Business owners want staff back in the office, but why would workers show up?
Working practices, and the expectations of employees, are shifting in the US and UK. Jon Williams, founder of the Liberty Guild, argues that these are changes for good – and changes that will last.
Typically in the UK, we end up lagging a little behind the US. In a business sense but also in a wider cultural sense. Take our prime minister – our own oddly calamitous, but equally dangerous, version of Trump who we are yet to rid ourselves of. A slight political lag.
After a recent trip to New York, however, where I was doing some fishing in the talent pool and talking to some clients, it became obvious that one area where the UK and our American cousins are very much in the same boat at the same time is in finding and retaining staff – both on the agency and on the client-side.
During Covid, vast swathes of talent were furloughed, put on a salary sacrifice or made redundant by agencies, or became so disillusioned that they left of their own accord to do better and more interesting things with better, more interesting companies.
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Also, a lot of talent decided to leave the cities and go where it was safer. Or greener. Or sandier. Or lakier. Or hotter. Or colder. Or much hotter. Or much colder. Life has so much more to offer once you get outside the city limits and discover what lies beyond your bubble. Both countries are big and beautiful once you shake off the shackles of the skyscrapers, subways and Sea Containers House.
Here’s a thing. When I was in New York, I had three meetings with New York-based businesses from my hotel room on Zoom because no one was back in the city – let alone the office. Crazy. And you could feel this in the city itself. New York just felt less… New York. There was still the echo of that big, loud, brash and sometimes scary city. But it just felt a little more subdued. A little more, well, European.
It’s been called The Great Resignation, but perhaps it should be called The Great Recalibration – leaving (or being forced to leave) a job to then go and readdress your earnings and expectations to match a lifestyle that is simpler and ultimately more personally fulfilling. One that you didn’t realize you craved until you were forced to reassess life itself. It’s time to measure success differently, to rebalance things. Why wouldn’t people love that?
But now agencies and businesses have decided they want the diaspora back. Even the mighty Google claims you can’t work from anywhere any more. The Great Recall. And yet Airbnb says you can really work from anywhere. I wonder who’s going to get ‘the talent’? Who will get the more entrepreneurial tech stars? Who will benefit out of that strategy? It’s not complicated, is it?
But Boris wants you back because he thinks you lose productivity and eat too much cheese at home. Rees-Mogg wants the whole civil service back at their desks because... well, it worked for the Victorians in the workhouse, didn’t it? And Rishi wants you back for businesses, because there is an entire economy that exists around office life. They want everyone back at a desk as quickly as possible and it’s more than just the transportation infrastructure that needs the custom. It’s so all those businesses that city workers need to nullify the pain of their commutable existence (pubs, restaurants, sandwiches, coke dealers) can also get back to work. But in all of that, no one is thinking of the talent. And the talent doesn’t want to come back. On any side of the pond.
And in both London and New York, the groundswell of opinion in the creative and strategic community is the same. After two years of seeing the family, commuting from the bedroom to the dining room and rediscovering who you actually are, they don’t want to be dragged back to the office and given free pizza and a few free drinks in return for working long hours, working every weekend and failing to offer proper career planning, staff evaluation or pay rises. The commute, man….
That talent vacuum is noticed by the clients as well. Every client I spoke to was super aware of The Great Resignation and was concerned about what that would mean for the quality of thinking coming from their agencies. Many of them thought they could do better themselves. Maybe that’s why there wasn’t a single client I spoke to who didn’t have, or have plans to build, an in-house operation. Everyone is looking at how they ‘build in’. Covid has driven the entire world online and made it more immediate while at the same time forcing every business to re-evaluate its internal systems and processes. One thing is bound to lead to another.
The battle for talent is coming. For many, it’s here already. It’s biting harder in the US and will, in turn, bite harder here. And now agencies, clients and consultants are going for the same people. Much of the talent our business lost during Covid will be lost to us forever. Which makes it even more important for us as an industry to learn how to make ourselves look interesting to those who remain. Distributed, liberated and hard to find. They are out there. And you need them.
Jon Williams is founder of the Liberty Guild.