Employers are favouring the carrot over the stick

October 4, 2022

John Whelan, Director of the Corporate Research Forum and former UK HR Director at BAE Systems, discusses how forum members are operating their hybrid working policies.

As we reflect on the experience of the pandemic, it’s an opportunity for business leaders to evaluate the approaches that they have taken.

Clearly, remote and flexible working are here to stay, but what do they look like today? Corporate Research Forum (CRF) recently asked its members for their thoughts.

Guidance is the new policy

Almost 90 per cent of firms surveyed said that they were taking a delegated approach to working practices. This seems sensible, allowing managers to manage the varying personal circumstances in their teams, but how do we ensure fairness and consistency? 

Our research indicated that firms were producing principle-based guidance, playbooks, scenarios, and personas to support managers. 

This approach means treating team members as individuals and finding the right solution for each: the single parent, the dual career worker, and so on. The ‘Great Resignation’ has exacerbated the need to be flexible as companies fight for the best talent, but we have to ask if this is a sustainable approach. Everyone will need to find the right balance between flexibility and productivity.

Shifting power

Pre-pandemic, it was clear that companies developed their policies and employees either agreed to them or went elsewhere. The pandemic proved that flexibility was possible, and people got used to it: after all, if you spent two years enjoying the chance to pick the kids up from school, you’re unlikely to agree to give that up now. 

Recently emerged skills shortages made it clear that employees now hold significant negotiating power. Apple’s failure to enforce a new ‘three days a week in the office’ has proven that people power can prevent the implementation of unpopular policy. 

As one senior HR leader told us, ‘The number one question asked by candidates at interview is – what is your flexible working policy?’

Generally, CRF members seem to be favouring the carrot over the stick. Employers are trying to enhance the workplace with treats and social activities. However, in time a more holistic analysis of the positive and negative impacts of remote and flexible working with respect to productivity, innovation and cohesion will undoubtedly be required.

Wellbeing: from convenient to essential

As we entered the pandemic, the focus was on the health and safety of the workforce, but as vaccines became more accessible, the emphasis turned to wellbeing. 

Companies trained their managers in mental health first aid, people used pulse surveys to respond to employee needs at pace, and targeted support was put in place for vulnerable groups, such as those experiencing domestic violence.

CRF research indicates that this new approach is here to stay, with one major employer telling us that they see this as a current source of competitive advantage.

So, what does this all mean for company leaders?

Firstly, review your principles – they may have been established under pressure during the pandemic. You’ll need to ensure they are still serving you well now you have time to evaluate them.

Secondly, support your managers to continue to make difficult judgements. Give them training, guidance, and an opportunity to discuss tactics with peers and HR.

Finally, keep your finger on the pulse of employee sentiment and wellbeing. The squeeze on skills means that those that are attentive to staff needs will win out.