Times They Are A Changin'

19 March 2020

By Nicholas Coleridge-Watts

Times They Are A Changin'

Necessity is a kinder word for survival, and as such it is the primary trigger for change. History is strewn with examples of change brought about by circumstances nobody chose, but were forced to adapt to and, during that adaptation, created a new status quo on the ruins of the old. Sadly, war often produces such phenomena in abundance. How could colourful Victorian uniforms survive the creation of the machine gun? They couldn’t, and soldiers have dressed like a pile of soggy leaves ever since.

More directly relevant to today is the role of women in the Great War. It would’ve been hard to deny them the right to vote or work when the entire war effort would have collapsed without them. Sadly, those first steps still have a long way to go before reaching their final destination, but that doesn’t detract from what they represent; a change brought about by necessity which simultaneously altered the society it was intended to preserve. There was no going back, because there was no justification for going back. With the current pandemic I wonder if we’re on the cusp of something similar…

Since I began my career in recruitment there has been increasing interest on the part of candidates in soft benefits, such as flexitime or the option to work from home. Whilst for some time many revenue-generators have enjoyed the option, and by extension the infrastructure, to log in from their front room, their support team often hasn’t. For a few firms this is doubtless because of the last remaining vestiges of the them-and-us culture, however such rigidly defined hierarchies have been falling into abeyance since the recession. Indeed, most clients sympathise with the desire to work from home in theory, however, can’t find a way to overcome the logistical hurdles in practice, of which there are many.

To start with there are the mechanics of remote working when ancillary duties include screening calls, knocking on doors, accessing hard copy files and various other tasks for which being present is essential. By extension there’s the problem of the people left in the office having to pick up any slack which might arise from not being physically present to perform such.

Then there’s the concern that over whether such permissions will prove a steppingstone to more impractical requests, or if a queue of EAs will form outside HR wanting the same treatment as the one person who has been allowed to dial in for a specific reason.

Finally, there’s the unfortunate truth that for every worker out there who views any benefit as an incentive to do their best, there’s another who takes their perks for granted, which further bolsters the counter arguments for flexibility. After all, if an HR department struggles with an employee’s performance issues when they’re in the office and in plain sight, that problem only multiplies when they’re several miles away…

Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on your view, times have overtaken such reservations. With clients moving en masse to total lockdown, they have proven that remote working for support staff is both possible and can be facilitated in a short space of time. The IT can be arranged, the software can be adapted. Whether support staff have realised what an historic opportunity this represents will depend on the individual, and doubtless concern at the situation itself is more than enough to eclipse that for the time being. But the fact is that now is the time to demonstrate that they can be just as efficient from their own homes as they are in the office. If, whenever this comes to an end, the hiring managers and revenue generators feel that disruption was minimal, and that the support they received was excellent despite being remote, then how can they revert to a model which doesn’t allow such flexibility in the future? The answer is they can’t. And would the progressive ones even want to?

The same has been demonstrated for temps. Where there’s a need, there’s a way, and temps in long-term assignments who are deemed essential have found themselves issued with laptops and retained in their jobs, whilst holiday and sickness covers have tended to be let go. This too could prove to be a template for the future, with the decision to onboard a temp no longer involving the same logistical worries as it once did. Who knows, it’s early doors. But the transformation is there.

It’s a shame that innovation isn’t driven purely by the decision to reform, and that humans often find themselves at their inventive best when their backs are against the wall. But in these times, which may be getting even the cheeriest of us down, it may provide some little comfort to think about what good could come of it all.

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