assumptions that because somebody is younger, they might not have the correct skillset. A lot of employers are now looking at attitude, and there are still younger employees that have got the right attitude. What employers need to do, though, is they’ve got to nurture that, and show them a clear career pathway. I think that often employers are almost expecting somebody to come on board and know immediately what’s expected of them.
Joe, because you do technical recruitment, have you had people come to you, or experienced people in the workforce moving from job to job? Or do you have younger people coming through?
JB: A lot of our clients do look to recruit graduates or trainees. It has been the case that companies felt that they can recruit those kinds of employees more easily. But they’re increasingly struggling to do that now, where competition is very high for young people who have the right abilities and attitude.
Do you feel that they’re ready for the workplace?
JB: It really does vary. You see a lot of candidates that are very enthusiastic, and that want to go out of their way to try and show that they are wanting to get the job. And then you get others who might be interested to begin with, but then perhaps just don’t follow that up throughout the process, and don’t give themselves the best chance compared to other candidates.
Jennifer, when you’re on boarding new, relatively young staff, do you find that there’s other work to be put into them to get them ready for the workplace? Or are they ready
for the workplace?
JW: It’s a real mixed bag. I don’t think you could say that any are the same in how they approached joining work. We go through quite a rigorous recruitment process, and we like to think that process takes out the people that aren’t ready to join us.
But despite how good they are at self-learning, and communicating with clients, you’ve got to put in a lot of work to make sure they feel well embedded in the firm. So we have things like a buddy system; where we’re working remotely, they have that interaction all the time about increasing their technical competence.
But it’s interesting to hear what Julie said about careers, and I’ve heard that before. I’d be interested in Julie’s thoughts. Are you seeing that in the people you train want their personal brand to be more visible, because the career thing is less important to them?
JK: Yeah, definitely. I’m generalising but we are seeing that. And that people, when they are thinking of applying for a job, are looking at the values and the culture of an organisation. It’s not necessarily just driven by what the salary is. We’re seeing more of our learners saying, ‘that’s the kind of company I want to work for.’
JB: For quite a long time, there’s been a bit of a disconnect between what young people were looking for when they’re joining a company and perhaps what the management within a business are promoting.
PL: I would agree with that. For too long, there has been that disconnect. But you also need to understand what your workforce is looking for. Because I think there’s also assumptions made by managers about what their staff want from working with them.
I don’t want to make assumptions about my workforce, so actually doing a survey enables you to find out more about what they’re looking for, and what’s coming out is that they are interested in your values. It’s not just a ‘one size fits all’, which I think has been another issue in the past for businesses.
JK: Another area that I’m really passionate about and would like to see employers do more about is around returners, predominantly women returners, though they could be men returning from caring responsibilities.
I see, every day, large numbers of predominately mothers who, now their children are older, are looking to return to the workplace, but require a degree of flexibility in terms of the hours that they work. Or they might need a bit of support, retraining or upskilling. I think it’s a huge area of untapped talent.
I think the returners is definitely something that’s really important to the entire workforce, because there is a huge amount of talent out there being wasted. But is it not putting a huge weight on the company that they’re having to adapt to so many requirements and so many needs from new staff coming in? Is it not complicated these days?
SJ: It is complicated, but I think it is about listening to what the team needs. And every team is different. I know within Kreston Reeves that my team can’t be compared to Jen’s team. We’ve got part-time staff, full-time staff; and we’ve got people who don’t work school holidays. And I think it’s a case of listening to them, seeing what they need because if they’re good, you need to be accommodating.
Nowadays, we have completely flexible working. We have boundaries about making sure people come in and work as teams. But outside of that, if they’re doing their job and the outputs are there, we should be able to trust our staff to get that done.
A few years ago, I had a conversation with the Universities of Sussex and Brighton, who were boasting how much they put into preparing their staff for the workforce. That same week, I also had a meeting with the two largest employers in the southeast, who poured scorn on that. Nobody that they encountered was ready for the workforce.
Is there a disconnect between what the employer is looking for and what the new potential employees are ready to present?
JB: I think that there’s some very high expectations from people who are entering the workforce as to what employers can offer these days. And I think that there is there is sometimes people forgetting that ultimately, you must go to work to do a job. And a lot of it is about just learning, improving yourself and doing all that, and you have to offer something as well as your employer offering something.
The example that I gave was a few years ago. Julie, do you feel things are changing with educational staff or establishments; that they are not just teaching the skills required, but teaching effectively the soft skills required into entering the workforce?
JK: Things are improving. Government policy is pushing universities and colleges into working much more closely with employers. But it has to be an ongoing dialogue about having really strong relationships with employers.
I think areas that can help that are where we’ve got ‘T-Levels’, which all the people doing them have an extended work placement. The majority of our courses have some form of work placement as well. And then there are businesses that take on apprentices.
There are some brilliant examples of companies that have the most phenomenal apprenticeship schemes, though we need to do more to encourage those businesses that aren’t taking on apprentices. It’s not just new recruits, many companies still don’t realise that they can use apprenticeships to progress existing staff; something we know is key to retention.
PL: We’ve had a great experience taking on an admin apprentice years ago. He’s now a solicitor advocate having done his barrister training. Then we persuaded them to come back and work with us as a solicitor so there are some really good experiences.
Equally, we’ve had one or two not so good experiences with some apprentices. We’ve had a client with someone who said, ‘I’m not coming into work today, because the person who gives me a lift is off on holiday.’ And it had to be explained to them by HR that ‘how it works is you’re an employee in a contract, you agree to work each day, these are the hours you work each day, therefore, you’ve got to get to work’.
Now, that sounds really basic, but if nobody’s actually taught them those sort of things, how do they know what their expectations are?
I’m interested in this balance-of-power shift. Probably older generation employers are finding it more difficult to do this. But the example you gave is exasperating. I don’t understand how anybody can have that way of thinking such as Pam’s example. How far does this go before we all start working for the employees?
JB: You have a contract with an employer and an employee, and the employee has responsibilities towards that employer, just as the employer has responsibilities towards the employee.
There is the thing about employers’ responsibilities to, for example, ensure that those working from home do not end up on a different kind of tier relationship with their employers as those working in the office. It’s something which will be more impactful in the coming years where you’ve got people that fully work remotely, and they can’t have those water cooler conversations. And therefore, they feel that they’re slipping behind in terms of being integrated within the workplace, but whose responsibility is it?
I’d be interested to hear what other people think about that whether the responsibility lies with the employer or the employee?
JW: I agree with your concern. I think that particularly with hybrid working, you run the risk of having this ‘you weren’t in the room for the conversation or the decision’. And that creates this divide. If you’re all remote, or you’re all in the office, it’s okay, but the hybrid does definitely create this.
It’s very difficult to manage hybrid working. Don’t get me wrong, it’s got huge advantages, and it’s here to stay. But it is difficult to manage.
Those advantages – are they for the employer or the employee?
JW: Both. If you’ve got a project to get done, where it’s time-intensive and very concentrated, it’s much easier to get that done if you make yourself absent and avoid distractions. But as well as being in output-driven, technical areas of work business, we are a people business, with our clients and our colleagues, and if you’re not talking to them or with them, or learning from them, it does have a negative impact.
PL: I think it’s really challenging, remote working. As human beings, we generally interact face to face. There are a lot of people who are not like that, and they prefer to remain at home and maybe disconnected, but that might suit the job they do. So it might depend on the work that somebody undertakes.
But I think we need to invest in training our managers in a different way to manage, because it isn’t the same skill set. I find it challenging when I had staff working at home during the lockdowns.
Equally, the employee needs to accept that they should go into the office or attend social events so that they maintain contact, and make sure that they are available when they need to be available; not shutting themselves off.
There are companies who do not accept remote working. They would only employ people who are happy to come into the office. While remote working is possibly here to stay, I see a bit of a push back on quite a few large companies saying, as of the new year, we’d like all our people to be in the office. You’ve even got the Prime Minister talking about the Civil Service threatening those not in the office...
JB: Remote working happened as a result of the lockdowns and companies were forced to make it work. We found people were able to do their job from home. It worked for some people given their setups; conversely, it didn’t work for other people given their setups.
So I think there is that feeling that it
is here to stay. It’s going to be the
case that it must work for both sides.
PL: One thing we have to keep in mind is that you’ve got legal rights here. And employers must be cognisant of that. You’ve got the Equality Act; that means that if you’ve got some disability, and you need to work from home, and because that’s a reasonable request, then an employer then has to accommodate that.
And then the other aspect, of course,
is flexible working. The government is sending out messages that they want people back. But next year, we’ll be expecting the flexible working legislation to change again, to put a greater onus onto employers to allow flexible working when it’s requested.
Was that flexible working legislation introduced before or after the pandemic?
PL: Well before. It’s been quite
a while. So the plan is it’s going
to change in 2022.
JB: It’s going be interesting when
that legislation does go through as
to what the scenarios would be for
an employer to say that the job
cannot be done from home. Because technically, if someone’s got a phone and a computer, they can do pretty much most officejobs from home.
So it’s going to be very interesting to see where the balance of power lies.
Is that an effect of the pandemic that’s going to work its way out?
Or do you think this is permanent?
SJ: I think it depends on the type
of work and the type of team.
For instance, today, I make a lot
of calls so it makes sense for me to
be at home because I haven’t got
the interruptions at the office, and
I can focus on contacting my clients. And then I’ve got two days in the
office but that means I’m there with
my team. We can keep the projects going that we’re working on together, and they get the benefits of us all
being there. I don’t think for us at Kreston Reeves, it will massively change.
What sort of percentage does Kreston Reeves have of remote working versus permanently in the office?
SJ: As a firm, we’re asking people to try and get together two days a week. But at the moment, our desks are all bookable. So we book seats, and we are encouraging teams to decide how that might work. I know some of our offices are doing a rotation systems or certain teams are on certain days. Now, the Canterbury office is only about a third full but I know that some of the other offices are some days at complete capacity.
Jennifer, how far can this go?
JW: We’d already started introducing hybrid working before the pandemic accelerated it in March 2020, but I don’t really see we’ve got much choice. I know there are different schools of thought; we have some people that hate it, and we’ve got other people absolutely love it.
Because of the way the employee market is, and the need to recruit and retain talent, I don’t think we have much choice but to allow that flexibility, because without it, we’re dismissing a huge swathe of people who want that.
But... who knows? You need a crystal ball to know where it’s going to go.
Julie, do find any kind of disconnect between the incoming workforce and the skills required?
JK: It’s something we’ve got to keep a close eye on because things are changing. An interesting example would be the horticulture and agriculture sector in the south east. Automation within that sector is radically changing the kind of skills and investment in research and development that those businesses are undertaking. And they are actually doing some really cutting edge stuff in terms of looking at how they improve their productivity, how they reduce waste, looking at the impact on the environment.
If I look at the relationships we might have with some of those big companies, they’d have approached us about students coming and doing some seasonal work, harvesting of crops. Now they’re talking to us on how to develop new technologies. It’s a shift. And it’s just about making sure that education providers are aware of that shift.
Going back to your crystal ball, particularly when you’re doing careers advice with young people, things are going look very different in five or six years’ time.
Do you find any benefit in companies coming in to the college and helping with the structure or the formation of certain courses to make sure that they are work ready?
JK: I think it’s critical. And we’ve got quite a lot of examples where we’ve done exactly that, where we will have employer forums that will meet at least once a year where they will come in, and they will challenge us. They will look at the curriculum that we’re delivering and developing and push in terms of ‘is it providing the right kind of skills and experience that they need?’.
One of the projects that I’m really excited that we’re working on at the moment as a region is a bid for an Institute of Technology, which is about bringing together the region’s universities, colleges and employers to design new higher technical qualifications to very specifically meet employer needs.
Does Kreston Reeves get involved in any form of contact with educational facilities?
JW: Yes, our main institutes, the Institute of Chartered Accountants and the ACCA. And we have strong links with those to try and help inform what the qualification of the future should look like. We run all our trainees through apprenticeships as well.
I think we need to consider the right qualifications and training that we need for the future of our business and clients, that’s likely to mean a greater focus on training that places more emphasis on technology, a digital skill set and real time business advice.
JK: I’m really pleased that Kreston Reeves is one of the key partners in this Institute of Technology bid, doing exactly what you’re saying they’re looking at, we’ll be looking at with yourselves, the impact of FinTech, legal tech, regulatory tech, and actually how that’s going to shape your sector and the skills it requires.
JB: It’s a really good example of what you’ve just picked up on there. I’ve got very basic knowledge of what an AAT qualification equips people with the ability to do. For example, should somebody still be learning, say, double-entry bookkeeping for 10 years, when every business is using programmes like QuickBooks; programmes which have all that done for them?
JW: That’s what I’m alluding to. I’m sure professional qualifications have evolved since I took them and the syllabus needs to continue to evolve at the same pace as business needs.
With the new staff coming in, how important are qualifications over experience; over attitude?
JW: That’s a really interesting question. And if you’d have asked me five years ago, I would have given you a very different answer. We used to let people go when they couldn’t pass their exams. And we would say, ‘you can’t pass the exams, you need to be qualified’. But we are not in the same place any more. If they can do a good job in the office, but the exam or technical qualification route isn’t for them, that’s fine.
SJ: I helped with the trainee recruitment this year. I didn’t look at necessarily what degree they did or what course at A-Levels they were doing that school, etc. It’s all nice if they’ve got an accounts or finance qualification, or legal degree. But if their attitude is right, and they’ve given us the right reasons why they want to come into accountancy or tax, and if we think they’re the right fit for the team, then we’re prepared to potentially give them the job even if they’ve got an unrelated degree or school subjects.
Are there any examples that where that’s gone dreadfully wrong?
SJ: Despite the rigour of our recruitment process, there’s always the chance we’ll make the wrong choice on occasion! I see some people might interview well. But I think the interview rounds are very different because I have no idea if they had shoes on, or if they’ve got big fluffy slippers
on the bottom of their feet. But it’s very different now. And you can’t test them on their Excel skills in an interview, so I think you have to take a punt sometimes, and personality and drive
are sometimes a big tick.
JK: There’s a piece around something I challenge quite a lot when you see a job description come in, and it says essential criteria ‘must have a degree’. Why? Or in what? And what’s it going
to bring? There’s the example that gets used all the time about one of the barriers to women applying for roles is they’ll look at that essential list. And if they don’t tick all the boxes, they might not apply. Whereas 20/30% of men might think they can do it, and they’ll apply. I think it’s getting better, but that barrier is still there.
JB: One thing that we do an awful lot more of is to challenge the clients on what is actually required in the role. And for so often they will have this endless list of things that they’re
looking for. And what they’re describing is this unicorn that just does not exist. Or that you are being unrealistic with your expectations, and we will always push back on.
PL: I hear what you’re saying about people interview very well. There’s also people are deluded about it so they may think that they are absolutely superb, but in reality they’re not. Because the problem I find is some people do come over amazingly well and putting aside the qualifications, you think, ‘they’re great’, actually, they might think they’re great, but they’re not that great, and they’re not going to fit the job.
Just as a wrap, I would like to go around the table and just ask you, what you what your view is, of what the shape of the workforce is going to be. If we say in the next five to 10 years, can I start with you, Jennifer?
JW: This talks to a webinar we did recently about what was important in terms of employer brand. You’ve got to be really authentic about why you do what you do. It can no longer be around, ‘we just provide accountancy services and financial solutions’. There’s got to be a purpose beyond the pay-cheque. Because that’s what people are looking for. They’re looking for businesses that have a culture and values that align with their own. It’s not about what you do, it’s not about how you do it, it’s about why you do it.
And it’s really important that you embed that in your brand, and what you get out to people, and also that it really connects with how you treat your people in your practice. So I think we’re seeing a lot more, not just employees, but also clients that will only work with us if we meet certain environmental or social or governance criteria. And that’s becoming more and more important, and really does set you apart.
JB: Everything must be looked at in terms of the sector or the individual company, and I think no ‘one size’ is going to fit all on this. Because ultimately employers employ people, and everybody is different. Within an organisation you’re going to have to offer flexibility, or offer new ways of working. But I think certainly we’ll see a lot more of bespoke kinds of model to employ and people, and employers making sure that they take on board people’s desires regarding who wants to work flexibly. I think that’s the key thing.
SJ: It’s all around flexibility. The businesses need to move with their workforce as to what their needs and wants are. Each each sector industry is going to have different needs and wants. But also, I think the key point is the forward planning. So if we’re looking at 10 years, what do they think their workforce structure could be like in 10 years? Obviously, this needs to be reviewed regularly and making sure it still meets their day to day needs. And actually, is there anything more out there from their remuneration strategy to ‘I’m going to come back to share schemes again’? Is there something they can be doing now, that could still benefit them in the future?
PL: Certainly, there’s going to be a much more agile workforce. And I think the employers, are going to have to be more agile, which means from a positive perspective, I’m hoping that older workers will have more opportunity. Because once you’re over 50, it’s very difficult to get employed again in the current market. And I also think there might be more opportunities for younger staff where employers are prepared to invest in them. And so it needs employers that are more innovative than they have been in the past in terms of how they approach the workforce, both from the point of view of whom they employ, but also what they offer as a package.
JK: I echo what others have said; I think it is about choice and flexibility, and values. They are the things that will attract and retain talent. And recognising that it’s not just technology that will drive innovation and productivity. People will play a central and critical role in that as well. And again, not just businesses focusing on investing in their technology or their R&D. In order to do that they’ve got to invest in their people, and the skills of those people. And I think the most important thing is making sure those links between businesses, and schools, colleges and universities are there so that as that crystal ball becomes clearer, we might need to know that supply chain is there. But not forgetting the importance of people returning to the workforce, existing people in the workforce, older workers. We’ve got to invest in our people.
Excellent. Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen for joining us, and for your time on the Influencers Forum.