Leaders worried economy will reverse pandemic-induced workplace changes, survey finds

Experts raise concerns that pressured businesses will cut back on vital aspects of the HR budget next year

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UK leaders have raised concerns that the current economic climate will force companies to “wind back” progress in the workplace sparked by the pandemic, a survey has shown. 

The research, conducted by LinkedIn, found that the main areas of working life that leaders raised concerns about were flexible work (75 per cent), skills development (76 per cent) and employee wellbeing (83 per cent). 

The study of 272 C-level executives from large organisations across the UK revealed that employee needs are not aligning with what businesses are currently offering. In September 2020, just 12 per cent of jobs in the UK were advertised as remote, yet these received 20 per cent of overall applications. 

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Jane Middleton, co-founder of Trapeze HR, said the economy was undoubtedly having an impact on both businesses and HR. “A prolonged period of economic uncertainty for business is likely to have the greatest detriment to investment in the skills and talent development space and will be the first part of the 2023 HR budget to be slashed,” she warned. 

Middleton added the other areas of working life that might be impacted by recession and economic downturn were workplace flexibility and employee wellbeing budgets, which she said were “two critical parts of the psychological contract workers now have with their employers that are now so fiercely cherished and protected”. 

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Rachel Suff, senior employee relations adviser at the CIPD, said it would be “short sighted” for companies to lessen their focus on employee health and wellbeing, skills development and flexible working. “Now more than ever, employees and job applicants need to know their employer cares about their wellbeing, and it will affect organisations’ ability to attract and retain valuable talent if they don’t prioritise it,” said Suff, adding that, aside from their duty of care, “preventing and mitigating the main health risks to people will pay dividends to employers”, in terms of enhanced employee engagement and performance and preventing burnout and sickness.

The survey also found that leaders were most concerned about employee engagement, motivation and productivity over the next six months, as half (49 per cent) said the cost of living was playing on employees' minds, while a third (33 per cent) thought their workforce were worried about being laid off.  

Eleanor Walker, senior consultant at Atkinson HR Consulting, said organisations considering cutting their offerings down to offset the cost of living crisis should crunch the numbers.

“Organisations should use evidence and data to consider what approaches to flexibility and skills development work for their bottom line and strategic people goals – and those initiatives that are shown to have positive impacts on engagement and productivity should become the long-term commitments that help organisations navigate the current climate, and whatever comes next,” said Walker.

Professor David Collings, DCU Business School at Dublin City University, said one of the advantages of the pandemic from a HR perspective was that it showcased the value that effective HR can add to business continuity and success, but he warned that the economy could halt progress. 

“I do worry a little that as pressure builds on margins and financial performance that some firms will be tempted to make short-term decisions for financial reasons and undo the positive momentum,” he said, adding that he would be particularly concerned around the reversal of progress on employee wellbeing and skills development, as the benefits of a healthy workforce “cannot be underestimated”.