It has been half a year since the UK Government first signalled the need for a nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19, and the significant long-term operational and financial implications of the crisis are becoming steadily clearer. Each decision undertaken by an organisation during this situation is likely to have some ramifications on its success going forward. This is particularly relevant to the question of talent retention, and how the behaviour of employers may influence whether or not staff decide to remain with a business.
Group HR director of Personal Group, Rebekah Tapping (pictured above), believes that the way companies have treated their staff during this time will be remembered and have a long-term impact. She noted that in her experience at Personal Group, the fact that so many of the business’s employees have stayed with the firm is linked to the commitment shown to looking after the person as a whole - this includes their physical, mental and social wellbeing.
“Looking after the mental and physical wellbeing of our team has been crucial,” she said. “The challenges of COVID-19 and lockdown were not always apparent. Yet we’ve had to be overtly aware of each team member’s personal circumstances… It’s been important to appreciate the different circumstances that people are living in and offer flexible options for them.”
COVID-19 has changed the way the business communicates with its employees, Tapping noted, and has shifted the focus on how teams are communicated with and engaged with from a localised viewpoint to a company-wide level. From initiating a ‘work where you can’ policy, to running online development sessions, to encouraging greater use of the company’s employee assistance team, Personal Group has implemented a broad swathe of services to ensure staff feel connected with each other and the business.
Charles Manchester (pictured below), the CEO of Manchester Underwriting Management (MUM), highlighted how, during this time of crisis, communication within the business has actually increased. Everybody has become accustomed to regular Zoom meetings at every level, so staff in different offices talk more now than before, rather than just via email. Manchester himself tends to use FaceTime or WhatsApp for calls as it is more personal, and he noted that now that there’s no travelling or external meetings, he tends to be more available for this communication than before.
“[Supporting] the mental and physical wellbeing of employees has been crucial during the pandemic,” he said. “It’s very easy to forget that some staff live in apartments and don’t have the space that others do. And the demarcation between work and home life becomes blurred. Moreover, working at home intensifies other personal issues that people have, whether it’s relationships, children or other things. We’ve provided access to mental well-being services and encouraged people to take time off. And we’ve made it clear that nobody is going to lose their job.”
Manchester noted that his name is over the door of the business, and that he cares very deeply about how MUM is perceived, both internally and externally. Staff may well be more loyal if employers have looked after them, he said, but really, employers must expect staff to want to progress their careers and sometimes this means moving on, in which case they can be ‘alumni ambassadors’.
“I do think a lot of people will be re-evaluating their career priorities, though,” he said. “I’m concerned for people at the beginning of their careers. They won’t have built up a network yet, which is so much easier in the London Market when it’s in person. And it’s hard to train people properly unless it’s in person. I also think that employers will be more flexible about working from home. If the virus risk persists for a long time, as I suspect it will, it will drive change in terms of space requirements and flexibility.”
The true long-term impacts of the virus are yet to be fully realised, Tapping said. Companies are being far braver about how they make decisions, and businesses have driven real innovation. They have restructured themselves in the way they do things, with new ways of generating revenue. But it’s still unclear how much of this change will stay for the long term.
“From a people perspective, staff have always wanted to work from home where possible,” she said. “We all know that remote working is not a new concept. But, moving forward, where employees choose to work from will be far more open. There will be more home working and more discussions between employee and employers around what works best for each individual.
“But, for some people, long-term working may not work for them. With the recent heatwaves, the air-conditioned office [has been] appealing. But have people got the right set up at home? Are businesses providing the right tools? The costs of providing everyone with a full work setup is significant and businesses and employees are going to have to decide the best way forward.”
Looking forward, the focus for both MUM and Personal Group is on ensuring that any return to the office is done with the safety and wellbeing of their staff in mind. Manchester noted that the business is involving its employees in every step of this planning, and has provided PPE for them and their families. The MUM office is set up for social distancing and sanitising, he said, but the business currently has no plans to return fully anytime soon.
“We will have 50% of the team in the office on any given week, with colour coded desks to ensure social distancing,” Tapping said. “No team members will be in the office on the weekend to allow for the cleaners to do a deep clean, and each team member will undergo a course on how to stay safe during COVID before returning.
“We don’t yet know what a full return to work programme will look like. But right now, helping people with the transition back into work is about reassurance. It might hit the end of 2020 before social distancing ends, which won’t be ideal for the mental health of some of our team members. However, we will enable occasional time in the office - even if it’s just for meetings - to provide a sense of normality for some employees.”