Government urged to ‘Unlock the Flexibility in Every Job’

With the government again encouraging people to work from home as the Omicron variant continues to spread across the UK, many will be thinking about the battles they’ve had with their employers in the past to enjoy some form of flexible working.

Some will have only been offered flexibility after they’ve been in their job for a particular length of time, and some will have been urged to go back to the office post lockdown despite being happier and more productive working from home.

But as the pandemic continues and more and more employees feel able to demonstrate they can work effectively away from the office, the government is under pressure to formalise this working option.

The TUC has called on the government to place a new duty on employers to include flexible working options, such as remote working and flexi-time, in all job adverts. Any new recruit could then take up these options from their first day, unless their employer can justify why this isn’t possible.

If this does happen, the TUC believes employees should then have a right to appeal, and be able to ask for flexible working arrangements as many times as they wish within a year.

The TUC’s call to ministers came after a survey it commissioned found that 78% of HR managers believe it would be easy to include home or remote working in job ads, or that they do it already.

Figures also showed that 70% of HR managers have already put significant flexible working arrangements in place, or believe it’s viable for their business.

But despite this high level of support for flexible working options, only a quarter of jobs currently being advertised have them listed.

Furthermore, only one in four HR managers surveyed by YouGov for the TUC said they wouldn’t offer significant flexibility to their staff following the pandemic.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, acknowledged that the legal right to request flexibility has been in place for about 20 years, but believes the current system is “broken”, and that government action is needed to deliver “practical changes for workers”.

“During the pandemic, many people were able to work flexibly or from home for the first time,” she commented.

“Staff and bosses both saw the benefits this flexibility can bring, but the current system is broken. A right to ask for flexible working is no right at all – especially when bosses can turn down requests with impunity.”

Ms O’Grady argued that attitudes to different types of flexible working have changed significantly throughout the pandemic, and ministers should “take advantage of this”.

She added that offering genuine flexibility to workers could help close the gender pay gap, keep mums in work, help disabled workers and carers stay in employment and enable dads to spend more time with their kids.

Whether the changes in our working patterns that have been driven by Covid will lead to lasting changes in the law remain to be seen.

But the pressure on policymakers and employers to acknowledge the changes that have happened in people’s lives over the last two years, and move forwards rather than backwards, will continue to grow.

Offering flexible working options could be crucial if businesses want to be seen as progressive organisations that care for their employees. And after almost two years of Covid-19, when many people have worked successfully from home, and even been promoted or started new jobs remotely, it could be very hard for many businesses to make the case that flexible working doesn’t work for them.

Do We All Want To Give Up Work For A Year?

We don’t want to sit behind screens anymore. According to a recent BBC article, ever-increasing numbers of us have reassessed our work and our lives post pandemic, and we want to work outside. 

Quoted in the article David Rochefort, a former IT worker, said the pandemic made him want to do something ‘astronomically different.’ “My body was restless from sitting all day,” he said. “I became stressed, I’d go to bed at 2 am and not want to get up in the morning.” 

Confined to home during the pandemic he realised he wanted to work outdoors. He resigned from his job and started working as a volunteer at a local wetland wildlife reserve. Ultimately he was offered a permanent job there and, while it has meant a substantial pay cut, he says he “has never felt happier.” 

That story could be told a thousand times over, both here and in the United  States, where a growing number of people are giving up their jobs based on cryptocurrency gains. 

Most people reading this will have heard of Bitcoin, the crypto (or virtual) currency. While price movements in Bitcoin are highly volatile, it has undeniably enjoyed a very good run over the last two years. In the US, 4% of people claim to have quit their job thanks to cryptocurrency gains, while 7% of people say they know someone who has. 

Even allowing for some overinflated egos (does anyone ever say they lost money?) this will still add up to a substantial number of people. But what is interesting in the US is that people don’t claim to have ‘quit their job’ for good: rather to have made enough money to take some time off work, confident that with the current shortage of labour they will be able to find another job when they are ready to return to work. Interestingly this could mean that labour shortages may not be due to a fear of Covid (as some policymakers suggest) but to cryptocurrency gains giving lower paid workers a new-found freedom. 

This may well chime with the number of companies looking at giving employees unlimited holidays and career breaks – a recognition that people are now looking for very different things from their jobs and that the financial package on offer may no longer be the most important part. 

…And you do wonder if a really progressive and forward-thinking employer might conclude that the secret to recruiting and retaining the best talent isn’t necessarily the company gym or share options – but may be the company allotment, or the company wildlife reserve…

Will the Pandemic mean the end of Mentoring?

Mentor. We’ve all heard the word – but who was he? In Greek mythology Mentor was a close friend of Odysseus. While Odysseus was away fighting the Trojan War he placed his son Telemachus in the care of Mentor. When the goddess Athena visited Telemachus to give him advice, she took the form of Mentor. 

Since then, of course, ‘mentor’ has become a widely used term in English and other languages, signifying an older, experienced person who imparts wisdom and advice to a younger and less experienced colleague, with the modern usage of the term going back to the 17th and 18th Centuries. 

Virtually everyone who has been in business for any length of time has received mentoring in their early days – and gone on to later act as a mentor to someone younger. But since the pandemic, with so many working from home, it’s not so easy to say ‘have you got a minute, boss? I need to pick your brains…’ 

Will WFH spell the end of mentoring in British industry? And will we all be worse off as a result? 

There’s no question that WFH will mean the next generation will not have the same easy and immediate access to expertise and experience that older workers had. So unless the knowledge is going to be lost to industry, it is vital that HR departments and senior managers find ways to teach and connect with their younger colleagues – even when they aren’t in the same room. Not only do they need to pass knowledge on for the benefit of the company or organisation, the Millennials and Generation Z cohort, now making up the majority of the workforce, consistently identify ‘personal and career development’ as one of the key things they want from an employer. 

The important thing for both mentor and mentees to accept is that while a mentoring relationship can still work remotely, it is going to be different. The relationship is going to be more formal and calls will need to be scheduled – but it can (and does) still work. Both sides need to know what they want from the mentoring relationship – and, just like in the old days, it will need to suit the personalities of the people involved. Some younger members of staff will want to be free to make their own mistakes, others will want more regular supervision. Trust will be crucial, and results will gradually build. 

The pandemic will change many things about the world of work, but we doubt that it will change the basics of mentoring – the need to learn from older colleagues and the rewards those mentors get from passing that knowledge on. The way it’s delivered may well change with technology and post-pandemic working patterns – and who knows, if the much-touted metaverse takes over the world of work we might all have virtual mentors in the future…

Will you do your weekly shop at Amazon?

Traditionally the UK food market was dominated by the ‘big four’ – Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrisons. They were other players – such as Co-Op, Waitrose and smaller, regional supermarket chains – but by and large the ‘big four’ were unchallenged.

Then the discounters, Aldi and Lidl, arrived, inexorably eating into the market share of the suddenly not-so-big four. Aldi and Lidl quickly topped the rankings for ‘most popular British brands’, comfortably beating ‘traditional’ names like Marks and Spencer and John Lewis. 

But now it appears that they are all under threat from a new entrant to the market – one we have all heard of, and that’s already had a huge impact on British shopping habits. 

Amazon has announced detailed plans to enter the UK supermarket sector. Two hundred and sixty supermarkets owned and run by Amazon are to be opened before the end of 2024, as it meets retailers like Tesco and Sainsbury’s head-on. Amazon has already poached one of Tesco’s former top executives to run its physical stores, all of which will apparently be ‘cashierless’. 

Amazon already has six ‘Fresh’ grocery stores in the UK, offering customers a different way of shopping. Customers scan a code as they enter the shop – and then simply put items in their bags. Cameras and sensors detect what they have picked up off the shelves – and the customers then just walk out with their goods. The bill follows, sent directly to their Amazon accounts. 

Retail analysts have described Amazon’s move as ‘typically bold and aggressive’. Research recently quoted in City AM suggested that Amazon is on course to overtake Tesco as the UK’s largest retailer within the next four years, with sales expected to reach more than £77bn by 2025. Last year Amazon’s sales were £36.3bn – well below Tesco at £64bn. Analysts are expecting 3.5% annual sales growth from Tesco, taking their sales to £76.1bn – not enough to stay ahead of Amazon. Sainsbury’s is expected to hang on to third place, with sales projected to grow by 4.5% and reach £42.2bn by 2025. 

You will no doubt have your own thoughts on whether this move from Amazon is a good thing or a bad thing. Is the company responsible for the decline of our high streets? Or is this the fault of business rates? Does the blame lie more directly with the retailers? As usual the real answer is a combination of factors: what is undeniable is that Amazon’s entry into the supermarket sector – combined with Lidl’s plans to ramp up UK store openings – will lead to big changes in the way we shop and the retail landscape. 

One thing is certain. Customers will find the idea of packing items directly into their bags and then simply walking out of the store very attractive. After all, we’re coming up to Christmas: we all know the struggle to keep up that festive feeling when standing in an impossibly long queue at the checkout…

Who was the Richest Person in History?

According to the latest Forbes Rich List, the richest person in the world is Jeff Bezos, founder and, until recently, CEO of Amazon. Forbes estimates Jeff Bezos’ wealth at $177bn (£133bn), which puts him ahead of those other well-known billionaires, Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. 

These days it is easy to keep score of the billionaires’ wealth – and the title of ‘Richest Person in the World’ does occasionally change hands as the share prices of Amazon, Tesla, Microsoft and Facebook fluctuate. 

But how do today’s billionaires compare to the richest people in history? We have all heard the saying ‘as rich as Croesus,’ the king of Lydia from 585 to 546 BC: was he the richest person who ever lived? Or do we need to look further afield? 

It is, of course, difficult to compare. Do you put absolute rulers in your ‘all-time rich list’? Joseph Stalin, for example, had complete control of the Soviet Union, a country with (at the time) almost 10% of the world’s GDP. What about Genghis Khan who, as absolute ruler of the Mongol Empire, ‘owned’ land stretching from Mongolia and China through Asia and almost into Europe? 

One name often mentioned in this vein – and frequently awarded the ‘richest of all time’ title is Mansa Musa, the king of Timbuktu, who lived from 1280 to 1337 and whose West African empire was almost certainly the biggest producer of gold at a time when gold was in especially high demand. 

His pilgrimage to Mecca apparently caused a currency crisis in Egypt, with tales of dozens of camels each carrying hundreds of pounds of gold. Contemporary commentators struggled to describe Mansa Musa’s immense wealth, with one picture apparently showing him on a golden throne, holding a sceptre of gold in one hand, a golden cup in the other and wearing a golden crown. 

If we are looking for more recent wealth that we can measure in today’s terms, then perhaps the accolade should go to Andrew Carnegie (1835 to 1919). The Scottish immigrant sold his company, US Steel, to J P Morgan for $480m in 1901. That sum equated to 2.1% of US GDP at the time, meaning that in today’s terms Carnegie would be worth between $370bn to $400bn (£277bn to £300bn). That figure puts him ahead of John D Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil company controlled 90% of US oil production by 1880 and gives Carnegie a fortune worth more than twice that of Jeff Bezos. 

It will be interesting to revisit the ‘all-time rich list’ in 10 years’ time. Some analysts are suggesting that Jeff Bezos could become the world’s first trillionaire. There will certainly be names on the list that none of us have heard of today. And no-one would be surprised to see Chinese billionaires far higher on the list than they currently are. For now though, today’s billionaires have some way to go to catch up with Andrew Carnegie, and Mansa Musa’s camel train…

What Happens in an Internet Minute?

Christmas… The time of year for families. For reflecting on the year that’s ending. For looking forward to a New Year. 

…And, of course – like every other time of year – for checking your phone. Not just being with the family, but taking photos of them all. Sharing the photos. Sending texts and WhatsApp messages. Capturing the baby’s first steps on TikTok… 

We’ll all be using our phones this Christmas and we’ll all be online. So we thought we’d take a look at just what happens in one minute on the internet. The pandemic meant that most people increased the time they spent online – and the numbers are, frankly, astonishing…

95m photos and videos are shared on Instagram every day. That works out to 65,972 per minute with the average user spending 30 minutes per day on Insta.

That’s slightly less than Facebook, where users average 34 minutes per day. In a single Facebook minute, there are 510,000 comments posted, 293,000 statuses updated and 240,000 photos uploaded. 

Twitter has 353m active users, who send 350,000 tweets every minute. Statistics for 2020 show that tweets about cooking increased more than 300% as we all gained weight during lockdown…

Snapchat is one of the preferred apps for Millennials and Generation Z, with marketing experts suggesting it can reach 90% of 13 to 24-year-olds. The platform has 265m active daily users, creating 3bn snaps every day. That scarcely believable number works out to over 2m snaps per minute. 

What about TikTok? The most downloaded app of 2020 has 1bn videos seen every day – around 700,000 per minute. 

A major feature of lockdown was, of course, the time many people spent binge-watching on Netflix. There is 140m hours of content consumed every day on Netflix – so in our internet minute there is very nearly 100,000 hours of content watched.  

The numbers keep on coming: more than one billion hours of YouTube videos are watched every day – so 700,000 hours every minute. We send 2m texts every minute. And, inevitably, we shop. Nearly $5,000 is spent on Amazon every second – working out to very nearly $300,000 (£225,000) every minute. 

It is easy to dismiss these statistics as mere numbers. Or to mutter that people have too much time on their hands. But for our clients running businesses there is an important message. People spend a lot of time on apps like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok and a lot of that time is spent discussing purchases. Younger TikTok users spend up to 80 minutes a day on the app and 20% of Millennials open apps at least 50 times per day. 

So as owners and directors of SMEs take pictures of their families this Christmas, it might make sense to add a New Year’s resolution as well – to look at some social media apps you may not have previously considered. 

Seven in Ten of us Want a Career Change: Where does that leave Employers?

There is no doubt at all that the pandemic, and the measures taken to counteract it, has impacted people’s mental health. That is true not just in the UK but around the world – and with the threat of yet another wave this winter, the situation could well get worse before it gets better.

Unsurprisingly, many people used lockdown to re-evaluate what they wanted from their life and their work. Last summer, the Independent reported that half the workforce in the UK was considering a change of job – with the medical profession, teaching and landscape gardening top of the wish list. The general feeling was that ‘life was too short’ to be doing a job people didn’t like. 

It would be easy to dismiss that as an initial reaction to the pandemic and lockdown. By early 2021, however, even more people were looking to change jobs, with the website reporting that more than 70% of people wanted a change of direction. Flexible working, the option of being able to work from home and working for a company that ‘shared my values’ were all high on the list of boxes to be ticked. 

So far, so understandable – but if we look at the situation from an employer’s point of view it is very worrying. ‘The war for talent’ has almost become a cliché among HR professionals and employers are going further and further to recruit and retain the best people. 

One UK company – London stockbroker Finncapp – is set to offer the ultimate employee perk from next year, in a bid to counter staff burnout. The company will offer unlimited holiday, with staff having to take a minimum of four weeks leave, plus ‘two or three days’ every quarter. Unlimited paid leave has to date largely been the preserve of US tech companies, but it is gradually starting to appear in the UK. 

One of the early pioneers of the practice was Netflix (named one of the world’s best employers by Forbes) with staff allowed to take as much holiday as they want. Days off are not tracked: it is purely down to individual employees. 

In theory the practice should work well – but in practice many firms have found that staff actually took less time off. As Rishi Sunak recently commented, the people who tend to get promoted are the ones that are in the office. 

It is undeniable that the pandemic has brought changes in working practices that are not going to go away. Young people entering the workforce want very different things to their parents’ generation. The problems for employers will persist – but so will problems for employees. We are clearly going to see more people changing jobs in the future. They will work for a variety of different employers and may well have career gaps. That is going to make financial planning around areas such as pensions and mortgages more important than ever. 

Remember that we are always here to answer your questions: whether that is about your own career and financial planning – or the future careers of your children.

Semiconductor Shortage Hits Car Production

Many industries have been feeling the pressure as a result of global supply shortages of semiconductors, such as gaming and consumer electronics.

But a new report from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) shows that car manufacturing in the UK is also taking a big hit, which could spell bad news for the industry over the coming months, as the chip shortage shows no sign of abating.

According to the SMMT, car manufacturing output in the UK fell by more than 41% in October 2021, with just 64,726 units produced. That was the fourth consecutive month in which output dropped, and was the weakest October performance since 1956.

The SMMT has cited the global semiconductor shortage as a key factor behind this decline, with Chief Executive Mike Hawes describing the situation as “extremely worrying”.

He stated that while the UK’s automotive industry is resilient, Covid-19 is “resurgent” across many of its key markets, while global supply chains are “stretched and even breaking”.

This, he said, means the immediate challenges in keeping the car manufacturing industry operational are “immense”.

Mr Hawes has therefore urged the government to take action to support the sector, such as working to address high energy costs and supporting employment and training. He also called on ministers to introduce measures to boost the sector’s competitiveness in line with global rivals, and help businesses whose cashflow is currently under pressure.

This is far from the first warning from a prominent organisation of the impact of the global semiconductor shortage.

Brandon Kulik, head of Deloitte’s semiconductor industry practice, recently predicted that the chip shortages currently being experienced worldwide could last for some time.

Speaking to Ars, he said the supply issues are “going to continue indefinitely”, adding that this probably meant years rather than months or quarters.

Simon Segars, chief executive of chip design firm Arm, has also spoken of the scale of the problem, telling the Web Summit event earlier this month that the shortage is the “most extreme” he has ever seen, with the wait for chips taking up to 60 weeks.

As a result, he believes many people who have bought devices for Christmas “might be disappointed”.

Mr Segars stated that many factors are contributing to the shortage, including a sudden increase in demand for cars, the rollout of 5G and geopolitical tensions between western and Asian nations.

The sheer scale, number and complexity of these issues suggests that the shortage of semiconductors could be with us for some time yet, and that businesses delivering products such as cars, gaming consoles and mobile phones could struggle to fulfil many of their orders.

Business Leaders and Staff Split on post-Pandemic Challenges

The pandemic has shifted the dial considerably in terms of what many people want and expect from their employer.

For many, being forced to work from home has been a game-changer, and lots of people have discovered they really like the better work-life balance it has given them.

The pandemic has also placed a renewed focus on health and safety for those who continue to go to the office or simply can’t work from home, as they want and expect their employer to take reasonable Covid precautions.

But a new study suggests that while the issue of keeping home-workers satisfied is high on the agenda for both bosses and members of staff, the same can’t be said for health and safety matters.

Research by Sapio for WorkNest HR found that senior leaders believe there are three key business challenges resulting from the pandemic. These are keeping staff happy (14.5%), increasing staff turnover (12.7%) and involving home-based members of staff (11.2%).

Employees agreed that involving home workers was important, with 13% saying this was a challenge for the future, while 12.5% cited keeping staff happy as a big issue.

But interestingly, 11.6% of workers cited protecting health and safety as one of the top three issues for businesses in a post-pandemic world.

It’s clear that as employers start pushing for members of staff to return to their premises, even on a hybrid rather than full-time basis, many members of staff will be seeking reassurances that their premises are as Covid-safe as possible. 

Yet the findings suggest that this depth of feeling isn’t something that many bosses are either aware of or doing anything about.

This could have a big impact when it comes to staff retention, as again, employers and employees are split on the issue of whether firms reacted to the pandemic well.

Some 64% of bosses said they believe staff have become more loyal because of how their company responded to the Covid outbreak. 

But only 45% of workers said they feel their firm has handled the pandemic well, and 23% feel less loyal because of their Covid response.

It’s good to see that many employers are thinking of homeworkers and aware of the importance of keeping them happy and involved at work.

However, some may be running the risk of not considering the needs of those who can’t work from home or are expected to go back to the office after 18 months of working remotely.

A company’s health and safety record, and its Covid policy in particular, could become a big issue that affects its reputation as an employer and its ability to attract and retain talent.

Can small businesses afford Net Zero?

Even if you live on a remote rock in the middle of the sea you’ll have heard of COP26 – the conference on climate change which was recently held in Glasgow. It ended not with a global commitment to reduce carbon emissions, but with what more sceptical observers have described as a ‘huge win for coal,’ as India and China forced a significant change in the final agreement.

Instead of a commitment to ‘phase out unabated coal power,’ COP26 ended with a commitment to ‘phase down’ the use of coal – a very significant difference. 

Nevertheless, the drive to net zero (balancing the greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere with those taken out of the atmosphere) will continue, with UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson having nailed his colours very firmly to the green mast. It does, though, pose some pertinent questions. Who will pay for the drive to net zero? Will the burden fall on small businesses? And is there any benefit to them in achieving net zero? 

According to the UK Government’s own figures the capital required to transition to net zero will be £650bn. Only 4% of this is being provided by the Government, meaning that the balance – the small matter of £624bn – will need to come from private sector finance and investment. According to reports, the amounts involved in the US – and the amount contributed by Government – are equally staggering. 

Clearly business will only invest these amounts if it sees them as a profitable use of company funds. Government will unquestionably demand that businesses show how they are going to achieve net zero, with the Treasury requiring big businesses to show (by 2023) how they will achieve their climate change targets. 

That’s fine if you’re a bank. If you’re HSBC and you’ve just made $5.4bn (£4.02bn) in the third quarter the cost of transitioning to net zero won’t make a significant impact on you. 

Supposing you’re Pete the Plumber? Presumably the Government will at some point demand to know how you’ll achieve net zero. But, as we all know, tradesmen need their vans. They need to travel to people’s house – and frequently disappear halfway through the morning for supplies. They won’t be able to do that on public transport. As they’re businesses recover from the pandemic they may very well not be able to afford an electric van. And they may see the benefits of transitioning to net zero as questionable at best. 

If we’re changing banks then we may take the bank’s ‘green audit’ into account. If we need a plumber at six in the morning well… We’ve always dealt with Pete, he’s never let us down and right there and then we don’t care if he’s got an electric van or not. 

As several commentators have pointed out, it is easy to see this coming apart very quickly. Without state subsidies Pete is going to pass the cost of his new electric van onto his customers. And if he does receive a subsidy to pay for his new van, the consumer will pay for it anyway in the shape of higher taxes. 

When you look at it in practical terms it is going to be very difficult for small businesses to justify the investment the Government is demanding – or to see the benefits of making that investment.