How sustainability has become an advantage in the talent war, but candidates aren’t fooled by ‘greenwashing,’ say experts

The meeting in early November of officials from approximately 120 countries at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26), in a desperate bid to improve the planet’s health, highlights the critical importance of environmental issues.

But it’s not just world leaders who need to boost their sustainability credentials: so do businesses, or they risk defeat in the raging war for talent.

Indeed, new research from global recruitment firm Robert Walters indicates 34% of U.K. office workers would refuse a job offer if a company’s environmental, sustainability or climate control values do not align with their own. In the U.S., the figure is even higher: 41%. France and Chile (both on 53%) top the list, closely followed by Switzerland (52%).

It’s a “new era of recruiting,” according to Chris Poole, managing director of Robert Walters U.K. “While all the normal questions still get asked around pay, benefits, training and career paths, increasingly we get asked: ‘What does X company stand for?’” he said.  

Before accepting a job offer, people now carefully consider their prospective employer’s social media output, check the “about us” pages on its website and Google the latest news articles about the company to see if its actions match its words.

“Employers failing to improve on their sustainability credentials should expect to see a knock-on impact to their hiring,” said Poole. “With there being so many avenues to being environmentally conscious as an employer, there simply isn’t much room to ignore the matter.” Moreover, he added: “As a workforce strategy, ESG [environmental, social and governance] has become a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining talent.”

However, while a commitment to improving sustainability is attractive to employees, the opposite is true if businesses offer token gestures. Younger workers are especially attuned to this, according to Gordon Wilson, CEO of Advanced, a U.K.-based software company. His business’ recent trends report found 56% of 18 to 24-year olds “are accusing their employer of ‘greenwashing’, meaning that they overstate and gloss over their sustainable business efforts for business gain,” he said. 

“We cannot afford to ignore the voice of this generation, which has much greater personal awareness of their values and the impact they want to have on the world than previous generations. These are the voices of future leaders, and they’re joining the business world with an inherent distrust.”

Young people want to align themselves with companies that are doing the right thing for the planet and society, and are working towards positive change. “They want more than just a job,” added Wilson.

This insight chimes with the experience of Andrew Hunter, co-founder and economist at job-search engine Adzuna. “Having a strong ESG strategy can be a big talent draw for a brand, though people are becoming increasingly aware of greenwashing and are judging employers based on their actions, rather than their opinions,” he said. 

“It’s part of a wider trend where company culture and beliefs are becoming more important to job seekers, financial reimbursements alone are taking a bit more of a back seat, and work-life balance and well-being are instead coming to the fore.”

Hunter points out the social element of ESG is also about sustainability.

He notes that many of the businesses leading the way in this area are B Corp certified, including Homeboy Recycling in California, which provides on-the-job training and employment opportunities for ex-offenders. “Rubicon Bakers is another B Corp focusing on creating opportunities for marginalized sectors of the workforce,” he said. “In the U.K., The Body Shop has a focus on providing employment for people experiencing homelessness or with lower levels of education. Making sure these jobseeker segments don’t slip through the cracks is an important aspect of ESG efforts that we forsee growing.”

Rita Trehan, founder of DARE Worldwide, a global transformation consultancy, believes that a well-known Swedish teenager, who has been in Glasgow at COP26, is spearheading the drive for younger workers demanding greater sustainability. “Greta Thunberg’s ‘Blah, blah blah’ message has resonated with people,” she said. “The conversation today is more scrupulous, more cynical, better at challenging businesses and governments on the gap between policy and impact.”

Trehan pointed to statistics that show a vital distinction to make for businesses looking to dial up their sustainability credentials: nearly three-quarters of employees believe all workers are responsible for upholding a sustainability policy. It needs to be baked into the company culture, she added.

And yet, businesses that want to do so will need to tread carefully if they’re to avoid being accused of greenwashing, according to James Hand, a data scientist and co-founder of Giki—which stands for Get Informed Know your Impact—a social enterprise in London that helps people live sustainably. “There aren’t any ‘quick wins’ that don’t end up looking like greenwashing,” he said.

Instead, companies need to include all stakeholders and map the carbon impact of their operations to inform their sustainability policy, said Hand. “When they have measured their operational footprint, having a net-zero plan and building a staff engagement program can really help bolster their credentials and, more importantly, actually have an impact. Some 70% of emissions come from individuals, but organizations can bring those individuals together to make sure we halve emissions this decade,” he added.

Taylor Francis, co-founder of Watershed, a climate-action startup based in San Francisco, agreed and stressed that companies who improve their sustainability credentials have higher employee retention — 40% higher according to a 2020 Deloitte report.

“Employees are putting pressure on their current employers to introduce more accurate methods for carbon accounting, and more actionable and aggressive plans to reach true net zero,” he added.

Clearly, what’s been discussed at COP26 is just the tip of the (melting) iceberg.

This article was originally published by Digiday in November 2021

Five ways automation enables finance teams to be more human

As we stride into the fourth industrial revolution, finance teams can work alongside machines to drive strategy and value. And, as the war for talent rages investing in technology is crucial to attract and retain skilled workers

The argument that robots will replace human jobs misses the crucial point that machines empower workers with a pulse. It has been this way for hundreds of years – since the original industrial revolution in the mid-18th century when the Luddites, led by Ned Ludd, a Leicester weaver fearful of change, attacked factories and their owners. However, it soon became obvious man worked much better alongside machine.

Now, as we stride into the fourth industrial revolution, which uses modern smart technology to automate traditional manufacturing and industrial practices, robots are taking over more menial, repetitive tasks. This capability frees up workers to be more human. For finance teams especially, this automation of processes enables them to be more human and drive value and strategy – here follow five ways how.

1. Paper processes are old news

In the finance world, paper has been essential for centuries – but in the digital age, we can speed up processes, and save the trees, argues Nitin Purwar, India-based industry practice director of banking at UiPath. “Within finance, data-intensive and repetitive tasks are commonplace,” he says. “Often further weighed down by legacy systems, paper-based documents and unstructured data, these processes can take up a large proportion of a professional’s day.”

Purwar argues that “this work isn’t what humans are best at and often isn’t what we enjoy doing. By automating these processes, finance professionals can be freed to spend more time on value-added, strategic activities that require judgement and skill, thus enhancing the employee experience all while saving the department time, money and improving the accuracy of processes.”

2. Manual ways of working are highly inefficient – and a turn off for talent

Businesses that embrace automation stand to gain a competitive advantage – not least when it comes to attracting and retaining talent. Adobe’s Future of Time study, published in late August, finds that UK business employees waste more than a day a week on low-value tasks that should be automated. Tellingly, almost two-thirds (59%) of respondents are seeking new jobs with better technology to reclaim work-life balance.

Purwar from UiPath uses an example to explain the benefits of automation in this regard.“One infrastructure solutions firm we work with used to process all invoices manually, printing, signing, scanning and uploading 400,000 invoices a year. Now, a robot affectionately named Archie processes all invoices digitally, freeing up on average 11 minutes per invoice of time that employees can now spend focusing on value-added tasks instead. That amounts to thousands of hours per year saved.” 

There is more potential to realise, which is why organisations should double down on automated solution. Kevin Kimber, managing director of global accounts receivable at BlackLine, suggests that while many businesses seek robotic process automation, now “advancements in artificial intelligence and machine learning take what is possible to the next level”.

3. Financial leaders can show their human skills and improve collaboration

Ash Finnegan, digital transformation officer at Conga, which provides commercial operations transformation solutions, points out that the pandemic has forced financial leaders to show their human sides and manage change.

“Out of necessity, most digital transformation journeys have been accelerated, with artificial intelligence being a major focus,” she says. “Financial leaders have invested heavily in AI and wider automation technology, entirely restructuring their back office to deliver their services remotely.”

Neil Murphy, global vice president at ABBYY, a digital intelligence company, posits workers who embrace automation can “work more efficiently, collaborate better, and ease the burden of administration in their day-to-day roles. Deploying AI-powered robots gives this opportunity, gifting finance teams more time to focus on more creative, problem-solving tasks and alleviate the pressure. Now more than ever, it’s time to put the human touch back into the finance.” 

4. Automation elevates financial professionals to become trusted advisors

Glen Foster, director of small business and partners at accounting software company Xero, says “time truly is money” for financial professionals. Xero data shows these workers can use up to 30% of their time on manual data entry – equivalent to 1.5 days a week.

By contrast, automation and digital software can free up most of that time. “Cloud accounting tools allow you to automate time-consuming tasks like data entry, bank reconciliation and payments so that you can spend more time advising, analysing data and focusing on growth,” he says. 

“Providing advice and insights on financials is more valuable to clients and businesses than manual, repetitive data entry skills. This ultimately sets accountants and finance professionals up as trusted advisors.”

5. Improve relationships with customers – and add value

FreeAgent survey from 2020 calculated that 81% of accountants have discovered that using automated software has freed up an average of two working hours a week. The same report states that this time saved could generate an additional £68,000 in revenue a year.

John Miller, chief operations officer of Addition, a London-based financial services firm, adds: “Automation has allowed humans to do what they do best: offer advice to the client, knowing that the routine tasks are done robustly and accurately.”

This article first appeared in BlackLine’s special report, Optimising the accounts receivable department, published by Raconteur in November 2021

‘There are now a lot more boxes a role needs to tick’: Recruiters share how post-pandemic job expectations have changed

The coronavirus crisis has triggered the so-called “great resignation,” with workers ditching and shifting their jobs in record numbers. But as the war for top talent rages on, spare a thought for the recruiters, and human resources professionals tasked with attracting and retaining the best in the business — all remotely.  

It’s been a transformative 20 months for everyone, and recruiters have had an arduous time matching employees’ newfound job expectations with the right employer, amid skills shortages.

In the U.K., recent research from HR tech firm Employment Hero revealed 77% of millennials are actively looking for fresh starts and predicts that 2.5 million executives and managers will quit within the next six months. Replacing them collectively cost businesses £34 billion ($47 billion), according to the same report.

Meanwhile, 63% of U.K. business leaders are struggling with recruitment as candidates lack specialist skills and experience, particularly in digital and tech, according to The Open University’s annual Business Barometer 2021 report, published in October. And 24% of employers said this skills shortage will be the biggest challenge facing businesses in the next five years.

“On the plus side, we are also seeing optimism around the potential for remote working to fill skills gaps and an appreciation of the role of apprenticeships to train tomorrow’s workers,” said Kitty Ussher, chief economist at the Institute of Directors, co-publishers of the study.

Dropbox’s director of international HR, Laura Ryan, also focuses on the positive changes sparked by the pandemic fallout. “A huge benefit of remote work is the ability to widen your talent pool by being able to recruit the right people regardless of their location,” she said. “The time delay of scheduling and completing our onsite interviews has reduced by 70% since running the processes virtually.” 

On the eve of the pandemic, in December 2019, customer relationship management company HubSpot was crowned Glassdoor’s Best Place to Work in the U.S. However, the organization has not lounged on its laurels. In 2020 it was one of the first businesses to overhaul its approach and go fully remote and has committed to a long-term plan to improve staff well-being. 

Benefits offered in the hope that employees stay happy, and avoid burnout, include three months working anywhere in the world HubSpot is based, unlimited vacation and financial contributions to continue education.

Becky McCullough, HubSpot’s vp of global recruiting, who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, notes the shift to remote working has significantly diversified the talent pool and urges recruiters to dive in — particularly those in the tech space. 

“Candidate location played a huge part in the hiring process before the pandemic, with the technology industry being largely dominated by big cities globally,” she said, noting that just five urban areas accounted for 90% of all U.S. high-tech job growth between 2005 and 2017. “This not only contributed to income inequality, but it made opportunities for talent from smaller, more rural communities much harder to source.”

This insight chimes with Zoë Morris, president of Frank Recruitment Group, which operates in over 20 offices worldwide and snares talent for technology giants including Microsoft, Salesforce and Amazon Web Services. “The most prominent way that recruitment has changed is that recruiters now have to focus on a number of new priorities to match their clients with the perfect role,” she said. “This makes recruitment much trickier as there are now a lot more boxes a role needs to tick, particularly in relation to flexible working and perks being offered.”

Granted, the balance of power has swung away from the employer and towards the employee, but various studies —including from management consultancy McKinsey—indicate the highest bidder no longer triumphs, with increasingly more workers favoring purpose and aligned values over a bump in cold, hard cash.

Therefore, those in charge of businesses have a pivotal role. “Empathy and authenticity are now essential characteristics for leaders who want to create true community and a more inclusive culture — and in doing so attract and retain talent,” said Nazir Ul-Ghani, head of Workplace from Facebook in EMEA. He points to his company’s research that shows 58% of U.K. employees would consider walking away from their jobs if they felt unsupported.  

McCullough believes mobility alongside diversity, inclusion and belonging have become critical to attracting and retaining talent and enriching culture. The recruitment firms that can be adaptable and flexible will be the winners in this post-pandemic world, she believes.

“Whether it’s exploring hybrid work setups, sourcing into new talent pools, or overhauling the interview process, recruitment teams are truly challenging conventional thinking on what makes a great candidate experience and how to ensure the culture and the mission comes to life in the process,” she added.

This article was first published by Digiday as part of its Future of Work series in October 2021

LinkedIn on how companies can overcome the ‘development dip’ caused by Covid

As research indicates that young workers have suffered a pandemic-induced ‘development dip’, Becky Schnauffer, senior director at LinkedIn Talent Solutions, urges employers to invest more in online education

Do you think digital learning isn’t for you or your business? How do you fancy becoming a work-from-home facilitator? What about a data detective or maybe an extended-reality immersion counsellor? If those jobs don’t float your boat, could tidewater architect, cyber-calamity forecaster or even algorithm bias auditor be more suitable, perhaps? 

If you don’t think you’re qualified for any of the above roles, you’ll be far from alone. But don’t feel complacent about that, because they are among the top 10 professions emerging in the wake of the Covid crisis, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). And, given that the WEF estimates that technology will replace 85 million human jobs while 97 million new ones will be created in the next four years, you may well need to reassess your attitude to digital learning – and quickly. From both individual and organisational perspectives, it’s crucial to invest in online education now.

The pandemic has completely disrupted the workplace. With many businesses concentrating on ensuring their immediate survival, training and development activities have stalled. People just embarking on their careers have been especially badly affected by this.

Indeed, 87% of UK business leaders surveyed by LinkedIn in September admitted that young employees had suffered a “development dip” during the Covid crisis. The networking platform also polled 1,000 people aged between 16 and 34 about their learning experiences. Well over two-thirds (69%) of these respondents agreed that the pandemic was harming their professional development. 

Becky Schnauffer, senior director of LinkedIn Talent Solutions in the UK and Ireland

For all those struggling to get to grips with digital learning, Becky Schnauffer, senior director of LinkedIn Talent Solutions in the UK and Ireland, can offer some valuable guidance. Her role, which she started in July after joining in 2018 as director of LinkedIn Sales Solutions, covers the company’s recruitment and learning activities. In essence, Schnauffer helps businesses to “attract, engage, develop and retain employees”. 

With the skills gap widening and the war for talent raging during the so-called Great Resignation – the trend in which hordes of dissatisfied workers are quitting their jobs – her views are well worth heeding.

“While digital learning has been around for a lot longer than the pandemic, now is the time for companies to prioritise it and build it into their strategy,” she says. “An awful lot of people, not only those just now entering the workforce, have been digitally savvy from a young age. You’d therefore expect part – if not all – of their learning to be digital. They are very comfortable with this medium.”

Schnauffer, who gained a degree in business management from Swansea University before joining IBM’s graduate scheme in the late 1990s, recalls that “even at a technology giant, every piece of learning at that time was one-size-fits-all, delivered in a classroom and lumped together in intensive, week-long chunks. Now, though, digital learning is personalised, interactive, community-based, snackable and stackable. Customisation of learning on the digital pathway is becoming so much more important and effective.”

Given that she has two children who are both at secondary school, she has a vested interest in promoting digital learning. Schnauffer is confident that, by the time they enter the job market, employee engagement and career development will be on a higher plane. “Everyone must embrace digital learning – it’s the new normal. And it’s going to continue evolving,” she says.

Businesses that are already investing heavily in employee development stand to gain a competitive edge in attracting and retaining the best talent, Schnauffer argues. This in turn should improve their chances of achieving the holy trinity of innovation, agility and resilience. 

Digital learning is personalised, interactive, community-based, snackable and stackable

“You want highly skilled people on your team who are always learning,” she says. “Business leaders have to allow their employees the time and space to develop themselves. Moreover, leaders must look ahead to where they want their business to be in two to three or more years, and plan how to narrow the skills gaps that are likely to emerge.” 

Her point is that it’s hugely more cost-effective to build a learning culture and invest in employees’ skills than it is to scour the market for new talent, where the competition will be fierce. LinkedIn’s new skills-building platform, the Learning Hub, has been designed to help employers do the former.

When asked how damaging it could be to organisations that don’t encourage digital learning, Schnauffer quotes an aphorism that’s widely attributed to Henry Ford: “The only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.”

More encouragingly, the LinkedIn survey of business leaders indicated that more than three-quarters (78%) are planning to establish training courses to help employees – particularly younger ones – adapt to new ways of working. But Schnauffer stresses that members of the C-suite must also schedule in digital learning for themselves. Progressive leaders are doing just that on the LinkedIn Learning platform, which offers almost 17,000 courses across a wide range of categories. 

The most popular course over the past year has been one about detecting and avoiding unconscious bias, followed by one on strategic thinking. Other subjects in the top 10 include inclusivity, public speaking and the agile approach to project management.

“You only grow and improve by building your knowledge,” Schnauffer says. “And digital learning makes the experience convenient. It’s always available, relevant, personalised, and enjoyable.”

Business leaders, take note and act accordingly – or watch your organisations wither on the vine.

This article was first published in Raconteur’s Digital Learning report in October 2021

FSA CIO on her career in tech: ‘It’s where the future is already happening’

The FSA’s groundbreaking CIO talks the future of technology careers, data openness and going beyond the status quo

What makes a successful chief information officer (CIO) in 2021? Ask Julie Pierce, the trailblazing director of openness, data and digital at the Food Standards Agency (FSA), who ranked fifth overall and was the highest-placed woman in the venerated CIO 100 list for 2019. 

Having learnt the news about the CIO 100, which recognises the UK’s “most transformational and disruptive” CIOs, Pierce recalls feeling “happy [and] honoured”. Following a pause, she adds: “And surprised.” Why? “If someone had told me I would be recognised at this level back when I was, say, 30, I would have thought it impossible, for so many reasons. So my reaction was: ‘Oh my God!’”

To an extent, her reaction to the accolade is understandable in an industry dominated by men. But the recognition is also a cause for celebration. Given that only one in six technology specialists in the UK are female and just 10% are IT leaders, the Bristol-based Pierce proudly serves as a role model for other women seeking to reach the top in tech.

The incredulity is misplaced, though, when one considers her groundbreaking 41-year career. After starting off with a misstep in oil exploration – more of which below – she enjoyed 13 years as a consultant at PwC, where she was one of the first female partners. Her CV also includes stints with the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police Service.

More recently, Pierce has excelled as CIO at the Animal and Plant Health Agency and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). In August 2015, she moved from Defra to the FSA, a non-ministerial government department which monitors risks and issues of concern regarding food.

The case for data openness

As director of openness, data and digital (“a long but pretty cool title”) at the FSA, she performs a raft of duties. These include the CIO role, while also covering science and Wales. 

Importantly, Pierce is a fervent advocate of open and transparent data. Indeed, in the public sector, and further afield, the FSA is often held up as an exemplar of what is possible through opening up data. This progressiveness is in no small part thanks to Pierce.

“Being open and transparent [with data] is so important to me,” she says. “And at the FSA it is fundamental to our core being; we are here to be open and transparent on behalf of the consumer.” 

Pierce explains that her agency raises the alarm when “things are not quite right for consumers concerning food safety and authenticity”. As an example, she points to a recently implemented service that uses predictive analytics and machine learning to monitor global risks. 

The FSA publishes 70% of its datasets. Pierce argues convincingly that fellow CIOs should push to open data and drive collaboration internally and externally. The FSA has been trying to persuade businesses to be open and publish their data, she says.

At the FSA it is fundamental to our core being; we are here to be open and transparent on behalf of the consumer 

“We can see the large amount of data collected about food in public and private sector. For instance, we can see the opportunities from data-rich digital platforms where they may be sitting on real insights as to food risk, allowing us all to take action before something goes wrong.”

Under Pierce’s direction, the FSA has “put as much effort as possible in the last few years” to develop the infrastructure necessary to open data and make it “easier for businesses to consume that data”.

Beyond the status quo

Pierce believes in “transformation through the application of modern digital technology and insights from predictive analytics to business problems”. And in a clarion call for fellow CIOs, she has urged on LinkedIn: “Let’s be really different; let’s go beyond merely automating the status quo.”

Pierce has always sought to go beyond the status quo, but she originally had little interest in technology. Having graduated from the University of Wales, Bangor, in 1980 with a first-class degree in mathematics and physical oceanography, Pierce sought a hands-on role in the oil-exploration industry. The fact that it was “completely male-dominated” made it more attractive because of the challenge.

Ironically, she switched directions and flourished when the path was blocked in her chosen profession because of her gender. As a woman, she was forbidden to step foot on either the boats or the rigs. Pierce’s impressive career in tech can be traced back to that early change of tack. 

Let’s be really different; let’s go beyond merely automating the status quo

However, the combination of fierce ambition and talent has elevated her. It is this desire that modern CIOs must possess to excel, she suggests.

“My FSA role includes the CIO and a lot more. That in itself is one of the things I’m most proud of: that I have risen and gone above the CIO role into other aspects of the business.” Indeed, to secure a place in the boardroom, CIOs must demonstrate the many different ways they can add value. 

Pierce says there has never been a more exciting time to embark on a career in tech and climb the ranks to CIO and above. “It’s an absolutely fascinating sector, as it’s moving and evolving so quickly,” she says. “It’s becoming more relevant, ubiquitous, and essential to everything we do. Therefore, you can choose any sector to work in – food, healthcare, financial services, whatever.

“What makes a career in tech so attractive nowadays is that it is accessible in so many more ways compared to when I began. You can come in through some of the more innovative data ideas, such as artificial intelligence or robotics, or via looking at accessibility and the way users engage with the tech, or the hardware route.”

After a final pause, she adds: “It’s the place really where I think the future is already happening.”

This article originally appeared in Raconteur’s Future CIO report in September 2021

U.K.’s gas panic-buying nightmare pushes more employers to adopt hybrid working and commuting setups

The fuel crisis in the U.K., which has sparked hours-long lines at gas stations, has put a damper on some people’s return to the office. But it’s also persuaded hybrid-working skeptics to embrace more flexible models so as to avoid any future disruption.

If the amber light was flashing for hybrid working, for many it’s now showing red for a return to the office. And for those whose professions are not conducive to home working, or for whom public transport is not a viable commuting option, the increased weight of gas problems is tipping the balance in favor of electric vehicles.

Spice Kitchen — a Liverpool-based artisanal spice and tea company — has firmed up its operational plans in response to employee commuting struggles, said Ann Lowe, Spice Kitchen’s head of community. “While the impact [of the fuel crisis] on business has been minimal, it has shifted our thinking in terms of sustainability and resilience,” she said.

While Spice Kitchen’s headquarter office is close to public transport links and staff have been granted public transport expenses if their petrol tanks were empty in the last fortnight, the situation has inspired other long-term changes. “We’ve encouraged car sharing more as a policy, and we are offering flexible hours to accommodate this so that staff can get to and from work together,” added Lowe. “Finally, now we have set up everyone to work from home if needed, so in a way, the fuel shortage has pushed us closer to a hybrid working culture.”

Nick McQuire, chief of enterprise research at specialist technology market intelligence and advisory firm CCS Insight, is not surprised the crisis has prompted more adoption of hybrid-working models. “The fuel crisis has reinforced the need for companies to have resiliency baked into their workplace practices and processes and accelerated the shift to hybrid working,” he said. “But there is not a universal approach, because some leaders still want to go back to the way things were pre-pandemic,” he added.

On October 5, Slack’s quarterly global pulse survey showed that of those currently working remotely, executives are almost three-times more likely to want to head back to the office full-time compared with non-exec workers. The research indicates that now is a critical moment, with 86% of organizations close to finalizing their post-pandemic workforce plans in countries including the U.K., Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the U.S. — which is also experiencing gas price hikes.

Move to electric?

Not everyone has the luxury of working from home, though, or even having an office with decent public transport links. The fuel crisis has been especially frustrating for Mark Clayton, a southeast London-based chief lighting technician for TV shows and movies including Edgar Wright’s Last Night in Soho and Everybody’s Talking About Jamie. 

“We often have to reach rural locations at unsociable times, and recently I’ve been working at a studio that is impractical to get to via public transport,” he said, adding that he hasn’t been able to fill his diesel-powered van for 11 days and been forced to foot the bill for hotel accommodation close to the studio for fear of running dry.

“My crew has had to carpool, raising concerns about COVID-19 — but it’s that, or just don’t come to work. As freelancers, if we don’t work, we don’t get paid. Our whole production runs on fuel: minibusses to get the crew to and from the car park, equipment trucks, action cars, food deliveries and generators. All have been affected. One crew member waited four hours on a forecourt for a tanker to arrive so that he could guarantee getting filled up.”

Meanwhile, others still — particularly those who transport people or things around — wonder if it’s the end of the road for their current careers. “I’ve been a black-cab driver for over 30 years, and now has been the hardest I’ve known the job – and I drove when the Gulf War limited fuel,” said southeast-London taxi driver Lee Poole. “People have been panic buying fuel, and it’s been a nightmare for me professionally. I’ve had to visit up to eight garages to find one that has diesel and then had to queue for an hour or more.”

The ongoing fuel issues have ignited thoughts of a vehicle upgrade for Clayton. “There are a few — rightly — smug colleagues with electric cars, and this crisis has made me think that an electric van is a way forward,” he said. “Once charging stations are more plentiful, and electric van driving ranges have increased slightly, I will be investing in a fully electric or hybrid vehicle.”

Lisa Conibear, U.K. and European director of Zoomo, which provides high-quality LEVs (light electric vehicles) in London and Liverpool and in the U.S. and Australia, noted that Google search data highlighted online searches for “electric cars” rocketed 1,600% in September, prompted by the fuel crisis.  

So how will it change people’s opinions about the daily commute? The average petrol car on the road in the U.K. produces the equivalent of 180g of CO2 per kilometer, while a diesel car produces 173g of CO2 every kilometer, according to research cited by Conibear. And in the U.S. the average passenger vehicle on the road releases 650g of CO2 every kilometer.

“The attitude to commuting is a tricky sentiment to nail down definitively, but what the research and data tell us is that there is a significant opportunity to cut down emissions if we better recognize our commuting habits and fully consider the alternatives available to us,” she added.

This article was originally published on Digiday (which uses American English) in October 2021

Remote, hybrid, office? Which will be your ‘new normal’?

To help business leaders decide how their future workplaces might best operate, three experts with very different views on the subject argue the pros and cons of fully remote, hybrid and office working

After 18 months of enforced homeworking for many people, it’s difficult to foresee a future in which remote and hybrid working won’t feature. However, many businesses are keen to coax staff back to the office at least for part of the week – Covid-19 restrictions permitting – while others have spoken out against working from home, including Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon who called it an “aberration”.

So, is hybrid working likely to last, or will there be a snapback to old operating methods? Here, three experts debate whether fully remote, hybrid or office working is the best option for the future.

Fully remote working

Darren Murph has written the manual on remote working, literally, publishing Living the Remote Dream: A Guide to Seeing the World, Setting Records and Advancing Your Career in 2015. Four years later, in July 2019, he was appointed head of remote at technology company GitLab, one of the world’s largest fully remote organisations with more than 1,300 employees spread across 65 countries.

For Murph, the past 18 months have proved that remote working is the future. “The pandemic has forced organisations to grapple with reality: distributed work is here, it’s happening, and it’s no longer a choice or an argument for the vast majority of industries,” he says. “Covid-19 accelerated a trend that began decades ago, as society leverages the internet to live better lives while driving business results. The benefits are many – to the employee, the employer and the world.”

Some of the advantages, Murph argues, are a more diverse and inclusive workforce, greater efficiency in workflows and a broader global coverage in servicing clients. He also believes being fully remote makes businesses more resilient and more able to preserve continuity regardless of whether the office is open or closed. 

“Businesses will be better equipped to weather future crises by empowering results that are decoupled from geography. They’ll find it easier to hire diverse teams and elevate introverted voices that have historically been squashed,” he says.

While Murph acknowledges that “all-remote isn’t for everyone” and can make onboarding recruits more challenging, he believes the pros far outweigh the cons. “Knowledge workers have proven that they can drive results without the crutch of the office,” he says. “Rather than employees needing to justify why they should work from home as opposed to the office, we’ve entered a world where employers must justify exorbitant waste in terms of commute time and real estate to accomplish digital tasks.”

Offering his three top tips for businesses seeking to optimise a remote-working model, Murph suggests the first step is to hire a dedicated remote-work leader. “Companies need to realise this is a full-scale organisational transformation and, if you want it done well, it can’t be a part-time job,” he says.

Murph also recommends that companies audit their values and documentation hygiene to ensure both are ready for a distributed workforce. Finally, he suggests starting to shut down office spaces. “Nothing sends a clearer signal that your future will be driven by how not where work happens than a shift away from offices,” he says.

Hybrid working

Samantha Fisher is head of dynamic work for Okta, an identity and access management company. Explaining what dynamic working means at Okta, she says: “It’s about personalising the working experience and enabling employees to work in whichever way makes the most sense for them. It’s not just a case of where employees are located – at the office, home or elsewhere – it’s about workplace design, people engagement, technology, talent acquisition, morale and company culture.”

At the start of the coronavirus crisis, 30% of Okta’s 2,400 employees were already working remotely. “We found that this flexibility increased empowerment, satisfaction and productivity,” says Fisher. “The pandemic accelerated the need for more flexible frameworks. Over the past year or so, employees have benefitted from a better work-life balance and reduced commuting costs, as well as greater autonomy which has led to more empowerment.”

Appointed Okta’s first head of dynamic work in January 2021, she was tasked with building organisational culture more broadly, anchoring equity, social connection and productivity, and enabling employees to work from anywhere successfully. “I spend a lot of my time working with cross-functional teams, thinking about the programmes, services and experiences we offer while in the office and how we can translate these for a hybrid environment and/or reposition services in a way that enhances experiences at any location,” she says.

The pandemic has forced organisations to grapple with reality: distributed work is here… it’s no longer a choice or an argument for the vast majority of industries

Fisher stresses the importance of “community building”, explaining that the workplace is a vital part of the business ecosystem and a key element of organisational culture. “I look at developing creative and holistic solutions that augment talent strategies, optimise technology enablement and support shifts in workforce operations,” she says.

Okta’s The New Workplace Report: A Business Balancing Act – published in June 2021 and based on a survey of more than 10,000 office-based workers across eight European countries and 12 industry sectors – found 42% of respondents wanted a mix of home- and office-based working, 17% wanted to work from home permanently and just 16% wanted to work in the office five days a week.

But what’s needed to make hybrid working successful? “For organisations to provide flexibility and equity in their workplace environment, you need executive support, investment in technology, a focus on culture and experience, and leaders to build and drive long-term strategy,” says Fisher. “It’s a fully cross-functional initiative and requires both passion and heart to curate a dynamic working environment.”

Office working

Chris Grazier, an office agency partner at Hartnell Taylor Cook and president of the Bristol Property Agents Association, is confident that office working will thrive again. But he urges organisations to be smarter with their workspaces rather than using the trend for hybrid working as a way to downsize and, ultimately, cut overheads.

Grazier admits that the democratisation of video conferencing during the pandemic has been “a revelation for all businesses”, including in the property industry in which he has operated for almost three decades. “The flipside,” he says, “has been staff isolation, the effect on teamwork, the inability to mentor junior staff and the loss of creativity that springs from face-to-face or group working.”

Now, after a year and a half of Zoom calls, there is a collective craving to return to the office and to network and collaborate without an awkward time delay or mistakenly being on mute. “The office is where business culture is formed,” says Grazier. “It’s both good for the employee, who can build some separation between home life and work, and it connects employers with employees in a way that a Zoom call never can. And despite headlines touting that the home is the office of the future, over the past few months we have witnessed businesses returning staff to the workplace.” 

Rather than employees needing to justify why they should work from home… employers must justify exorbitant waste in terms of commute time and real estate to accomplish digital tasks.

Indeed, data showing the floor space taken up in Bristol city centre in the past three quarters, including Q2 this year, reveals more ‘Grade A offices’ – high-quality workspace, refurbished or new – have been occupied than non-Grade A spaces. “This is a complete reversal of previous trends, and it hints that businesses are focusing on less but higher-quality space for their new offices than they did for their former ones,” Grazier says.

Echoing concerns from business leaders about tracking workers’ productivity away from the office, Grazier believes that by investing in smarter workspaces, staff will want to return. “I’d recommend that organisations use less space but improve the quality,” he says. 

Grazier also points out that many organisations are emerging from the pandemic with a decent balance sheet, thanks to government support, offering them a unique opportunity to upgrade their offices. “Don’t try to save money if you are moving,” he advises. “Try to spend that money more wisely by creating an environment that draws on the strengths of teamworking and positive culture.”

This article first appeared in Raconteur’s Hybrid Working report, published in September 2021

Is your business harnessing the power of conversational search?

The proliferation of smart devices and the improving capabilities of AI-powered voice assistants mean that voice search-ability is no longer a mere ‘nice to have’

Hey, Siri. Are marketers and their businesses investing enough time, money and effort in improving their conversational search rankings? 

Given that Juniper Research forecasts that consumers will be using voice assistants on more than 8.4 billion devices by 2024, while MarketsandMarkets predicts that the global conversational AI market will grow from £3.4bn in 2020 to £9.8bn in 2025, there’s a strong case that they should be doing more.

Consumers embrace new technology if it makes life simpler and more effortless for them. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Firms that have already invested in achieving higher voice search rankings are benefiting from it. For instance, translation service Lionbridge started optimising for voice search in July 2019. Twelve months later, it had almost 47 times more ‘featured snippets’ – the short text at the top of a page of Google search results. This improvement aided a 127% year-on-year increase in traffic to the firm’s website.

“Businesses should view optimising for conversational search as mandatory,” argues Olga Andrienko, head of global marketing at Semrush, which manages Lionbridge’s marketing analytics. “We have already seen the dramatic effect it can have on businesses’ search results. As voice assistants are further integrated into people’s everyday lives, this influence will grow.”

Nick McQuire, chief of enterprise research at tech consultancy CCS Insight, agrees. “As one of AI’s most important areas of development, conversational search is progressing rapidly,” he says.

Bringing AI to the masses

Conversational search development has accelerated “because it sits at the centre of two important trends”, McQuire suggests. First is the improvement in AI speech technology. Second is the need to improve information search in businesses. “This area”, he says, “is often listed as ‘broken’ by customers owing to information silos, especially across several data stores, documents and applications.”

McQuire continues: “The fact that all the big tech firms have started to tackle this area with products and tools demonstrates the scale of the customer need.”

Conversational search is a more complex matter than people simply using their voices instead of keyboards, though. For instance, on what smart device is the search being conducted – a screen-less Apple HomePod, a Google Nest Hub Max or an in-car Amazon Alexa?

While companies can pay to appear on the first page of a conventional typed search on a computer screen, mastering conversational search is not so straightforward. For one thing, marketers don’t always have the same real estate for advertising. 

If a device being used for voice search has no screen, how likely is it that a business will pull traffic to its website if it ranks outside the top three search results? Equally, if the device has a screen, a more visual response is presumably better. Notably, the average answer length for the three most popular voice assistants – Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant – is 23 words, according to Semrush.

Convenient and contextualised answers

Semantics aside, the crucial point for marketers is that consumers want their problems solved quickly. So says Kashif Naqshbandi, CMO at IT recruiter Tenth Revolution Group, who adds: “Most of the time they are not just looking for a ‘what’, but also a ‘how’ and ‘why’. This is why question-driven conversational search has spiked.”

Naqshbandi explains that few people are now searching online for, say, a “mountain bike” and then clicking through web pages of information. Instead, they are asking specific questions – for instance, “what sort of mountain bike should I buy?” – to seek a contextualised answer.

“Consumers are more accustomed to these fast, personalised interactions that help them cut through the digital noise and find a solution,” he says. “Marketers have to evolve to deliver interactive, dialogue-based experiences to stay competitive.”

Euan Matthews, director of AI and innovation at ContactEngine, a developer of conversational AI systems, agrees that people ultimately want to save time wherever possible and are happy to pay for convenience. 

“Consumers embrace new technology if it makes life simpler for them. Otherwise, what’s the point?” he says, attributing Amazon’s continuing ascendancy to the time it saves customers. But he adds that a “big pitfall” for marketers is to focus only on the search element.

To illustrate his point, Matthews says that some devices, when asked about the best local Indian restaurant, say, will now offer a follow-up option of booking a table through Google, and – if the user accepts – they will add this booking to the digital calendar. 

“This time saving is not because of the conversational search,” he says. “It’s more because that search has been seamlessly married with the ability to execute a transaction on your behalf. Marketers must consider how to marry conversational search and the transactional capability of the voice assistant, because this is what saves consumers time and makes it more likely that they’ll progress down the sales funnel.”

The direction of travel is clear, so marketers must alter their course accordingly. “We will see more advances in the ability for conversational search to end in a transaction – and this will drive uptake,” Matthews predicts. 

Will it ever replace keyed search? “I doubt it,” he says. “Some searches are best not voiced aloud.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future of Marketing and CX report in June 2021

Hyperautomation will revolutionise work – but what exactly is it?

Experts agree that the growing maturity of a cluster of technologies has transformative potential, but businesses must act fast if they’re to gain a competitive edge

Hyperautomation has been thrust into the spotlight for the second time in six months by Gartner. In October 2020, the research giant named it as one of its top strategic technology trends for 2021. Its latest report on the subject, published at the end of April, forecasts that the global market that enables hyperautomation will be worth almost £430bn in 2022 – a 24% increase on the previous year’s figure. 

“Hyperautomation has shifted from an option to a condition of survival,” says Fabrizio Biscotti, research vice-president at Gartner. 

But what is hyperautomation, why is it generating such interest now, and – most crucially – how can businesses best harness its potential? 

In essence, hyperautomation is a strategy that enterprises adopt to quickly identify, vet and automate as many processes as possible, applying a disciplined, holistic approach and mix of technologies. It spans the whole spectrum of operations, using digital tools to simplify many time-consuming tasks. These tools include AI systems, robotic process automation (RPA), low-code application platforms and virtual assistants. 

The concept is becoming increasingly relevant, Biscotti says, because organisations will “require more IT and business process automation as they are forced to accelerate their digital transformation plans in a post-Covid, digital-first world”. 

Gartner’s October 2020 report had noted: “Many organisations are supported by a patchwork of technologies that are not lean, optimised, connected, clean or explicit. At the same time, the acceleration of digital business requires efficiency, speed and democratization. Organisations that don’t focus on efficiency, efficacy and business agility will be left behind.”

Tackling low-hanging fruit

Peter van der Putten is director of AI solutions at cloud software firm Pegasystems and an assistant professor of AI at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He suggests that the drive towards hyperautomation has been “gathering pace for a while as the technologies have matured”. 

Their simultaneous emergence has created far-reaching possibilities. There is low-hanging fruit to be gobbled by business leaders, he says, although those who invest heavily in hyperautomation stand to gain the most from it.

“There is more to hyperautomation than streamlining workflows to save time and reduce cost,” van der Putten stresses. “There are strategies that businesses can use to link automation with business outcomes more directly. Realising the potential of hyperautomation hinges on robust governance and the quality of executive-level support – how it is implemented across an organisation and not in narrow niches.”

Hyperautomation will do to the knowledge worker what the industrial revolution did to the manual worker

For instance, the ability to manage exceptions through AI enables finance, IT and governance experts to deliver value for industries that already use new networks or decentralised cloud services. A recent global survey of 1,300 business leaders by Pegasystems identified key areas where hyperautomation has already been benefiting financial services providers. Respondents reported achieving quick wins in a number of functions, including finance, data management and production. They expect to see significant advances in areas such as supply chains and “partner ecosystems” over the next five years.

As an example of what’s possible with hyperautomation, take credit broker The business, which has been building intelligent systems since 2014, has transformed mortgage lending from a process that’s traditionally been opaque, complex and painfully slow. The total automation improvements to date have “saved our 40 advisers and processors on average three hours and 45 minutes a day”, reports CEO Paul McGerrigan.

The company’s AI helper, Albot, can search thousands of lenders’ offers in less than a second while matching more than 10,000 criteria, delivering the lowest rate appropriate for the applicant’s circumstances. 

“Our smart AI underwriter can fully underwrite about 100 cases in 30 seconds, including credit searches,” McGerrigan says. “Previously, it would have taken an adviser 20 minutes to underwrite one complex case.” 

A workplace revolution

The company’s new approach has significantly increased transparency and, in turn, engendered greater trust among its customers. McGerrigan urges other companies to embrace hyperautomation, which, he says, “will do to the knowledge worker what the industrial revolution did to the manual worker. We are seeing the largest shift in how we work in 100 years. Most firms have been taken by surprise at the speed of change, while some are still asleep.”

Guy Kirkwood, chief evangelist at UiPath, an RPA software provider, agrees that the potential for hyperautomation is huge. “In the US alone, 2.6 trillion hours of work a year are automatable,” he says, noting that the pandemic-induced lockdowns have added impetus to the trend. 

“Work will be revolutionised,” Kirkwood predicts. “Almost over night, employees were expected to work from home, deal with unfavourable economic conditions and handle a huge rise in their workloads in areas such as customer service and data entry. Many turned to automation to adapt.”

He points to a firm providing smart infrastructure that used to print, sign, scan and upload 400,000 invoices a year manually. The business “now has a robot that performs these tasks digitally. This means that no employee needs to physically be in the office to process an invoice.”

Now that businesses have been catapulted into the digital age, regardless of their industry, we are on the verge of a new era of work in which hyperautomation will play a much greater role. Companies that make the leap today and go big on automation will be winners tomorrow. 

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s AI for Business report in May 2021

Dell’s digital boss on being a change agent for transformation

Jen Felch is leveraging her deep knowledge and experience from 17 years at Dell to manage change, drive collaboration and supercharge innovation

What’s the secret to achieving as smooth a digital transformation journey as possible? Taking your people every small step of the way with clear communication and, more specifically, letting them help plot the route. This insight is shared by an expert perfectly placed to offer an opinion on the subject: Jen Felch, Dell Technologies’ chief digital and information officer.

In September 2019, she took on the dual roles for the first time in the computer technology company’s 37-year history. Back then, like everyone else, Felch had no inkling of the coronavirus-induced disruption that lay ahead. 

During the pandemic, from her home in Austin, Texas, she has been at the helm to navigate the organisation’s road to recovery, driving the strategy, direction and delivery for Dell Digital, Dell’s IT arm. 

As if that wasn’t enough, Felch combines her responsibilities as CDO and CIO alongside “the emerging role of change agent for digital transformation”. No wonder the 53-year-old has taken up hot yoga to help increase her physical and mental flexibility.

Aside from an eight-month stint with Boeing in 2010, she has been employed by Dell since April 2003. Her deep knowledge of the company is hugely beneficial to steering digital transformation, particularly in a period of epochal change. Felch has access to all areas, is a trusted ally and understands various stakeholders’ pain points.

“I started my career as a software developer and spent two years working in the Dell factories as part of a development rotation, and it was a fabulous experience,” says Felch. “That hands-on operational experience is invaluable and I still leverage it today. I don’t have to imagine what it is like in a factory because I have first-hand knowledge.”

Digital transformation: a never-ending continuum

Felch boasts a Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in mechanical engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is an alumnus of the Leaders for Global Operations Program at MIT, where she earned her MBA and a Master’s in computer science. She continues: “Thanks to my 17 years with Dell, I can make use of a network of people across the company. 

“I can pick up the phone to find out what is really happening in a certain area and what people are truly thinking. By understanding what they are trying to achieve and how we can make them more effective, employees are less resistant towards technology adoption and change.”

We might have great technology, but it is having highly skilled people who are available and have the environment in which to innovate that makes the difference

Indeed, when asked about the biggest challenge to successful digital transformation, Felch is quick to answer: change management. “You need the right mechanisms – people, tools and processes – for managing and leading change. You need people within your organisation who will champion change, interact with the business and with the technical teams, and drive understanding and solutions to opportunities.” 

She posits it is “human nature” to find change daunting, hence why there is resistance, at least initially. However, Felch acknowledges the irony of IT professionals needing to be more communicative, collaborative and, well, human in 2021. Man and machine must comprehend one another and stride ahead together to enable an optimal digital transformation journey.

“Today, IT all depends on developing the right engineering culture within an organisation,” Felch says. “At Dell, we are highly dependent on how we engage with others and we have to draw out those latent needs, so we understand where we are going and innovate accordingly. 

“We might have great technology, but it is having highly skilled people who are available and have the environment in which to innovate that makes the difference.”

Little surprise, then, that Felch views digital transformation, both for her company and its clients, as a “continuum that doesn’t end”. She explains: “For us, digital transformation is much more than upgrading a server rack; it is about a mindset to keep the whole business performing and moving forward. As we look ahead, we’re finding the balance between security, privacy and ease-of use, which I believe can be accomplished with good design.”

Further, she is a “firm believer” in Dell’s lean and agile methodology concerning development that drives transformation. “Our iterative approach is delivering great results,” Felch says, lauding a more open, collaborative mindset across the business and also with trusted partners. 

“It’s incredibly powerful when you pair strong technologists with strong business partners and modern IT, like a developer experience rooted in self-service, to drive transformation. That’s where you see multiple wins of creating better experiences, improving employee satisfaction and driving out cost.”

Lean and agile development: delivering results

The outcomes are impressive. She claims that by eliminating redundant work and reducing manual tasks or testing, Dell Technologies has shifted around 10 per cent of its workforce into the development team to “be able to engage with our business partners directly to develop new solutions”.

The company has also reduced its cycle time to deploy new capabilities by 30% and the number of incidents – when a user calls for help – by 31%. It has done this, Felch says, through a focus on user experience, fixing the root cause of existing problems and driving quality in new capabilities.

“The net of it all is that we’re getting faster and more responsive, quality is improving and we have better engagement with our business partners. That’s what digital transformation is all about,” she says.

Finally, Felch stresses how business-critical it is for organisations to “embrace digital transformation”. Those that do not, and are closed to change and constant evolution, will fail – and sooner, rather than later.

“Digital transformation can drive growth opportunities, enhance customer experiences, better connect employees and continue to accelerate positive change within a business,” she explains. 

Given Felch’s wealth of knowledge and experience, it’s worth heeding her words of wisdom.

Felch’s top five tips for leading through digital transformation

  1. Start small
    Find the people who are willing to drive change and solve their first problem. Solve it, celebrate it and let that be the example that you build upon for broader transformation. Having people who can step back, see the larger opportunity or problem that could improve other areas or be replicated, and interact with designers, developers, and so on, can serve as powerful change agents within your organisation.
  2. Focus on the end user experience
    Take the time to listen and observe the problem or opportunity. This avoids the “telephone game” and helps surface latent needs that will delight the user.
  3. Invest in your own processes and team
    Create and embed common ways of working and interacting for the entire team so that it is easy for people to focus on the problem. Have common processes for tracking status and priorities so that people can bring their expertise, whether that’s in DevOps, design, or user experience, to solve the problem efficiently. 
  4. Stay connected to your teams
    Keep providing context and communicate priorities left and right, up and down, to help keep everyone pulling together in the same direction. Stay close so that you can jump in to help remove obstacles, celebrate successes and to remind people that change can be hard. Mistakes will happen but if we commit to learn quickly and to move forward together, driving real change is hugely rewarding.
  5. Be optimistic
    Stay flexible, agile and be ready to pivot. Be optimistic about the present and excited for what transformation will deliver in the future.

This article was first published by Raconteur in April 2021

Understanding the ‘next normal’ for businesses

Which trends accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic are here to stay? Exploring some of the businesses set to thrive in the digital era

The coronavirus pandemic has fired a starting gun for the acceleration of various trends and necessitated distant business plans to be hurriedly activated. E-commerce companies, automated software services, health-tech businesses, videoconferencing, communications platforms, and other organisations facilitating remote working are among the big winners.

But which innovations embraced en masse since March 2020 are here to stay? Conversely what will prove to be a lockdown-induced fad? Have we had our fill of virtual drinks, online quizzes and expensive cook-it-yourself restaurant kits?

Moneypenny, the leading outsourced communications provider will explore some of the business lessons from 2020 and beyond looking at organisations and companies that have thrived and, moreover, look set to succeed in the long term.

Online events platform Hopin, for example, has brought work colleagues together remotely with tools for virtual talks and networking. ZoomMicrosoft TeamsSlack and Workplace by Facebook, plus many similar videoconferencing and digital collaboration tools providers have also triumphed.

And as businesses start to re-open their workplaces, it will be fascinating to glean insights from the likes of Vpod, provider of next-level visitor management systems. Moneypenny recently collaborated with London-based Vpod to offer businesses dedicated video front-of-house and concierge support for the first time. Moneypenny’s video-based support will be added to Vpod’s Vgreet product: a virtual reception that offers a contactless check in and reduces visitor management costs.

Meeting rising customer expectations

While it may be unclear what the “next normal” will look and feel like exactly, we can start to make a decent, educated guess: because the direction of travel is clear. There is little doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has catapulted businesses into the digital era, but comfort, convenience and communication will all play even greater roles than before.

To adapt, progressive leaders seek more technology-driven solutions and are now more open-minded about outsourcing certain aspects, including communications, to better meet ever-rising customer demand. We can thank leading organisations like Amazon for that, raising the level of expectation to have things delivered by a simple couple of clicks on a device as soon as is humanly – or even robotically – possible.

Certainly, the retail landscape has evolved, and e-commerce has boomed.

In the United Kingdom, the latest Office for National Statistics figures, published in late January, highlight that online sales surged by 46 per cent in 2020 compared to the previous year. Looking deeper at the data, online food sales enjoyed the most significant uptick given the context offered by months of lockdown, growing by 79.3 per cent.

As a December ONS report noted: “The 2008 recession had a smaller impact than the COVID-19 pandemic on individual industries and the economy … Services such as hospitality – including pubs, restaurants and hotels – recorded almost no output in April and May, but industries such as information and communication, where staff could largely work from home, saw little change compared with February.”

Collaborating and sharing expert insights in the digital era

Accommodation and foodservice activities were 90 per cent smaller than a year earlier, according to the ONS. Will these industries recover, albeit in evolved forms, because of the vaccine roll out?

It’s clear that to keep up with customer and client expectations, technology solutions are no longer a “nice to have” – as perhaps they were 12 months ago – but business-critical.

Forward-thinking decision-makers have shifted their mindset. They realise that much in the same way servers and data have migrated to the cloud, collaboration with trusted partners and utilising the services of skilled experts and technology services in the outsourcing world makes best business sense on several levels.

The mass move to remote working has changed the way we interact with one another, and the rise of videoconferencing and walking meetings, and so on, have paved the way for businesses to engage both employees and customers in different and exciting ways.

For businesses determined to grow in the digital era, it is vital to invest in new forms of communication – but could nuance and the human touch be lost? Building trust – with customers, staff, and other stakeholders – is still imperative.

This article first appeared on Moneypenny’s blog channel in March 2021

Silver surfers ride the digital learning wave

Record numbers of baby boomers and older retirees are enjoying the manifold benefits of taking online courses

The proverb “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is barking up the wrong tree in 2021. Record numbers of baby boomers, aged between 57 and 75, and older retirees, including care home residents, are taking advantage of digital technologies to acquire novel skills and develop hobbies. In droves, they are turning on, logging in and not dropping out. 

The enforced lockdowns of the last year have accelerated this trend. Silver web surfers, unable to hug friends and family, have had the time, confidence and access to technology to embrace digital learning. Indeed, 41 per cent of people in the UK over 55 said they were comfortable learning a new digital skill during lockdown, according to BT research. 

Moreover, older generations are expressing a greater thirst for knowledge when compared to younger cohorts. The 2020 LinkedIn Opportunity Index suggested that not only are baby boomers more willing to welcome change (84 per cent) than millennials (74 per cent) and members of Generation Z (72 per cent), they are also more likely to invest time in learning transferable skills (78 per cent) than the two other groups (72 and 74 per cent, respectively).

Rocketing interest in online groups provided by the University of the Third Age (u3a), whose network has expanded to almost 500,000 older adults no longer working full time, supports this data. A year ago, with members forced to stay at home in an attempt to stem the spread of coronavirus, the UK-wide charity, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2022, pivoted online, establishing Trust u3a. 

“We’ve been excited to see huge numbers of members embracing digital learning and turning to online and social media, sometimes for the first time, to keep their interest groups going,” says Sam Mauger, chief executive of u3a.

Online learning opens minds and virtual doors

Trust u3a’s online offering has attracted hundreds of new members and spawned more than 80 online groups and courses, ranging from Japanese to birds of prey, from cooking to painting. “Digital technology has empowered us to keep learning and active, and allowed us to remain connected with one other,” says Mauger. 

“Instead of meeting face to face, photography groups can share images on WhatsApp, ukulele players have turned to Twitch to make music together and ballroom dancers are using Zoom to show off their moves.”

She plans to adopt a blended learning model when lockdown restrictions lift, as going digital has opened minds and virtual doors. “It has removed geographical barriers and enabled members to expand their learning and forge new relationships across the movement, from Scotland to Cornwall,” she says.

Discovering new interests and friends is one of the biggest pluses of digital learning for retirees, according to Amanda Rosewarne, business psychologist and co-founder of the Professional Development Consortium, which accredits online courses. “By learning via live online classes, you can interact with others who may also be feeling isolated and lonely,” she says. 

Elderly students enjoy several other benefits. “Studies show that learning new things triggers serotonin release in the brain, which is akin to the effect of antidepressants,” says Rosewarne. 

Further, a 2017 study for Age UK, Europe’s largest charity supporting older people, found that keeping the mind active can prevent age-related conditions, such as dementia. Committed learning, rather than crosswords or sudoku puzzles, is most effective, though.

Thanks to a variety of user-friendly devices and online courses, picking up a language, for instance, has never been easier or more convenient for retirees willing to enter the digital classroom. 

Trust issues: beware scammers

Birmingham-based septuagenarian John Bishop has attended a Greek class for years. Soon after his course went online in the autumn, with lessons conducted on Zoom, he “took the plunge” and bought a smartphone. Technology is not all Greek to Bishop now; all that is required to join his group is the click of a hotlink. “The ease of access and ease of use are key for my generation when it comes to online learning,” he says. “My advice is keep it simple and provide non-bot help.”

While Bishop is delighted that his lessons can continue online, he is looking forward to returning to in-person sessions. “Zoom is not superior to live lessons,” he says. “Video conferencing requires more concentrated eye focus, because all you are seeing is the screen rather than a room, and student interaction is less fluid. It also lacks the ancillary benefits, like the exercise of walking to and from the class.”

Sarah-Jane McQueen, general manager of, argues the convenience of online learning is hugely appealing to elderly students. “Rather than having to get up early and travel a sizeable distance to learn,” she says, “users can now get the same experience from the comfort of their own home and at a time that suits them, allowing them to easily balance learning around their daily schedules.”

However, McQueen notes the surging popularity of online courses for retirees has not gone unnoticed by those seeking to make quick money. “Particularly since lockdown, there has been a rise in the number of fraudulent courses being offered by scammers who are looking to profit from people’s willingness to learn,” she warns. 

“To help address these concerns, providers should make a concerted effort to highlight the feedback and reviews they’ve obtained from previous users that can work as testimonials which assure new users they are legitimate.”

Building trust so older people feel comfortable online, and don’t get left in the wake of technology, is vital. Pleasingly, there is now a vast number of online resources and initiatives designed to boost digital literacy among the elderly. For example, Barclays’ Digital Eagles scheme, launched in 2013, has delivered digital skills training to staff and residents in more than 500 UK care homes.

“There are many retirees who have achieved great things thanks to digital learning, often in fields that were perhaps far removed from what their previous careers encompassed,” McQueen adds. 

Clearly, a more apposite idiom for 2021 is “you are never too old to learn” and, with easy-to-use digital technology, there is no obstacle to becoming a very mature student.

This article first appeared in Raconteur’s Digital Learning report, published as a supplement in The Times in March 2021

Why occupational health is now a top priority

Ethics aside, supporting the physical and mental health of employees creates a win-win scenario in the post-pandemic workplace, but there are challenges to providing better support

The coronavirus crisis has squeezed the life out of so much we previously took for granted, at home and at work. Things have changed, irreversibly. Many people express both a heightened appreciation of life and respect for mortality. But how does this translate to occupational health? 

As organisations begin to coax their employees back to the workplace, the expectation that employers should support the mental and physical health of staff, particularly in a workplace setting, has been dialled up in the past year. 

To instil confidence in employees that a return to work is safe, many companies provide COVID-19 rapid lateral flow tests, promise better ventilation, rigorous cleaning programmes and gallons of hand sanitiser. But is it enough? Should businesses take more accountability for their workers’ health?

According to employee benefits provider Unum’s Value of Help study, published in December, 86 per cent of UK employers have changed their approach to staff health and wellbeing because of the coronavirus situation. 

Moreover, 95 per cent of the 350 employers surveyed revealed the pandemic has “impacted their need to make employees feel more protected”, says Glenn Thompson, chief distribution officer at Unum UK. “Whether it is from individuals, communities or organisations, 2020 has brought the value of help and support to the front of all our minds,” he adds.

Dr Robin Hart, co-founder of Companion, which offers mental health support tools, is pleased organisations are showing a greater willingness to look after staff. “A lack of focus in this area historically has seen an increase in lost revenue and diminished productivity,” he says. “Attitudes have had to change in a very reactive way due to the pandemic. In reality, it’s accelerated a process which would have played out anyway, eventually.”

Win-win scenario

Besides, supporting staff health and wellbeing creates a win-win scenario. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) data shows that in the 12 months to March 2020, when the first lockdown came into force, approximately 828,000 workers, the equivalent of 2,440 per 100,000 people, were affected by work-related stress, depression or anxiety. This absenteeism resulted in an estimated 17.9 million working days lost. In the previous year, the cost of workplace injury and ill health was calculated by HSE at £16.2 billion.

“Nobody’s health should be worse at the end of a shift than it was at the start,” says Dr Craig Jackson, professor of occupational health psychology at Birmingham City University. “If it is poorer, then there is something morally, ethically and legally wrong in that workplace.”

He believes there is a newfound respect for occupational health departments. “The excellent, proactive work undertaken by many professionals in preparing COVID-secure workplaces – assessing staff return to workplaces, COVID screening, testing, tracking and tracing – will lead to people realising occupational health is not just somewhere to go to when you are ill and unable to work,” he says.

Jackson acknowledges “supporting staff better than before does involve additional time and costs”, but argues such spending is a good investment. This is backed by research from Deloitte, published last year, that estimates for every £1 spent by employers on mental health interventions, they gain £5 back in business value.

“Not only is there a strong moral case for employers to look after staff health, but it makes good business sense, too,” agrees Oliver Harrison, chief executive of Koa Health, provider of mental health programmes. “Healthy workplaces attract the best talent. They also avoid the negative impact of illness on productivity, measured in staff turnover, absenteeism and presenteeism.”

Wellbeing challenges

From a legal standpoint, organisations have a statutory obligation to protect their staff from physical and mental harm. However, Elena Cooper, employment consultant at Discreet Law, reports that “a large number of employees are taking advantage of what they perceive to be their employer’s duties around mental health”.

She asks: “We know a caring and supportive employer is a good employer, but where do you draw the line between being a profit-making entity and a nanny state?” With the prospect of businesses having to afford time off to long-COVID sufferers in the coming months, if not years, it’s a pertinent question.

Ethical and legal debates aside, organisations face other pressing challenges to improve staff wellbeing. “One of the greatest barriers is ensuring healthcare support tends to the needs of all who work within a company,” says Bob Andrews, chief executive of private medical cover provider Benenden Health. 

“There is often a disconnect between what employees want to see from a health and wellbeing programme and what businesses offer. Also employees are not the same and therefore a one-size-fits-all approach is outdated and ineffective.” He advises using a range of tools, including mental health apps, as well as low-cost human management.

Luke Bullen, chief executive in the UK and Ireland at Gympass, which seeks to improve wellbeing through exercise classes, spots another issue. “One of the major challenges for a post-pandemic workforce is going to be the hybrid workplace,” he says. “How do employees ensure their wellbeing strategy works just as well for those working at their tables as though working in the office?” Empowering staff to “tailor the wellbeing offering” is critical, he suggests. 

Spurred by events of the last 12 months, occupational health will surge in importance in the coming years. “By 2025 I expect it to be available anywhere, anytime, thanks to digital advancement,” predicts Paul Shawcross, clinical lead of occupational health services at physiotherapy provider Connect Health. His company employs an artificial intelligence-chatbot as a method of referral that “triages the patient to the right support for them, 24 hours a day, seven days a week”.

Whether it is bot therapists, wellbeing apps or human professionals, employers need to prioritise occupational health in the post-pandemic workplace. Support, of any kind, is what staff truly want and need right now.

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Future of Healthcare report in March 2021

Time to reboot and drive meaningful change

For the future of humanity, society must grasp this opportunity to evolve, rethink broken systems, remove corrosive business cultures, and right deep inequalities

While it is distressing and lamentable that the chaos spread by the coronavirus pandemic has squeezed the life out of countless businesses across the gamut of industry and restricted liberties we all previously took for granted, I am optimistic that society will be reborn for the better. The darkest days will prove the catalyst to drive meaningful change for a brighter future, I sincerely hope.

Despite – or perhaps because of – being locked down, minds have been set free. Concepts that were considered radical at the start of 2020, such as universal basic income, have gained tremendous momentum. It has been liberating to discuss how to solve some of humanity’s most significant challenges, together. But the time for talking is over: we now need to act on the promises to improve life for more people and repair the planet.

The events of 2020 have exposed that society is gravely poorly, traditional systems are broken, and inequality in all its forms is growing. If the COVID-19 fallout has accelerated various trends and catapulted businesses into the digital era, now we need to reboot the world.

“The coronavirus pandemic has taken an X-ray of society and shown us where we are sick,” an Australia-based chief executive told me recently. “It’s also like a time machine and has taken us forward to where problems that were latent are now acute, whether that’s the glaring reality that to be successful businesses need to be as good at generating clicks as they are at bricks, or deep-rooted social inequality.”

It was galling to learn, via an Oxfam report published at the end of January, that the world’s ten wealthiest people according to Forbes – all men, bar one (Alice Walton, the only daughter of Walmart founder Sam Walton) – have seen their fortunes grow by $540 billion since mid-March 2020, when the pandemic took hold. 

However, I sense there is a genuine groundswell to rebalance inequality, in all its forms. It won’t happen overnight, but there will be an inexorable and seismic shift to the point where it is no longer morally acceptable to turn a blind eye to, for instance, racism and gender disparity. The same goes for environmental issues.

One of the few pleasing long-term consequences of the pandemic is the proof of concept of collectivism: if we act together, we can achieve remarkable things. Millennials and younger generations weaned on social media have always considered themselves part of a global community. If we can apply that drive and discipline to matters like the environment, sustainability and equality, we can deliver colossal change.

We must begin thinking beyond ourselves, where we live, to create the sort of future that we all need. Whatever happens, if we go back to how things used to be and forget the tragedy – as with happened after the September 11 attacks – would be a huge failure. As a society, we must grasp this unique opportunity to take stock, look at what’s worked and what hasn’t, and move forward to address some of the most expansive cracks.

How lockdown has affected my working experience

As I’ve typed from home as a freelance journalist since 2014, there were no sweeping changes required when lockdown was enforced, fortunately. However, one key difference was that my family members were suddenly also around, and in particular my young son required homeschooling (and entertaining). Over the last year, it has been fascinating to chronicle the significant changes society has undergone so far. I have found, though, that not relying on the black and white of email and speaking to clients and contacts – thus allowing the time and space for nuance and being, well, more human – has greatly benefited both parties and strengthened bonds.

This article was first published in Beyond the bylines report by Farrer Kane in March 2021

Doubling down to build creative spaces in the age of remote working

Creativity often flourishes when people are together in the same place, but technology solutions can help whether at home or company headquarters

Even before the coronavirus pandemic, workspaces sought to maximise innovation and collaboration by introducing communal spaces, breakout areas, brainstorming pods and the like. Now remote or location-independent working has become more widespread, how can organisations ensure their offices remain a lightning rod for creativity?

It’s a puzzle that business leaders must urgently tackle. According to Nespresso research, over a third (34 per cent) of large enterprise businesses see themselves utilising co-working and collaborative spaces in the future. Organisations need to double down and make offices inviting, comfortable and collaborative spaces.

“Businesses can’t assume employees will flood back to the office in the long term,” says Rebecca Tully, managing director of inclusion and diversity at Accenture in the UK and Ireland. “Employees are increasingly looking for more flexibility from their employer. As such, the onus is on business leaders to rebuild trust with its employees when it comes to returning to the office, ensuring the environment is both safe and beneficial for them.”

Dr Susan Lund, partner at McKinsey Global Institute, says the tasks needed to be performed in an office have changed irreversibly because of the rise of remote working, the ubiquity of good wifi connectivity and the capabilities of tech devices. It is arguably more efficient for practical, task-based work to be performed at home. Meanwhile, creative and collaborative work is best done in the office.

“I can answer an email or write something from anywhere,” says Lund. “When people go into the office now they are not going to be sitting at desks in cubicles. The office, however, is important for creativity and collaborating, and also bringing on board and training new colleagues. The same is true for making business-critical decisions, serious negotiations and forming new relationships.”

In-office cross-pollination of ideas

Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), at Facebook, concurs. “When I started my career, I would dream that one day I’d get the big corner office on the eighth floor, but that’s no longer the case,” she says. “The spaces we have to co-create, to ideate, to bring people together need to be even bigger than they were before the coronavirus pandemic.”

Future smart technologies will soon be harnessed by workplaces to provide personalised environments able to be altered seamlessly from one mode to another

While existing physical offices are widely considered to be vital for collaboration, Adam Steel, strategic foresight editor at The Future Laboratory, believes these buildings might evolve to become what he calls “rotation offices”. He explains: “These spaces, owned by multiple companies but used by one at a time for weekly or monthly face-to-face meetings, would help employees retain a degree of tactile humanness with colleagues, resulting in a cross-pollination of ideas.

“Beyond design, future smart technologies will soon be harnessed by workplaces to provide personalised environments able to be altered seamlessly from one mode to another.”

It’s already something the workforce expects, according to research from Aruba Networks that reveals almost three quarters (72 per cent) of people think the future workplace should automatically adjust and update itself.

Companies that embrace these concepts, using technology to usher workers to take breaks in social spaces and encourage conviviality, will likely experience a boost in productivity too,” says Steel.

ComRes research demonstrates the impact social spaces can have on overall efficiency, with two thirds of workers (67 per cent) feeling more productive after a coffee break.

Steel adds: “Being based around conviviality, the bleeding edge between workspace and hospitality space is a natural one and will also inspire a new wave of hospitality-focused brands to develop their own co-working spaces, enabling the creations of connections between employees, fostering collaboration and creativity.”

Investing in collaboration tools

Thankfully for businesses whose headquarters are not co-working spaces, technology is making it easier to innovate as part of a dispersed team. “Collaboration solutions that foster productivity, from online meetings and videoconferencing, to instant messaging and content-sharing, can be used to maintain a high level of collaboration between employees and facilitate creativity, regardless of their location,” says Sion Lewis, vice president, EMEA, for remote IT specialists LogMeIn.

“We are likely to see an increasing number of IT professionals adopting artificial intelligence in their workflow to make their collaboration efforts smarter and more efficient.”

More than ever though, the office is vital for generating innovation. And remote workers should be encouraged to head in for meetings regularly, says Lee Penson, founder of PENSON, the innovative commercial architectural firm behind Google’s famous inflatable office space. He believes the office “needs to be somewhere that caters for all teams to support their creativity, whether it’s in-house or remotely”, he says.

“The simplicity of taking a group call on FaceTime with colleagues and the progress of conferencing on the move has developed significantly. These innovations join people together in the most basic way. But spaces are still facilitators for unlocking creativity for people and businesses; the cross-pollination of ideas between people happens when they’re together,” says Penson.

Lewis concludes: “Technology is an enabler, not the end-goal, for creativity. It removes the barriers of geographies, time zones and accessibility, and creates a limitless space where people and their creativity can flourish. Ultimately, tech enables us to drive innovation, wherever we are in the world.”

This article – sponsored by Nespresso – first appeared on Raconteur’s Return to the Workplace for SMEs report in March 2021

How can purpose support growth targets?

Company culture is central to achieve staff engagement and motivation, and the coronavirus global crisis has provided an opportunity to pivot and rewrite business models

A happy worker is a productive worker, goes the oft-repeated business aphorism. It is incredibly challenging, though, to keep the workforce motivated through periods of significant change, such as during the early stages of a digital transformation journey or while a startup is experiencing rapid growth. However, change is something most organisations have experienced in 2020, as the coronavirus chaos has touched every part of our lives.

Business leaders should be sensitive to this current climate of uncertainty and potential bad news. Further, they must be careful not to become fixated on the bottom line and drive staff to hit growth targets. Taking this myopic view, and not paying due consideration to staff wellbeing and happiness, runs the risk of alienating the workforce.

Focus on your culture and the business will take care of itself

Organisations that foster and communicate an inclusive, company-wide culture driven by a clearly defined purpose are likely to find scaling more manageable. And now, following the global crisis, is the time for organisations to seize the opportunity to reset their culture.

“Focus on your culture and the business will take care of itself,” says Eissa Khoury, executive director for culture and engagement at Landor, a global branding and design agency. “Having a strong culture often translates into fewer checks and balances, and boosts efficiency as employees have much better clarity on what is expected of them, and how they’re meant to work collectively towards a common goal.”

Good communication and positive contributions

David Mills, chief executive of technology giant Ricoh Europe, goes further and posits an organisation looking to attract and retain top talent while scaling, and also appealing to consumers, must lead with a purpose that benefits society.

“Financial margins are no longer the sole indicator of business success or growth, sustainability must be at the centre of a modern business,” he says. “People are looking to employers to set an example and make more positive contributions to the communities in which they operate.”

Indeed, for positive contributions to permeate throughout an organisation’s culture, they must come from the top down, says Khoury. And leaders have to be transparent and communicate plans and progress, as well as setbacks, to staff.

Company news, he says, ought to be disseminated regularly and through various channels, particularly when people aren’t physically in the same space. Moreover, leaders should engage employees by encouraging their ideas and acting on them, so staff become more emotionally invested in the project.

“When scaling and growing a company, stress and long hours are often unavoidable,” says Khoury. “The essential advice for leaders is not to lose their sense of humanity and to appreciate that pushing teams too hard for too long is a terrible long-term strategy.

“If companies want their employees to be ‘bought in’ to the strategy, then they need to have a sense of ownership. The easiest way to accomplish that is to keep employees aware of how the company is doing, warts and all.

“Should companies try to push the company line to make employees think everything is rosy, they will see right through it, which creates mistrust and disengagement. Treat employees with respect, let them know what’s happening and make them feel like their contribution matters.”

Transparency breeds trust

Abbie Walsh, chief design officer at Fjord, an Accenture-backed design and innovation agency, agrees. “A focus on financial growth means companies risk losing sight of the very culture and values their brand was built on,” she says. “And if employees aren’t already feeling like a cog in a machine, the new hires, team restructures, redefined roles and a mountain of new processes that come with business expansion is sure to lead to levels of dissatisfaction.”

Walsh believes having a clear purpose will increasingly become critical for organisations, small and large. She points to the Fjord Trends 2020 report that suggests we should care more about our impact on the planet.

“In 2019, questions about capitalism’s trajectory of endless growth with profit as the sole measurable moved from shouting on the streets to conversations in the boardroom,” she says. “There is an urgent need for businesses to redefine value, reassess their goals and scale in a way that serves the interests of investors, society and employees at the same time.”

This article – sponsored by Nespresso – first appeared on Raconteur’s Return to the Workplace for SMEs report in March 2021

Opening the doors to a reimagined workplace

The coronavirus fallout has forced new ways of working and workplaces to be redrawn, but what could this look like?

We will look back on 2020 as the year the world reset for the digital age and for the better. To stem the flow of coronavirus, organisations of all sizes closed their offices. Out of necessity, business leaders were forced to rethink and revamp their operations.

The virus fallout has exposed systems that were either inefficient or outdated. Trends have been accelerated, with remote working being the most significant. Laggards have kickstarted digital transformation programmes and the pace has picked up for those whose journeys had already begun. Those with a progressive mindset, though, have embraced the opportunity to recalibrate the way things operate, and reimagined workplaces and workspaces are paramount.

“I don’t think there’s a company on the planet that hasn’t had to change as a result of what’s happened,” says Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Facebook, who admits many of the social media giant’s employees have “really struggled” with remote working.

“It would be wrong to assume we’re going to go back to how things were before. The companies that will do well as we come out of this are the ones, first and foremost, thinking about their people. They’re thinking about how they enable them to work in this hybrid way of working, part remote and part office.”

Putting people at the centre and collaborating

Adam Steel, strategic foresight editor at The Future Laboratory, agrees that organisations have to build workspaces around their staff to improve wellbeing and, in turn, productivity. “In our new working world, offices are being transformed with the health of employees now central to their function,” he says.

“And the benefits of remote working will cause employers to reconsider the entire purpose of the office. Employers should reimagine offices with their unique benefits in mind – their social, communal, convivial benefits – able to inspire collaboration and cross-pollination of ideas organically.”

However, recent Nespresso research highlights that in the UK worries about workplace safety and hygiene have been heightened because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As such, in-person creativity is being hampered. More than a fifth (21 per cent) of respondents expressed concern for cleanliness when they return to the office while 19 per cent said they’re unsure how they can collaborate safely with new measures in place.

Organisations have to show commitment to their employees’ wellbeing, regain the trust of their staff and provide workers with the confidence to return to the office. “Every company must now consider itself a health business, in both the physical and mental sense, and reflect this in day-to-day operations,” says Rebecca Tully, managing director of inclusion and diversity at Accenture in the UK and Ireland.

“It’s essential companies look beyond initial fixes, such as one-way systems and plastic screens, and explore how they can start to make bold, long-term, systemic design changes to the office space.”

Blending hospitality hubs and workplaces

Implementing simple technology solutions in the office can both reassure employees that their wellbeing is being considered and reactivate creative processes. “For example, low-cost wearables that replace security badges can create a connected ecosystem to aid social distancing and allow employees to locate empty spaces in the workplace easily, reworking the physical space to become more responsive to employee needs,” says Tully.

Beth Hampson, commercial director at flex-space provider The Argyll Club, which has 38 luxury workspaces across London, notes demand for co-working products has increased the longer people have experienced remote working this year. “Our members are seeking places to meet and be inspired away from the humdrum of home,” she says. “The key difference between working on home and office turf is collaboration. When inspiration and support from your team are needed, there is no substitute for the office.”

COVID-19 has given us the chance to press a big reset button

But the reimagined office is more than that; it is a hospitality hub. “Professionals want somewhere they can seamlessly and effectively complete multiple tasks they just couldn’t do at home,” says Hampson. “Whether that’s a team brainstorm, a midday yoga class followed by lunch with investors or an end-of-week drink with colleagues in a business lounge. Traditional offices sticking to a cookie-cutter approach will struggle in a post-coronavirus world.”

This chimes with Lee Penson, chief executive of global architecture and interior design studio PENSON. “We see hospitality and workplaces decategorising and becoming somewhat blended,” he says. “An office building doesn’t need to be just an office building any more. Buildings need to multi-categorise, multi-function, be more flexible, more efficient and offer more for the people who work and live in them.”

The office is vital for facilitating new ideas, communication and collaboration, says Penson. “It’s a place where everyone comes together, where people mingle, strike deals and become firm friends,” he says. “Nothing can replace catching up with a colleague over a coffee or lunch; that’s where inspiration starts. Humans are social beings and the workplace should enable that, even more so now.

“COVID-19 has given us the chance to press a big reset button. We hope things don’t go back to normal.”

This article – sponsored by Nespresso – first appeared on Raconteur’s Return to the Workplace for SMEs report in March 2021

How can a coffee break help the bottom line?

Communal coffee breaks, whether working from home or in the office, are an increasingly important way to relax and unwind, and boost productivity

In Sweden, they call it fika. Essentially it is a coming together where staff take a break and time out to socialise and promote wellbeing. York-based staff management software company RotaCloud introduced fika to the workplace in 2018, to “help make people’s days better”, according to co-founder James Lintern. “It’s a time when everyone can make a cup of coffee, have a snack and talk,” he says. 

“We don’t force people to take a break, but we strongly encourage it and we use automated alerts on Slack to remind people.” Lintern says the practice has had a positive impact on staff and, in turn, productivity. 

“Having this time set aside within the working day is very important,” he continues, “because it creates an environment of sharing and learning, and helps employees build a support system within the office. This is about fostering a mentality that makes it OK to stop, slow down and reflect.”

While the coronavirus has driven new ways of working and triggered an initial exodus from the office, this practice is even more important for both people and businesses. The stress of having to work away from the office, possibly juggling family commitments in addition to the uncertainty of the future, has led many people to work harder than before. This approach is counter-productive, says Dr Argyro Avgoustaki, associate professor of management at ESCP Business School.

“The more the employee is working, especially if there is no break or resting time, the more the productivity decreases, because they do not get the chance to recover physically, mentally or emotionally,” she says. “Working constantly without taking any breaks between or within working days may result in employees who are exhausted, fatigued and stressed.”

Healthy body, healthy mind

Given the sudden shift to mass home working, where conditions might not be optimal, there is even more reason to take regular breaks, argues Mark Fletcher, clinical director at occupational physiotherapy provider Physio Med. 

“Sitting for longer than 20 minutes has negative effects on your body, including an increase in musculoskeletal problems such as back and neck pain, while extended periods of sitting can affect the spine, neck and shoulders. This, in turn, can also affect the arms, elbows and wrists,” he says, suggesting employees should move away from their desks every 30 minutes, even if just for a few paces.

When it comes to better managing remote-working teams, regular check-ins are vital, to ensure employees are happy with their work and also, arguably more importantly, that their mental health is supported. Business leaders should view this as an opportunity to show their human, compassionate side, says Susan Hodkinson, chief operating officer at Canadian accounting firm Crowe Soberman in Toronto. 

“Communication should be frequent and transparent,” she says. “We have a virtual coffee event, which replicates the kitchen coffee chat with co-workers. You’re trying to have those touchpoints you would have in the office.

Nicola Mendelsohn, vice president, Europe, Middle East and Africa, at Facebook, agrees that virtual coffee meet-ups help keep colleagues connected, even virtually. She enjoys “coffee roulette”, using videoconferencing tools. “You enter your name and then play coffee roulette with colleagues. The random nature of it creates surprise. It’s a great way to get to know people in 15 minutes,” says Mendelsohn, adding it’s especially good for people joining the company.

Benefits of informal catch-ups

Tania Garrett, vice president of international employee experience at Adobe, says relaxing coffee breaks, whether in the office or while remote working, with other members of the team are essential for boosting morale. “One of the things we hear a lot from our employees is that they are missing their colleagues and the informal catch-ups,” she says. “As such, we have strongly encouraged our people managers to create opportunities for non-work catch-ups like ‘coffee chats’ or team events.” 

For the more introverted employees, Garrett encourages small groups for coffee chats so “everyone can feel safe and included in conversation and managers can ensure everyone’s voice is heard”. She adds: “These informal moments are critical for our teams to take time out from work and connect on a personal level.”

Organisations seeking to make their offices more welcoming to staff should think about the provision of quality coffee, says Beth Hampson, commercial director of The Argyll Club, which offers more than 35 flex-work spaces in London. “Coffee at work isn’t just for the caffeine-fanatic anymore; most professionals now want a quality hot beverage every day so offices can no longer afford to have below-par coffee,” she says. 

Coffee at work isn’t just for the caffeine-fanatic anymore; most professionals now want a quality hot beverage every day

Members of The Argyll Club can now take advantage of Nespresso on offer at their workplaces. “We’ve even had all of our teams retrained on how to make an exceptional cup of coffee,” says Hampson.

Ultimately, it’s people who power any business, so looking after them, in the office or at home, and providing them with ample opportunity to take coffee breaks creates a win-win situation. And as employees do return to the office, those workplaces that can offer quality coffee on-site will claim the hearts and minds of staff.
“After months at home, members told us they miss the city’s quality coffee shops, bars and restaurants as well as their offices and teammates,” adds Hampson. “So bringing all these much-loved elements together in one safe destination is the future of work for us.”

This article – sponsored by Nespresso – first appeared on Raconteur’s website in March 2021

Virtual onboarding: the new reality

Having to join a company virtually is likely to outlast the coronavirus pandemic as many companies shift to more permanent remote working. But this raises challenges over how to get new starters up to speed and feel part of a company

The deep trepidation felt by Jeevan Singh when she was appointed finance officer of influencer marketing platform Fanbytes in September is relatable for those who have endured a remote onboarding process in the past year, especially workers at the start of their career.

“Starting a new job in lockdown was terrifying,” says the 23 year old, who in 2019 graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London. “I thought I’d feel like an outsider and lack the essential team-working environment. Above all, I was worried that I’d miss out on training and be left to figure out how to do things.”

Fanbytes’ suite of online collaboration tools and a “fantastic culture” of frequent, virtual meetings and social events soon allayed her fears, though. “For anyone looking to start a new job remotely or for businesses wanting to create a more inclusive culture, regular face-to-face calls and chats should be at the top of the agenda,” recommends Singh. “While I haven’t met any of my colleagues in person yet – and they may all turn out to be catfishing [creating a fake identity] – I nevertheless feel like I know them well.”

Charlie Johnson, founder and chief executive of BrighterBox, a London-based recruitment firm that places graduates with startups, agrees that for younger talent beginning a full-time job virtually is particularly daunting. His organisation’s research reveals that more than a third (36 per cent) of respondents feel less confident about starting a role remotely, although 44 per cent say it would make no difference.

“Ultimately, what new starters are looking for in 2021 is plenty of contact time: one to ones with their direct managers as well as the wider team and virtual socials to get to know teammates on a more personal and less formal level,” says Johnson.

Managing a remote team by example

What about remote onboarding as a new manager? Having amassed 16 years’ experience working in financial services, Cedrick Parize was perhaps not as terrified as Singh when, last March, he joined MUFG as Europe, Middle East and Africa head of internal audit for the bank’s global markets. However, 12 months after he took up his position, Parize is yet to meet any of the eight-strong team, two of whom he hired, in the flesh.

“Initially, with it being the start of the first lockdown, it was a challenge to get a feel for the team,” he says. “So much human communication is performed through body language and experiencing a person’s energy.”

From the outset at MUFG, Parize was open minded and flexible, even agreeing to reschedule meetings so they didn’t clash with Joe Wicks’ workout sessions, and keen to display his human side. 

Ultimately, what new starters are looking for in 2021 is plenty of contact time.

“I encouraged video calls and switched my camera on, no matter how bad my outfit was,” he says. “There was no pressure for others to do the same, but I was happy to see that through leading by example, and slowly building up relationships, my team began to feel more comfortable, turning on their cameras. This change helped enormously to gain a sense of each individual.”

Clearly, the coronavirus crisis has transformed hiring practices and talent management. While organisations are struggling to keep pace with the change necessitated by government-enforced remote working, the direction of travel is evident. “Virtual recruitment and onboarding are undoubtedly here to stay,” says Jon Addison, vice president at professional social network LinkedIn. 

Indeed, 84 per cent of the 1,500 human resources and talent professionals surveyed from around the world for LinkedIn’s The Future of Recruiting report predict virtual recruiting will outlast COVID-19.

Winning the war for talent in 90 days

Addison argues that as the war for talent intensifies, organisations must sharpen their remote onboarding, career development and training capabilities. “The first few days in a job are extremely important in setting up new joiners well,” he says. “Remote onboarding can make that challenging, particularly for younger generations joining the workforce who may not know what to expect.”

The most progressive organisations will start the experience well in advance of the new hire’s first day. Addison says this is achieved by connecting them to their team, ensuring home office equipment arrives, if remote working is possible, and sending a welcome package that includes information about company culture and explaining what the coming days and weeks might entail.

As vice president of people and operations at ClassPass, the fitness and wellness network that hit a $1-billion valuation last year, and with almost 400 employees distributed across 30 countries, Hollen Spatz has had to ensure her organisation’s remote onboarding runs smoothly. 

All hires join a programme coined “the 90-day warm-up”. The onboarding process starts with “a few surprises in the mail, including some company swag” and a personalised note from the ClassPass leadership team. The programme consists of a series of sessions introducing new team members to various aspects of the organisation over a three-month period.

“Onboarding and staff retention go hand in hand,” says Spatz. “An employee’s experience in the first 90 days of their role will have a massive impact on their happiness, productivity and longevity with a company.”

To accelerate the assimilation, ClassPass has also created a series of virtual check-ins with managers so beginners are clear on their role expectations and have ample opportunity to raise questions.

Finally, Spatz acknowledges that the remote onboarding process requires continuous tweaking. “We used to send out gift cards for a welcome lunch over Zoom, but quickly realised people might not feel comfortable eating in front of new colleagues on camera,” she concedes. 

With remote onboarding and virtual training set to remain, there’s plenty for business leaders to chew over to improve the recipe for success.

Five tips to improve remote onboarding

1. Divide and conquer interview duties

Moneypenny, a global outsourced communications provider, has recruited more than 350 new staff members since March 2020, and group chief executive Joanna Swash believes the secret to a successful hire is to divide and conquer. “We have two people to carry out remote interviews,” she says. “This allows each person to ask different questions and enables them to watch body language while the other person is talking.”

2. Use technology solutions to ease the load

Alexander Nicolaus, chief people officer at Paysend, a UK-based international money transfer fintech, urges business leaders to embrace technology solutions to improve hiring and training efficiencies. “We built an onboarding intranet that acts as a self-service toolkit for new joiners,” he says. This facility relieves the pressure on the business and allows employees to access a wide range of information.

3. Build a remote culture

GitLab is a fully remote technology company that has 13,000 employees spread across 67 countries. Head of remote Darren Murph says the key to successful remote onboarding is instilling a company culture. “The three key aspects are our commitment to working handbook first, being outcomes focused and having intentional communication,” he says.

4. Buddy up new hires

Being assigned a work buddy is vital for remote hires, according to Nicole Alvino, co-founder and head of strategy at SocialChorus, a workforce communications platform. “We added ‘sidekicks’ early on in the pandemic to ensure every person would have a personal connection. The sidekick is a person who can help navigate the culture.”

5. Introduce the CEO

In many ways remote onboarding has improved efficiencies, not least when it comes to including the C-suite in the process. “It has offered an opportunity for our chief executive to join the new hire training sessions,” says Joan Burke, chief people officer at DocuSign. “Booking in time to lead a Zoom session is much easier than clearing his schedule for a face-to-face orientation session.”

This article was originally published in Raconteur’s Employee Engagement and Wellbeing report in March 2021

Who protects the unprotected? Insuring freelancers in times of crisis

Being self-employed has always involved some insecurity, but as the coronavirus pandemic sweeps away potential work, financial support for this vital part of the workforce has never been more urgent

When disaster strikes, who protects the unprotected? Three years ago, LV= calculated that just 4 per cent of self-employed workers in the UK had income protection cover. The insurance firm warned, with eerie prescience, of a “heightened risk of a financial crisis”.

At a conservative estimate, more than four million members of the UK’s self-employed workforce did not have relevant insurance when the coronavirus pandemic began to suffocate the economy. And now that they are feeling the squeeze, having complained about inadequate financial support from the government, many are so cash strapped, it is hard to justify paying insurance premiums.

The plight of Dani, a Preston-based freelance lighting technician, is all too typical. On March 17, a day after prime minister Boris Johnson announced lockdown plans, she was due to begin her dream job. “Literally ten minutes after that announcement, the email came through from the theatre explaining ‘we can’t continue’,” she says.

The 31 year old has fallen through every financial crack and only receives Jobseeker’s Allowance. But at £73 a week, it doesn’t cover her bills. With Dani’s partner being made redundant, the outlook is bleak. “I don’t even feel like we’re surviving,” she says.

Self-employed musician, composer and sound engineer David, who lives in Perth, Scotland, qualified for the government’s COVID-19 Self-Employment Income Support Scheme, but he too is struggling to cope financially.

David and his wife, a care worker, haven’t bought anything non-essential since March and, to reduce petrol costs, their car has remained stationary. Despite tightening their belts, this has not been enough to prevent having to dip into their savings to pay the bills. 

“The events industry folded overnight,” says David. “That’s my entire income gone. What am I going to do? Have I got any transferable skills?”

It is a particularly challenging time for those in the live events industry, which depends on self-employed workers with niche skills. Conal Dodds, who co-founded Bristol-headquartered Crosstown Concerts in 2016 and had staged more than 300 music events within 18 months, has already written off next year.

The events industry folded overnight. That’s my entire income gone. What am I going to do? Have I got any transferable skills?

“This situation has highlighted that the self-employed, freelancers, zero-hours contract workers have no safety net,” he says. “We need to recognise the importance of these workers and look to protect them in the future.”

Deepening the finance crisis for the self-employed

Those self-employed workers whose industries are still open for business feel pressure to keep working regardless, according to Nesta research. Some 22 per cent of self-employed, 29 per cent of sole traders and 30 per cent of gig workers agree that if they caught COVID-19 and had to self-isolate, they fear they’d lose their job.

In mid-October, the Office for National Statistics showed the UK’s self-employed workforce had shrunk to 4.56 million, and fallen by 240,000 in the third quarter compared to the same period in 2019.

Derek Cribb, chief executive of the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self-Employed, laments the record drop to 2015 levels. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the UK had experienced a consistent trend towards higher self-employment. “At the start of this year, there were over five million self-employed people in the UK, up from 3.2 million in 2000, representing 15.3 per cent of all employment,” says Cribb.

He argues the new figures are evidence of the “devastating impact of the gaps in government support for the self-employed during the first wave of the pandemic” and reflect the critical need for better solutions. “In times of recession, the self-employed are key to driving recovery,” says Cribb, “but the sector is now struggling to save itself, let alone the economy.”

Mike Parkes, technical director at GoSimpleTax, worries that the financial pressures facing self-employed workers will soon ratchet up. He predicts a “double bubble” in January, as his organisation’s research suggests 56 per cent of people opted to defer payment to HM Revenue & Customs. Many self-employed workers will have to settle tax liabilities for the 2019-20 tax year and the first payment on account due for 2020-21.

“Unless you have your house in order by January 31, and sufficient funds to cover all tax liabilities, a deferral could create a perfect storm,” says Parkes. “What’s more, once that date passes, HMRC will not hesitate to reimpose the interest charges, penalties and collection procedures usually in place.”

Knock on effect

Bleak outlook for the hardest hit

Can insurtechs or traditional insurers come to the rescue? Andy Chapman, chief executive of insurance provider The Exeter, acknowledges “the self-employed are among those hardest hit” by COVID-19 fallout. “Despite the perks and flexibility of self-employment, the reality is they are not protected in ways their full-time counterparts are,” he says.

The Exeter’s research indicates that workers in this sector have a stark lack of savings. Almost a fifth (17 per cent) have no personal savings to fall back on and 35 per cent don’t save anything in a typical month. Chapman reports The Exeter’s Day 1 cover, permitting policyholders to claim after just three days off work due to illness or injury, has proven popular, with more than 5,000 applications during lockdown. 

Is technology the answer to freelancer insurance?

Now is the time for insurers and governments alike to embrace tech-driven solutions, urges Freddy Macnamara, founder and chief executive of flexible car insurance provider Cuvva. The insurance industry “must modernise its processes and products to better support millions of people’s changing needs” and adapt for the on-demand generation, he says.

“More affordable and fair insurance products and services to protect the self-employed community, bolstering the right level of support, will encourage growth in the sector, which is critical in the economic downturn,” says Macnamara, pointing out that Cuvva provides car insurance by the hour, week or month. “It’s not surprising that insurance providers offering flexibility and a better product market fit are thriving.” 

Chris Kaye, co-founder and chief executive of Sherpa, an insurtech organisation offering personal risk management, agrees. “Drewberry has a nice angle focused on freelancers as a more traditional broker and Dinghy has picked up on the need for flexibility in cover that is important to freelancers,” he says. “I also really like what Zego has done, embedding insurance into the gig-economy platforms to make it a seamless part of the worker experience.”

Collective Benefits, a London-based insurtech startup, is similarly working with leading gig-economy platforms. “Providing benefits and protections for workers is a win-win,” says Anthony Beilin, co-founder and chief executive, who reveals the companies his organisation works with have seen a 17-fold increase in engagement.

With the government unable, or unwilling, to offer greater support for self-employed workers, the onus is on organisations and those within the insurance industry to collaborate and provide a lifeline. Otherwise, millions will sink.

The article was first published in Raconteur’s Future of Insurance report in September 2020