THE KEYS TO RETAINING SHIFT-BASED ‘DESKLESS’ WORKERS – Roundtable Report
17 November 2022 Virtual
THE KEYS TO RETAINING SHIFT-BASED ‘DESKLESS’ WORKERS
EMPLOYEE RETENTION HAS BEEN A KEY FOCUS THROUGHOUT THE PAST FEW YEARS FOR ALL BUSINESSES, BUT ESPECIALLY THOSE DEPENDENT UPON SHIFT-BASED, OR SO-CALLED ‘DESKLESS’ WORKERS. EMPLOYERS MUST MEET THE EXPECTATIONS OF THESE LATTER-DAY NOMADS OR FACE AN ONGOING EXODUS OF STAFF – FURTHER EXACERBATING ACUTE TALENT SHORTAGES ACROSS INDUSTRIES – JUST AS BUSINESSES ARE TRYING TO BRING PLANS BACK ON TRACK.
Jonathan Parsons Senior Director HR – Hitachi Rail
Nathan Miller Managing Director UK & Europe – Humanforce
Doug Tabor Hr Business Partner – Open Systems
Vinny Chauhan Vice President HR – HCS Group
Karen Townsend People Director – (Previously at Sage)
Donovan Chapman Senior People Partner – Oliver Agency
Nicole Ward – Interim HR Leader
WHAT ARE YOU EXPERIENCING IN THE AFTERMATH OF COVID-19 IN TERMS OF EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT, WELLBEING AND RETENTION?
Jonathan Parsons: The Government wanted public transport to continue running during the pandemic and so we continued to run trains. For our organisation, it highlighted that essentially, we were two workforces, whereas we have always maintained the mantra that we are one family. Some, like myself, could work from home and other parts of our organisation were out and in contact with the public. Of course, we put all the appropriate health and safety measures in place, but it did reveal how lucky we were to have such a committed workforce.
Vinny Chauhan: I would describe our business as having three types of workforce; pure office-based, pure shift workers – the operational employees, who have to do our processes in our plants – then there is the middle group of professional workers, deskbased but based at the operational sites, in our refineries. We managed to keep operations going, but there are issues surrounding the three groups around remote and hybrid working, as we go forward. There are some cultural challenges that we have around the operators working shifts and rosters. Therefore, to keep the operation going, we need support to be on site – such as safety, planning and engineering, for example – to help support all of those activities. That means that we do offer less flexibility to them in reality. On paper, they have the same level of flexibility, because they’re desk-based, but in reality, because of the nature of the operations and some cultural challenges that we have, they don’t have the same access to flex. The challenge is not to let this influence our capacity to retain and recruit skills.
Karen Townsend: As a technology-led business, we were very lucky that people were able to work remotely. However, we did maintain the offices so that people could come in if they needed to, for example, for a safe space. Lockdown revealed that there are more people with domestic problems at home than we knew of. We also gained a greater appreciation of our graduates and younger workforce, many of whom were house sharing – maybe a group of five or six sharing a straining wifi capacity – sitting at kitchen tables or on beds. So the issues around wellbeing were raised. Unquestionably, those organisations with multi-generational workforces are managing a wide variety of needs and expectations. The pendulum is swinging.
Donovan Chapman: The concern within the frame of this change is disconnection and people not creating relationships and building cooperative partnerships. That can lead to people feeling isolated, disengaged and unmotivated. We’re a rapidly growing company and even during the pandemic, we recruited 1,500 employees globally and with another 300 planned, our main focus is unifying, supporting communication and making sure that isolated groups don’t become siloed.
Nathan Miller: No question, employee expectation is a major issue and with more widely dispersed workforces, meeting needs is a major concern. In Humanforce, we have developers in multiple countries, so global collaboration is fundamental and that means regular virtual get-togethers. That means we have to optimise those meetings and all concerned really need to work flexibly, due to different time zones. In most businesses, there will be people that just have to be in the office more frequently for collaboration that needs to be accommodated. The businesses I think that are grasping this as an action and not a “sit-and-see” excercise, are moving to having an ever-evolving regular feedback loop on their workforce needs. They are actually having that feedback process as a standard action that is looked at regularly, so that they can see the changing needs in time. Delegates have mentioned already the two or three different types of workforce profile and the disparities in flexibility, but that’s not just from the pandemic, it’s the impacts of Brexit and change in operations, such as a large movement towards agency work and socalled gig economy workers. All in all, employers have had to start thinking more strategically about attraction, retention and sustainable workforce resourcing.
ARE YOU USING DATA AND ANALYTICS TO SEE TRENDS IN WHY PEOPLE ARE LEAVING AND ARE YOU ABLE TO SEE WARNING SIGNS ACROSS ROLES?
Jonathan Parsons: This is an area perhaps that as an organisation, we could do more. Typically, HR teams look at some rudimentary attrition analysis and spot the hotspots and pinpoint whether there is influence from a particular leadership style or if there’s a competitor in a particular location that is overtly recruiting at a particular time. As for the science of being able to future predict vulnerable attrition, we’re not there yet. We are working on our level of competence, in terms of data analytics.
Doug Tabor: At our board meeting every quarter, top of the agenda is attrition. Being a global business, we have a very dispersed workforce in a wide variety of countries, especially in India. The big challenge is, what might work in one territory may not in another and so we have to be alive and adaptable to a widescale, ongoing resourcing issue.
Karen Townsend: It’s a complex and dynamic situation for sure. Take the generational perspective, where post-COVID, our most experienced and upper management colleagues – the 55-plus bracket – are looking to manage their careers differently and are considering changes to work and retirement plans. There’s an uptick on exits for certain – perhaps not a mass exodus – but definitely obvious in the older, more experienced workforce and that is guaranteed to increase pressure on the skills shortage and a real concern of course is knowledge transfer. We data mine constantly and we can all draw assumptions from that deep data, but in terms of immediacy, it’s those face-to-face conversations that cannot be completely superseded by cold analytics and that is important data on a more human level.
Vinny Chauhan: In terms of attrition, we had the classic V, whereby, 2019 attrition was up, 2020 during the pandemic went down and then post-COVID, it has gone back up to the same level. I don’t particularly have massive concerns around the so-called great resignation, but as others have said, there is a noticeable spike in 55-plus early retirees. Right now, we are asking some big questions around, how can we refresh our business and can we go in a slightly different direction? In terms of the data piece, we do obviously report on things like sickness and attrition, but we have some really great business partners that are on the ground, so they spend quality time with people and that is where you gain the richness of information around what people’s intentions are, what they’re feeling and the general mood.
Donovan Chapman: Data is considered really critical to our business – it’s a huge and continuous topic of discussion, especially from the top – because it enables us to quantify the service delivery that we do and balance the numbers. One of my own KPIs is about improving the EMEA scores and, at the moment, it’s eight percent and I think there is still a way to go. The pandemic caused us some inertia, whereby we were sidetracked by a lot of firefighting, but now it’s centre stage in our people plan.
Doug Tabor: The difference between the managers perception of what is an acceptable retention rate has changed over the past few years, because of what they’ve been experienced. What we now find is that what we’re expecting from a Western or UK bias, is ten percent in voluntary turnover rates, whereas in India, the rates are around 20 percent. Compare that to the USA, where the highest job quits rate is about three percent and so the differences are clear, depending on geographic location. In terms of metrics, an attrition rate of between ten and twelve percent, I believe, is healthy and sustainable.
Nathan Miller: The hybrid framework is adding to the dynamics, beyond what we typically see around the more desk-based and regular rotored workforce. Looking at the deskless worker space, we see a rapidly evolving picture, in terms of that roster availability. Some companies are starting to push their data analysis agenda and I know of some that want to make sure that the data outputs can be API shared into giant data lakes. They are also doing a lot of work on Power BI, to slice and dice that information. Some of the key metrics they’re looking at in the shiftbased environment is, for example, days people are most likely to accept as shift opportunities to work – and how frequently they engage with the platform to take work. This enables them to look for early warning signs and gaps in the ability to fulfill the shift demand that they know is coming up. This also influences the amount of output they will then push to agencies, because they are starting to want to analyse the agencies that they’re using for third-party resourcing. So, the finer detail is, what is the propensity of that person to take work or the likelihood of them to take work and the frequency with which they do it? This is because, unlike having attrition rates, as a hard and fast measure, these people can sit as ‘available’ within a resource pool for an extended period of time and dip in and out of their ability to take work. If someone who regularly takes work every two or three days within their legal requirements or restrictions starts to drop off, they might start to see that they need to recruit to refill that resource pool.
WHAT ARE THE CORE COMPONENTS OF YOUR EMPLOYEE VALUE PROPOSITION AND IS IT FIT FOR PURPOSE?
Nicole Ward: The core component has to be, is it received as a value? A lot of these things, they’re really good, but how it’s received speaks to the skill of how this is translated to your employees, which is essentially your target audience. Do your data analytics that measure uptake support this? The employment lifecycle is changing very rapidly and so it’s very hard to stay static on something like EVP, because the value of what is being offered can change or becomes ‘less valuable’, due to external factors that drive employee engagement and behaviours. The current trend has been that change has been drastic, unexpected and ill-prepared for. One of the key things may be for leaders to learn how to look at things in a more agile way – in terms of putting EVPs in place – that are able to respond to changing employee needs and how that may affect the employee lifecycle within your organisation, as opposed to something static that may be inflexible or difficult to adapt to the speed of change.
Vinny Chauhan: The classic thing is to ask the questions, come up with suggestions and then implement. When we initially did this, we didn’t consider the differences in localisation enough. So, in the next iteration, we surveyed across the business and then passed it right back down to the ground to each location, so that the emphasis was more focused and gained greater ownership, because of localised input. There were some big things – like increasing the pension contribution and the big ticket items of course – but there was also more subtle and nuanced issues such as, “can we have a vegetable patch”? Or, can we have our communal areas freshened up? We’ve also carried out some events and activities around the teams locally. These are the types of things that can make a difference. I would also encourage localised ESG, supporting employees to work with local charities for example, which builds relationships in local communities.
Jonathan Parsons: The way that we position ourselves as employers matters, as does the built environment. In terms of position, I’d say the way that we do that has really morphed over the past few years. Historically, employers have postured why candidates would want to work with them on a career or reward level, but that’s shifted now and the focus is now on a sense of purpose and being part of a green and values-led organisation.
Nathan Miller: I am surprised that more organisations have not revisited or articulated their current EVP, in view of the massive recent changes. If we look at today’s focal point, deskless workers, it could be argued that they are the harder group to articulate an EVP to. The firms that are doing it successfully are really looking at three key areas – fun, money and learning – and everything else falls underneath that. What I mean by fun – others would term enjoyment – principally is, is it a good place to work and are you treated nicely? Money is more a binary issue, but the last criteria, learning, is fundamental to EVP. The BCG global survey in March 2022 said that 46 percent of flexural or deskless workers, don’t really feel like they have the opportunity to learn new skills. We’ve been under a lot of good pressure to try and work, integrate and make available microlearning from a software perspective, so people can actually take on some educational pieces, while they’re on the move, through their mobile device. Unquestionably, workers are dictating the ability to communicate, so they feel part of that community, take control over their ability to take work and then the learning piece enters the fun-money-learning triangle.
DO YOU FEEL YOU ARE OFFERING A HUMAN-CENTRIC APPROACH TO PEOPLE MANAGEMENT?
Karen Townsend: The human side has absolutely been brought back to the fore and it aligns with the wellbeing agenda. People are human beings, not robots, we don’t just come to work to deliver and leave. We all have life challenges and pressures outside of work. The pandemic enabled people to have unprecedented flexibility and that has to figure in how we recalibrate, going forward.
Doug Tabor: From a very global perspective and working over a 24/7 operation that follows the sun, we have a tendency to have very integrated teams internationally, in different time zones. Not surprisingly, that’s always been quite a challenge to synchronise teams and workloads. When the service is running from India through Europe and the US, days become extended and compressed, depending on the situation at any one time. That’s where I see this going, whereby the working week as we knew it, is no more and time is more fluid and the work/life boundaries are erased. I believe this is what the phrase “a hybrid first organisation” will come to mean more broadly.
WHAT METHODS ARE YOU USING TO FIND OUT EXACTLY WHAT WORKERS REALLY WANT FROM THIS NEW RELATIONSHIP?
Nicole Ward: Organisations must take responsibility and have active listening manifest to reality and action. There are so many words, but without any action, it reduces internal credibility, which may influence employee behaviours. I think leaders have problems in translating that into tangible actions that people actually value. To move forward, we must step away from this paternalistic type of employee/employer relationship, so that people are empowered to take positive actions of their own. That in turn may reflect on active engagement and participation by employees. Lest we forget, low engagement is an active employee response. We’ve emerged from a pandemic, we have been listening and now is the time for action, from all stakeholders.
Vinnie Chauhan: Agreed, we need to act on the feedback and focus on how we can make it practical on the ground. It doesn’t have to be perfect – you can waste a lot of time and effort chasing the immaculate solution and no such thing exists. There is a phrase which neatly applies now; “deliver fast, learn quickly, roll out and adjust. That is the attitude and mindset, that we are trying to empower.
Nathan Miller: I have a personal belief system, that if you can find the daily repeatable action, that’s what drives your ability to affect the business. We are from the tech space and our own business experience is about output, not just ours, but across those global timeframes. That’s really important to understand.
Vinnie Chauhan: Increasingly, it’s about reaching a working audience that is not sitting at desks in an HQ. It can seem like they are asking for a lot, but that can be out of frustration, because their perception is that they are not being listened to. The new reality is this way of working and we must adapt to that and support people with physical, mental, financial health and wellbeing benefits and make EVP work for the remote and deskless workers. We must also be mindful that different generations want different things and while one-size doesn’t-fit-all has become a cliché, it is true. The big question is, how do we initiate things more locally for discrete groups?
Jonathan Parsons: We have a Darwin platform, which allows us to run a fairly sophisticated flexible benefit system. To an extent, that enables us to offer a pretty broad range of benefits. One of the interesting elements we have observed, is that the choices that people make are shifting and indeed have been changing over the last couple of years. There are parts like the virtual GP-type services, which just never were on the radar before, plus we’ve seen huge spikes in take-up of those sorts of services, our EAP are used probably more than ever before, along with services like financial counselling. I guess that what we are seeing in the media narrative, in terms of the cost-of-living crisis and the macroeconomic pictures we see are borne out in the benefit choices that our employees are making.
Donovan Chapman: When it comes to wellbeing you have to give access to support 24/7 and that’s critical and I think that’s really something we’re very much focusing on now. One of the big challenges is being able to apply that inclusively across the EMEA. For example, the UK obviously has many suppliers and people who will be driving the benefits packages, especially with EAP. It’s just really finding those equivalent suppliers further afield, in order to achieve equity.
Karen Townsend: From a benefits perspective, there’s definitely a move towards more flexibility in enabling people to select the benefits they want and need, as and when. I remember the “cafeteria” system as it was called, but it seems to be coming back, so that it’s offering a more tailored options for individuals and particularly targetted for particular points in life. That will have to adapt to changes as people progress in life and career and in this frame, I think the wellbeing app will really have its day, where people are able to access something at a time of their choosing. The other piece coming to the fore – and will continue to do so, given the state of the economy – is financial wellbeing, which needs to be considered with the same importance as mental and physical support.
Nathan Miller: Any business seeing an increase in deskless workers must move beyond the gated benefits provision and be more a gateway, less paternal and more towards individual responsibility for mental, physical and financial wellbeing. It’s about real choice and flexibility and we are currently carrying out a really good piece of work around earned wage access, to avoid that payday loan scenario. For those that aren’t aware, this is where you have access to up to 50 percent of your authorised wages. In our business, that works really well – we’ve partnered with an organisation and done the integration – so a worker can literally work a shift, have that digitally signed off and the notification is made and that money is available to draw down, up to 50 percent of it in real-time, which is massive. This creates control and flexibility and is a more holistic view of financial wellbeing. Similarly, we’re looking at partnering with physical wellbeing and mental wellbeing providers in a similar way, as it just reduces the anxiety and stress. There is a recent statistic that the Government announced – that we’re shouting about as part of the economic gloomy outlook – is the number of adult workers in the United Kingdom with less than £100 in savings. It’s a stark realisation and flexible workers sit right in the middle of that storm. There is no doubt that financial wellbeing really must sit at the top of the agenda.
ARE YOU LOOKING TO OFFER MORE AUTONOMY ON WHEN YOUR DESKLESS WORKERS MUST BE PHYSICALLY PRESENT?
Nicole Ward: Companies are going to have to offer more autonomy, because it’s already proven that people can work this way and that has set an expectation. Buildings have been empty for months and targets are still being met and, for many, it’s been business as usual. I think leadership and managers are going to have to be smarter in how work and outputs are measured and put a standard on what good quality output looks like. That is the hard part – especially if it is not necessarily a target-driven standard that must be measured – as in sales. That is key for the deskless worker and equally to ensure operational efficiency and staff costs. It’s a new era and the mindset needs to move away from fearing this change, to capitalising on it. Deskless working is here to stay and it’s going to have to be offered as part of the digital transformation of an organisation and so this is the climate that the traditional workplace needs to quickly adapt to.
Vinnie Chauhan: The differences between more conventional office-based employees and deskless workers is the core of our discussion today and I believe that the fundamental question is, how do we give them more autonomy safely, as there are safety-critical activities in our operations, so there isn’t that much scope in that space. What we can do is listen to them more – including through union representatives – and make sure there is good feedback.
Nathan Miller: The irrefutable fact is, flexible working and the era of the deskless worker is upon us. The reality is, people will tell you when they don’t want to work. The platform that we operate has a shift swap capability and autonomy for people to be able to move around their workload around other life commitments. I’m really excited about the potential in the deskless worker space, but we all need to be prepared to adapt and develop a mindset to accommodate the significant changes ahead of us.
Donovan Chapman: This is really topical for us at the moment and above all, we require creative thinking approaches to include people with the greatest equity possible and that comes back to voice, surveys and polls and being sensitive to changes in attitudes and expectations. Key to this is to take a blended approach.
HOW MIGHT TECHNOLOGY ALLOW DESK-LESS WORKERS TO LEARN IN THE FLOW OF WORK?
Doug Tabor: A lot of the roles in our business are shift-based and deskless and, amongst many things, we are involved in security services worldwide. Our people are highly-skilled tech workers, but the work is fairly transactional, investigating threats to customer systems, for example. We are looking at the levels of autonomy within the confines and structure of the job itself and as to whether we have the right technologies and channels in place to support this. So, you have to think about the autonomy piece from all angles, but the work is still the work and the autonomy is within giving people the ability to train, to re- and upskill, to specialise and to change career direction and so the skills matrix is key.
Karen Townsend: From the technology side, the bite-size training and development model is the most effective. I’ve always been a huge advocate of trying to put everything L&D on smart phone, because that’s what people carry around with them most of the time. I recall that I sat in on a very compelling presentation, which recalled the times gone by, when we joined a company and were introduced to our desktop PC terminal and telephone and so the culture for lunch at desks was born. But now, people walk around with this amazing tech potential in their pocket and it’s the center of their worlds, both work and personal and that increasingly that includes having access to a lot more influences outside of work. In general, employees have occupied the margins of this phenomenal potential, but we must facilitate a great user experience that actually encourages and compels L&D, to increase uptake. For me, it is about making it small and making it accessible, logically this means on a phone and the bite-size element to it is absolutely key.
Nathan Miller: I think it’s still very much an evolution for many, but I see the deployment of micro-learning and job-based development for deskless workers as absolutely key. It’s about how we have that content delivered and accessed through the system. Bite-sized chunks – as has been discussed today – is the right approach, but that’s not the revolutionary part. What is new is developing and supporting a mindset that there is no strict timeframes and that learning and reskilling is personally beneficial and can be carried out in the flow of work and life. What is really interesting for us – in the research that was carried out on deskless workers specifically – is that 46 percent of the people surveyed globally, don’t feel that they have access to learn new skills. That really exemplified the long-standing problem of L&D engagement and the related issues of the skills deficit across sectors, but particularly in digital lag skills. It’s almost where the root cause of the skills deficit resides. That access to the wide library of learning is available for the majority on just about any digital device and it is an opportunity too good to waste. In fact, we’re having those live conversations now with e-learning providers, to be part of that ecosystem. Certainly, I don’t think we have the perfect answer, but it’s definitely encouraging that we’re moving further towards a library of resources, which is a perfect solution for deskless workers.
WHAT ROLE CAN TECHNOLOGY HAVE IN RESHAPING THE DESKLESS WORKER EMPLOYEE EXPERIENCE?
Vinnie Chauhan: In order for technology to have that impact and to provide equity of access to L&D, there needs to be universal access for people on whatever device and platform they choose, be that; tablets, mobiles or laptops. Surprisingly, for many organisations – including those that are reporting increasing difficulties in finding skills – this is still something of an aspiration and is not likely to be a reality for a couple of years, even considering the changes that remote working has presented. There is definitely going to be a bigger shift to applications which can empower our employees, particularly those who already have mobile devices. We’ve seen how the digital shift – even a rudimentary application, such as accessing payslips – has been revolutionary and just about everyone across the demographic, regularly download apps. So, the scene is set for the future way of working, it just requires grasping the technology nettle and modifying operations in line.
Doug Tabor: As a tech company, as you would expect, technology is a dominant entity, but it’s going to be mostly software-driven. I think one of the things that we have been increasingly challenged with over the pandemic is more around the environments that people are in, even more so than the tools that they need. Things like making sure people have appropriate desks and chairs and all of the issues surrounding wellbeing and a general health perspective. For us, it’s not about a new piece of technology that’s going to replace a conventional computer, because tech is second nature. So whilst tech is of course important, if businesses become fixated with digital platforms over wellbeing, that could be a distraction that has consequences. Essentially, it’s about supporting people to operate under different circumstances. For example, we have sales teams that will be doing presentations and so we have implemented webcams that will focus on them as they stand up and move around during a team or client presentation and enables them to be a bit more dynamic, using digital tools that are more impressive than the traditional flip charts. So we have been thinking about the changes in the way we work in a more humancentric way and worrying less about what the next technology might be. A mindset around, how can we use technology to enable the things that we were already doing, is the key. Leaping at the next technology is more a kneejerk reaction, because businesses are worried about falling to the back of the curve.
Nicole Ward: I do agree with that sentiment insomuch as, I don’t think it’s just about the technology, it’s more about the employer psychology that needs to change, in order to try to marry up with the technology. It’s more about giving greater empowerment and making the employee confident and competent in using that technology to enjoy, say for example, the EVP on offer. For instance, learning & development is only as effective as the people who use it and the absolute reality is, we simply do not need to teach in a classroom anymore. As has already been visited today, people can access all of this on their own devices and they can go at their own pace, in their own time. But still the challenge remains, how do we engage with them in order to make this a self-motivated and sustainable reality? For me, the here and now is about agility in all aspects of work and particularly surrounding transferrable skills. The question is, in the eye of the storms that we have had to contend with these past few years, how many organisations have even assessed what the value of transferable skills, let alone communicating the importance to employees? We have often heard that, many job roles now will not be relevant in a few years – that may be a subject for another debate some other time – but it points towards action that needs to be taken now, as change continues to re-shape not only the employee/employer relationship, but the entirety of work as we know it.
Donovan Chapman: Agreed, this is a time for action, to capitalise on what is really a great opportunity, as opposed to something that is feared. I also agree that the human in human resources has to come first and in doing this, support the autonomy and confidence that we have been talking about today, in order for our people to drive the changes. But I would advocate that there is no destination in technology it’s a continuous and infinite journey that needs to be invested in. But it’s people that will be applying the new tech to the job and so the two must be aligned and that is fundamental to engagement and attrition. Because better engagement leads to better involvement and the sense of unity and belonging when we are apart, which is a reality now.
Nathan Miller: There is absolutely no doubt that the now and future motivation of technology is that of driver of change. But it cannot be the dictator of that change, against human beings’ wishes and capability. People will continue to be the most important element of any business and that means engaging and exciting the disparate and deskless workforce is a fundamental priority. Our job as professionals in HR – whether that is in wellbeing or software development – is, as has been said constantly in todays discussion is to keep listening, adapt and take action and never to assume a status quo. For now and in the future, those organisations that can evolve and adapt, will be the companies that the world’s deskless talent will gravitate towards. We just need to make sure that our technology supports the needs of that worker – in what is really quite a simple process, whether in an HQ or scattered in a myriad of locations. One thing is for certain, the deskless workforce is irrefutably the direction of travel.
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