As British workers fear for their jobs, they are less likely to fight for their employers over remote work and other concerns, writes Emma Rohsler
The pandemic has quickly become a memory in most employees’ minds. While their focus was then on a concern for health, the cost-of-living crisis means these same employees are increasingly worried about the potential impact of the economic downturn on their jobs and finances.
As a result, there has been a power shift: employees are less inclined to agitate in the workplace.
And as they become more anxious about job security, they become less willing to rock the boat and increasingly unlikely to demand changes to working arrangements and environments. According to data from a new report published by Herbert Smith Freehills, there is a falling number of employees willing to be activists within their workplace. For C-suite execs in the City, this is still a subject of concern. Some triggers for activism remain; they are just not currently as high on the employee agenda as they were a few years ago. This may also reflect the fact that many companies are taking more proactive steps to address issues which matter to their employees, at an earlier stage.
With changing priorities from staff it is reasonable to suggest that employers’ perspectives are shifting too. Business leaders are beginning to notice how economic fears have sapped momentum from the Great Resignation. Arguably it’s reached a point where employers now have leverage to reconsider flexible ways of working that, in the eyes of many City firms, had become a little too flexible.
Or, as one business leader put it recently, we are living in a “stick and carrot economy”. As the psychological contract continues to evolve, employers are exploring different ways of incentivising their employees. That is what lies behind the nearly half of respondents who expect remote working to become a privilege earned through trust. Almost as many also have plans to differentiate pay between remote and on-site workers in 3 to 5 years.
Employers are clearly pushing back on the intensely flexible working models necessitated by the pandemic. The message to their staff is clear; it’s for their own benefit as closer proximity encourages collaboration, offers mentorship and maintains company culture. The return to the office reflects a move away from a purely transactional relationship towards one which is more human and authentic. Both employees and employers are appreciating that physical presence in the workplace makes staff feel more connected to their employer and colleagues.
However, these objectives must be balanced against employee needs. New legislation in the UK will give all employees the right to request flexible working arrangements from day one in a job. Other legal issues must also be considered, given that many workers choose to work remotely due to care-giving responsibilities or disability. In short, employers should take care to avoid arbitrary changes in policy that risk discrimination or other claims.
And then, with a nod to this week’s global AI Summit at Bletchley Park, there’s the consideration for the impact of digital transformation on the workplace. Employers have understandably been eager to adopt AI technology, but this often comes with significant implications for the workforce. The rush to be a forerunner is resulting in many employers pressing ahead without consultation or consideration of the impact these changes might have for their employees, including their morale. It remains to be seen if the risks of that approach will deliver the rewards.
Those employers looking to reduce or revoke flexible working, or introduce new technology, must think carefully about their approach. Introducing change in the wrong way can impact morale, lead to a loss of talent and create legal risk.
Put simply, it’s a balancing act, but the weighting of it has changed significantly, and with the newfound power of employers to change the social contract with their staff, there needs to be an abundance of caution, not only in order to get the most out of their workforce, but also in anticipation of another wind-change.
Emma Rohsler is a partner at Herbert Smith Freehills