Will virtual working lead to a greater spread of geographical talent?

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The below article featured in The MJ magazine.

Since the start of the first lockdown back in March our clients and candidates have been learning new ways of working in order to support the communities that they serve. The utilisation of tools such as Zoom and MS Teams have allowed many to deliver their work in a wholly or largely virtual manner and this has presented opportunities for innovation and increased efficiencies. It feels that as the constraints around travel and physically attending an office setting have become the norm, many people have developed a blended model to their work approach.

There are many examples where the move to a virtual world has resulted in additional benefits to service users as well as employees, such as those children accessing specialist CAMHS support where they no longer need to visit a clinic but instead access the specialist from their own home via online tools. Anecdotally, we hear that children and young people feel more in control and have greater access to the specialists because there is more time to spend with service users due to decreased travel commitments. 

The greater flexibilities that have been afforded to the workforce have led to interesting conversations with clients who are looking to hire around what their expectations are of their staff. Whilst taking the brief for a Director level appointment from a Chief Executive this month, the client  advised that they only expected the successful applicant to attend the office on average for 2 days per week. This time would be focussed on providing the oversight and scrutiny to their direct reports, whilst the usual Corporate wide meetings and engagement with elected members would remain in a virtual setting. 

This is something of a game changer when it comes to thinking about the geographical location of your employer. Much has been written about the growing trend for individuals to swap their urban home setting for a more rural location. Could this then see a growing number of staff travel into the office for two days a week with one overnight stay local to the office but the remainder of their working week delivered from a far more remote location? 

We are hearing from both interim and permanent job seekers about an increased willingness to undertake longer commutes on the basis that it is no longer expected to be a daily commitment. 

From an employer’s perspective, no longer are they constrained by only looking at local candidates, or those that will formally relocate. There will be a levelling up of practice nationally, rather than being contained in regional pockets throughout the country. The best opportunities in the marketplace will now be genuinely open to the best candidates, rather than those that could commit to the location. 

Is there a danger, however, that this potential geographical shift will impact community knowledge and subsequent service provision? How much does physical presence equate to insight? This will be a core consideration for HR teams and finding more innovative ways to engage communities and build empathy will be vital. 

Both employees and employers should have far greater choice when it comes to considering the viability of key career moves and appointments.  

How much is this a short term shift in thinking and indeed culture though? What happens if you are appointed into a role on the basis of a “working from home” blended with onsite visibility but then lockdown and travel restrictions are eased? Will employers genuinely stay committed to the current ways of working and the flexibility that is currently required? How will that impact on job seekers attitudes to risk? 

In a recent survey we undertook across public services, the benefits of virtual approach seem to have been quickly embedded with 50% of respondents likely to maintain virtual HR processes, and a further 30% who may adopt in future, for example. However, we also noted that around 40% of organisations feared that some of the strides they had made in terms of innovation or new processes might be in danger of defaulting back to old habits. 

We should also remember that virtual working has surfaced many issues around mental wellbeing that are not always apparent. Whether this results from peoples’ personal working environment, a greater sense of isolation or less opportunities to build networks and collaborate, there is still much to learn from the experience of home working across large chunks of the organisation. Nurturing an inclusive and belonging culture is more challenging and needs a fresh approach from leadership. Organisations must also introduce new methods to spot any risks around mental wellbeing resulting from remote working. There is little research available to understand longer term impact so we need to learn as we go and share best practice as it is evidenced. 

With a second lockdown now upon us and the likelihood that we are probably only a third of the way through this troubled period it seems to make sense to take stock of what we have already learnt, embed the positive benefits of greater flexibility and continue to challenge our thinking about previously accepted assumptions about what will or won’t work. There is arguably now a much larger potential candidate population that can be accessed by clients if they can demonstrate real and long term commitment to continued innovation around flexible work models. 

Craig Clarke is a Partner with GatenbySanderson’s Interim Leadership Practice and a specialist in Social Care & Education