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Unprecedented, but definitely not on Mute

Written by: Julie Towers is managing director of Penna
Published on: 21 Jan 2021

As we end one year and begin another, like many of us I reflect on the learning of the past year and what it might tell us about the year ahead. So, 2020 may have been ‘unprecedented’ which along with ‘you’re on mute’ has been the most commonly used term; but it has also been pivotal in terms of recruitment, talent and people development. Possibly the most influential year in my career to date.

Why is this? Firstly because of the rapid changes the sector made in harnessing the technological advancements that we were not using to their full capacity. Like Microsoft Teams and their equivalents, Zoom, Skype, WebEx – most organisations had them, they were sitting on our servers or in the cloud – but weren’t rolled out or culturally embedded in our working patterns. But video communications technology has been around for a while, and as recruiters we regularly used it mostly when a candidate couldn’t attend an interview, or if they were abroad. In a rightly multi-channel and robust recruitment process, I don’t think we’ll go back to doing first interviews face to face. The cost of time and travel vs increased value of face to face does not add up; and as recent research demonstrated candidates prefer the phone or video methodology as the entry way into a recruitment process. Technology and the accessibility it brings to candidates removes barriers to application, increases diversity and reduces the time and cost to hire. This is most definitely a keep from 2020.

Because of Black Lives Matter, diversity is now rightly at the top of the agenda – where it should remain – giving new energy to commitments and actions from employers to right the wrongs of history, and strive to be inclusive employers in an inclusive society. This will take more than commitment, more than positive action, it requires root and branch review and development of organisational culture, difficult conversations, leadership at all levels and for significant positive action to be taken pre-application to change perceptions of organisations and engage with diverse candidates.

This must be at the top of every organisation’s agenda for 2021 and beyond. We recently joined the Inclusive Organisations Network and I was heartened to hear from Paul Sesay, chief executive of Inclusive Organisations that the winner of their Top 50 Inclusive Organisations in 2020 was for the first-time a public sector organisation (Morecambe Bay NHS Trust), and that two of the top five were from the public sector (West Midlands Police and Lancashire Constabulary).

Public servants work at the heart of our diverse communities, and the pandemic has positively increased awareness and the value of their work. We are seeing increased applications from the private sector as they recognise the value and purpose of the work delivered by the public sector. The public sector therefore has a huge role to play in representing the communities they serve, and it’s good to see them at the forefront of the change. I hope more will follow suit.

But what about the other shifts and issues that your people agenda needs to consider?

Early careers, graduate and apprentice programmes were the first to be stopped, deferred or reduced in 2020. Let’s hope this was just a pandemic short-term issue, as the future of our workforce, it’s essential that young people find their way into meaningful work. In a cost pressured environment, the public sector will have less to invest, and I fear that lower turnover as job security will be highly valued will give less opportunity for organisations to open up entrant routes for young people, who as well as being the lifeblood of the future, are also the most diverse community.

It was telling in the summer when a new graduate recruitment campaign for a large government agency attracted more than 28,000 applications, for just 15 roles. Employers are having to think carefully about both the affordability of their intakes, and the cost of recruitment transaction; and if like our client you are committed to diversity and inclusion you must hold your nerve when it comes to setting selection criteria, so there is no adverse impact.

With supply in early career recruitment outstripping demand; and with unemployment increasing, employers be tempted to rest on their laurels; and I have been saddened by the comments from many candidates and friends who have not received feedback or good support through their application process. Some have not even heard the outcome of job applications weeks after their interviews. With thousands of applications anticipated for roles, all recruitment programmes will need a rethink about quality vs quantity and how standards of good practice are maintained, and we must invest in the technology and AI support to deliver positive and relevant communication and engagement for candidates.

Think long term is my advice – the candidates you manage today could be the employees of the future. Brand is everything, and all the work you’ve invested to achieve a good employer value proposition can be lost quickly if the experience does not match the rhetoric. Act as if you are still competing for talent, because in terms of quality and diversity you are.

There will be more to come over future months about how 2020 has affected certain professions – and the Public Services People Managers Association (PPMA) continue to do a great job to demonstrate how their HR and OD community are embracing their increased importance. If people development and management weren’t important before, then they are front and centre now. The year 2020 was the most significant stress test of employer leadership and management values and actions, employee support policies and talent management. Furlough, mental health and wellbeing, COVID, working remotely, home schooling, caring responsibilities, social distancing, workplace health and safety – you name it, employers had to deal with it in 2020, and continue to do so into 2021. The work place, work force and meaning of work are changed forever, and the ‘why we work’, ‘who we work for’ and our work life balance will remain centre stage.

These conversations need to be shaped in 2021 by HR and OD professionals in conjunction with top table leaders. There isn’t a ‘new normal’ to aim for in my view….our ability to evolve and change has been heightened so ‘normal’ will not be a destination. The listening, learning and implementing we’ve done at pace in 2020 should equip us well to drive further improvements and creativity that we don’t even know we’re capable of yet.

In 2021 we will continue to challenge and question the talent issues and continue to share our experiences; and I’d like to thank everyone in 2020 who supported Penna and the industry to evolve and change with them. The spirit of kindness and partnership has definitely not been on mute.

Julie Towers is managing director of Penna

22 January Penna, along with the PPMA, will be hearing from clients and candidates about their Recruiting in Lockdown experiences and learning.

On 4 February Penna will be putting public finance on The Stage in partnership with CIPFA.

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