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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a sense of widespread uncertainty for businesses, with many forced to shut down overnight when the government announced lockdown.

This period compelled employers to reflect on the way their business operates and consider what they expect from their employees – and what employees have come to expect from them. Although many businesses will be highly appreciative of the hard work of their team during this difficult time, bonuses and other financial rewards may not be a viable form of recognition in the current climate.

Employers have needed to rely on their workforce to maintain productivity and deliver consistently to a high standard during this time. However, with a stream of redundancy announcements from large companies such as John Lewis, WHSmith and Pizza Express, employees want to know that their employer is committed to them and that their career progression is still a focus, post-pandemic.

By focusing on talent engagement, businesses are more likely to attract, retain, and develop talented, commercially thinking people who strive to achieve the best for themselves and their clients. Investing in learning and development is vital for all businesses – while it does not necessarily need to be a costly process – giving time and resources to maintain a strong and engaged workforce, encouraging your team to build on their skills, can often deliver a greater commercial impact.

Talent and engagement
While many businesses carry out annual appraisals, individuals may struggle at other times to ask their managers or senior team members for additional support or advice. To avoid this, it is important that businesses take additional time to ensure that all employees have a chance to discuss their career progression and development. This is helpful to provide additional opportunities for individuals to talk through their career objectives and know how to meet their longer-term goals.

Taking the time to build these supportive relationships within the team will have a positive impact on productivity, as an employee that feels supported and valued by their employer is also far less likely to look for another job, as they will feel more embedded in the business itself.

Regular meetings and discussions within the team about employees’ objectives is also likely to encourage these individuals to stay motivated and will have a positive impact on their progression to the next step in their career.  

While it is important to encourage employees to expand their skills through learning and development, it is vital that individuals actively seek opportunities to support their own development. To make this as accessible as possible, the team should be made aware of all the options available to them, whether that be development meetings, training courses or online workshops.

As the saying goes, you can lead a horse to water but you can’t force it to drink – crucially, employees need to action their own objectives, but an employer should still be on hand to offer support and encouragement where needed, especially to those that may initially lack confidence in their own ability.

Learning and development
Most businesses will gather a bank of useful information and case studies over time, so sharing this across the team is a great way to spread knowledge and promote collaborative working throughout the business. As well as useful information like this, it is also beneficial to encourage individual employees to inform others of any useful webinars, online events or training courses that might be valuable for others to aid their learning and progression.

Encouraging collaborative working between different levels of a business, or different departments, can also be a great way to bring the wider team together. While individuals may communicate with their close team members every day, they may not actually know what others in different areas of the business do.

This type of working can also be highly beneficial to reduce tension between departments by increasing awareness of the pressure others face across the business – in the long run, this may also help productivity and make operations more efficient.

The ‘pandemic effect’
The coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on many businesses, and it will continue to impact the way that they operate for some time, if not forever. Businesses and individuals alike, who had not previously considered homeworking as productive, were forced adapt overnight as lockdown was announced and the past six months has led to a changed perception of remote working. Many companies around the world are now opting for reduced office space to cut costs as well as more flexible working hours going forward.

There is some concern that remote working indefinitely could have a negative impact on ‘office culture’, resulting in a more impersonal workforce and reducing an employees’ loyalty to their employer if they do not feel as much part of a team.

Businesses must increasingly do all they can to support their employees and provide benefit to their workforce that cannot be found elsewhere, and that will be of greater value to individuals in the long term if they can hone their skills and develop their knowledge throughout their career.

The next few years may be challenging for all, with prolonged uncertainty as we prepare for the challenges of winter months coupled with continued confusion about what Brexit will mean for various sectors in the UK and Europe. Importantly, businesses must remember to keep their people at the very heart of what they do – whether that be staff, stakeholders, or customers.

All businesses rely on their employees to keep operations moving and maintain excellent service – pandemic or not – so it is vital they show their appreciation and commitment to keeping their team together in these difficult times. By demonstrating their gratitude towards their team with measures to support learning and career development, businesses will be able to retain talent in the longer term and, as a result, be more likely to flourish and emerge successfully from this difficult time.

Andrew Rayment, Partner in the Employment team, and Emma Wilkinson, Learning and Development Manager at Walker Morris.

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