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Employability the new normal

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Employability: the new normal

The past year has seen change sweep across every aspect of our lives. The combination of a global pandemic with the rise of automation and an increasingly desperate environmental crisis has impacted everything from how we live and learn to how we work.

The shift to remote working is here to stay, with implications for jobseekers, employees and employers alike. There is an opportunity to increase inclusivity, diversity, happiness and productivity. Yet there are also risks tied up with this way of working, from legal implications to its effect on company culture.

By exploring these nascent benefits and risks we can move forwards with an awareness that will support the creation of a better future of work for us all.

The move to remote working

Coronavirus catalysed an immediate shift to remote working that is here to stay. Many companies across industry have announced, over the past year, that they will continue to operate fully remotely once the crisis and its attendant health and safety precautions have passed. Of course, not every position allows for remote working. Many companies have developed hybrid options which they hope will give their employees the flexibility they need to continue to benefit from the positive effects of working remotely.

The move to hybrid and fully remote working policies is a response to several factors. The implications for employee happiness and productivity have been widely recognised. And the success of the rapid move to remote operations in March last year took many companies pleasantly by surprise. Other businesses, financially strained by the effects of the pandemic, need to remain remote to give up office spaces that have become a burden on their budgets. Money being spent on real estate is now being seen as money that could more productively be invested elsewhere, leading many to ask: is a physical office really essential, and what is it for?

Companies making the remote-working leap

As early as May last year, announcements were being released by companies hoping to lead the charge to a new way of working.

Brian Armstrong, co-founder and CEO of cryptocurrency exchange company Coinbase, was among the first to declare a shift to being a “remote-first” company. This means, he said, “that in the future, anyone who wants to, can continue to work from an office. That won’t change. What is changing is that (almost) any employee who prefers to work outside of an office, can… Being remote-first requires a mindset and behavioural shift. It means that the employee experience should be the same, whether you’re in an office one day a week, five days a week, or never.”

Pharmaceutical giant Novartis launched its new approach in July last year. Choice with Responsibility signals a move towards creating “a future working model that optimises both personal and business performance”. The company explained: “The global pandemic has accelerated our organisational need to explore new working models and our associates [employees] have expressed a strong desire for more flexibility in how, where and when they work.” Underpinning this method is a commitment to an experimental and evidence-based approach, in order to “ensure that our long-term proposals are practical, impactful and applicable to the widest possible spectrum of associates.”

Dropbox joined the movement in October 2020, publishing a statement detailing how it intends to move forward as a virtual-first company: “Remote work (outside an office) will be the primary experience for all employees and the day-to-day default for individual work.” Interestingly, the company plans to retain existing office space, rebranding former offices as “Dropbox Studios”, which will “facilitate a cadence of in-person collaboration and team gathering”.

This is a trend that is likely to grow. One of the drawbacks of remote working is the lack of cross-pollination. In offices and other spaces in business districts, employees from across a company or from different companies have the opportunity to meet, connect and exchange ideas, a process essential to innovation. Solo work will not be allowed in Dropbox Studios, a rule that attempts to protect this aspect of company culture. Dropbox acknowledged in its statement that hybrid approaches can perpetuate “two different employee experiences that could result in barriers to inclusion and inequities with respect to performance or career trajectory,” which it hopes to avoid.

Earlier this year Spotify launched its Work From Anywhere programme, in the belief that “Giving our people more flexibility will support better work-life balance and help tap into new talent pools while keeping our existing band members.” The company continued: “Operating as a distributed organisation will produce better and more efficient ways of working through more intentional use of communication and collaboration practices, processes and tools.” Spotify’s employees now have much greater freedom to live where they choose, and “if someone chooses a location that is not near a Spotify office, we will support them with a co-working space membership if they want to work from an office”, the digital music service said.

Many other companies, including Twitter, Skillshare and Lambda School, have joined this trend towards a permanent remote-work policy, with many more, including Google, Reddit, Microsoft and Siemens, intending to retain a hybrid option.

Shifts in hiring practices

It’s well known that diverse workforces are more innovative and more effective. A transition to remote working has the benefit of broadening the talent pool. Businesses can now open remote vacancies to employees around the world. This enables them to hire the very best experts in any given field, as well as to seek people from different cultures and with different perspectives. Although there are legal considerations with hiring across borders, the benefits for businesses of selecting employees from a larger group of people are clear.

Dropbox has said that while there may be some parameters on where employees can live and work, it expects “to become more geographically distributed over time, and hope this offers our teams more choices in where they live, work, and hire from.” Coinbase recognises being remote as an employee benefit that will become a prerequisite to attracting the best possible employees: “After a period of WFH, we think remote work (or part in-office and part remote) are options that many people, including the top talent we’re focused on hiring, will come to expect from employers. It also means we can capture top talent from all over the world.”

For employees, this is a double-edged sword. Being able to work from anywhere allows them to create a better work-life balance, to choose their lifestyle without having to compromise their career, and to thrive economically. However, in applying for remote roles, jobseekers are now facing much greater competition. Those looking for work will need to be better prepared than ever to demonstrate they have the skills employers need in this new normal.

Positive implications for inclusivity

There are many groups who could benefit from the move to remote working. Spotify stated that, “By experimenting and unlocking all talent we also enable diversity and inclusion.”

Disabled people are more than twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people. With the rise of remote and flexible work, people who have specific needs have a greater chance of being employed in fulfilling work. Being able to work from an environment that has been adapted for them, or to arrange work around their schedule, increases the opportunities for differently abled people to participate in the economy.

For working parents and carers, the flexibility to arrange work around childcare and other caring responsibilities can enable them to remain in – or to seek – work. This can increase retention rates of older and female workers who might otherwise have to leave their jobs to prioritise other responsibilities.

And for other groups, such as ethnic minorities, being outside an office environment removes them from a space in which they may have been subject to microaggressions. While employers have a duty of care to nurture a positive and inclusive workplace culture, and to combat unconscious bias, in the short term being removed from that environment can provide much-needed relief to suffering employees.

The role of employment technology in this new normal

Technology has been fundamental to the transition to remote work. Employment technology will be similarly central to a successful shift away from outdated modes of hiring that sought employees living within commuting distance from the office.

The International Labour Organization recognised, in a recent policy brief, that “The Covid-19 crisis is likely to have lasting effects on jobs, enterprises and skills… The expected recession is likely to make it more challenging for employers and workers to navigate the labour market… In these circumstances, technology can be an increasingly important tool to help those who need it most.”

The change in how we work has brought with it the demand for a different set of skills, particularly as it has coincided with a rise in automation. For jobseekers, employment technology platforms such as Aptem Employ® offer a flexible and accessible means of attaining the skills they need to be attractive prospects for hiring. Self-directed learning saw a huge rise over the past year because of the freedom it gives people to arrange learning around other commitments. In employability, eLearning modules are an invaluable resource for anyone trying to position themselves successfully in a competitive jobs market. In a remote work setting, employability technology also enables jobseekers to gain valuable digital skills alongside employability skills, giving them an edge in the marketplace.

And on the other side of the coin, employability technology allows work coaches to deliver personalised services at scale. In the current environment where unemployment levels are rising and there is a significant skills gap, work coaches need to be able to identify which of their clients are work ready and which need greater support. Those who are recently unemployed, and closer to regaining employment, can be directed to use the integrated eLearing modules and aggregated job search functions to progress towards employment. This enables work coaches to spend the majority of their time working closely with those in need of greater support. Aptem Employ® makes use of emerging technologies to ensure that work coaches are able to deliver diverse employability programmes, effectively supporting an increasing number of cases with a range of support needs.

The risks of remote working

As we have seen, remote working offers huge numbers of benefits to workers and employers alike. However, there are pitfalls that businesses need to remain vigilant against, to ensure that this shift continues to take us towards a future of work that is universally beneficial.

When hiring across borders, ensuring that pay is competitive and fair becomes a more complex task. Equally, there are legal and security considerations that companies must take into account when expanding their workforce globally. Many of the companies that have announced the transition to a remote-first culture have also highlighted the challenges they expect to face. Facilitating collaboration, ensuring the company culture remains inclusive and that there is just one, unified, employee experience are just some of these challenges. Coinbase’s CEO Brian Armstrong wrote: “There are risks to making this transition, and there are still many questions to answer: What does collaboration look like? How can we make sure remote folks can get proper home set-ups? How will remote-first Learning and Development work?” His approach to moving forward successfully is to “form a cross-functional team to oversee this transition. This group will identify the changes we must make to become a remote-first company (for example, around people management, recruiting/talent, culture and connection, and documentation and async work…), host open design sessions with all of you to surface ideas, considerations, dependencies, and concerns, and partner with internal experts to redesign how all of this works for a remote-first Coinbase.”

Given that this is an entirely new normal, Coinbase’s approach of pairing experimentation with analysis is commendable. It is essential, as we attempt to establish a new way of working – and with it new ways of hiring and seeking work – that company policies and culture are based upon tried-and-tested methods, and that we make use of the technologies available to support this transition.

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