RETURN OR REMOTE – A RECRUITMENT PERSPECTIVE

Thoughts for a Thursday – July 2021

– Month end comment and insight on recruitment issues from John Cassidy, Co-Founder and President, TALTRAN Global –

Competing notions of the “workplace” have become keenly negotiated for employers, candidates and the recruiters trying to bring them together.  It has become the search and selection equivalent of a fifth dimension that can unbalance the delicate matching of skills, financial incentives, career progression, and cultural fit.  The pandemic has accelerated thinking on hybrid working and we are increasingly engaged in advising clients on what accommodations could or should be made to find top talent.

We have been staying close to the developing research around client and candidate thinking as well as digging into some longer-term studies about career consequences.  Technology has enabled flexibility and it is a long time since a pager* and finding the nearest payphone** were the only ways to stay in touch with urgent situations. But as businesses find their way out of a global crisis that has disrupted working norms and damaged confidence there is a lot to be said for rebuilding teams, reinforcing relationships and enjoying each other’s company.

There’s Something Happening Here

As a VP of finance in a global business and then founder of TALTRAN, my own experience always suggested that an office-based team is the ideal option.  At an early stage of my career, I was surrounded by experienced colleagues as I learnt the business and became part of the professional culture.  Opportunities to observe and learn were high and there were occasional career enhancing moments when I was last in the office just as the CEO arrived with a query or problem.

Working overseas during the pandemic due to travel restrictions and then moving our office to a different location has offered new perspectives.  I value the retention of proven talent over my subjective views on physical proximity and have found a viable solution for a colleague to continue occasional remote working.  We rarely sit in the same office as our clients and have managed to do business very effectively over the past year, so it is not a giant step to work remotely with colleagues I trust, respect and value.

A Scientific American opinion and analysis article has pointed to the tension if bosses are making decisions about office work simply because their identity and sense of self is bolstered by being in the office where they are surrounded by subordinates.  Leadership resilience has been tested by the pandemic and the temptation of getting back to normal shouldn’t prevent assessment of the operational effectiveness of more flexible models.  Even if workers can be obliged to go back to the office full time it is unlikely to result in a high-performance culture defined by personal commitment to the business or its success.

Battle Lines Being Drawn         

However, across the world it seems that  battle lines are hardening on all sides, with Employee Benefit News recently featuring research by Flexjobs saying 60% of workers would quit if forced to return to the office.  Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey in April suggested that 42% of those working remotely would look for alternatives if their company did not continue to offer it.  Some workers are even claiming that the return to work drive is a generational “boomer power play” which is about trust and values more than professional needs.

Some leaders are not impressed and have commented dismissively.  Goldman Sachs CEO David Solomon was reported as saying in February, “It’s an aberration that we are going to correct as quickly as possible.”  Last month, Morgan Stanley chief James Gorman set a Labor Day deadline for the bank’s New York workers to head back to the office otherwise he would, “be very disappointed”.  At JPMorgan Chase chief executive Jamie Dimon has claimed, “By September it will look just like it did before”.

At TALTRAN Global most of our clients see past this posturing, posing and provocation to ask more fundamental questions about leadership resilience, talent management and technological capability. We’ve recently partnered with a tech unicorn with teams scattered across the globe, the brief demanded we find candidates with the personal and technical skills to manage remotely as well as across different cultures. It was a challenging brief but a good reminder that high quality finance leaders already lead mobile lives, often across several time zones, where their focus should be on the fundamentals of performance and outcomes rather than whether they can talk with someone at the water cooler every day.

Our candidates expect the leadership of companies they might join to be visionary, decisive and direct about their ambitions for the workforce.  The best of them are quick to question the extent to which a public statement about returning to work is intended as robust encouragement or reflects a lack of subtlety and compassion.  Others have recognized and reflected on the altered reality of workforce expectations when, as an example, the aforementioned JPMorgan Chase are piloting various hybrid approaches rather than thinking one-size fits all.

Young People Speaking Their Minds

Over the past few months our experience has been that it is mainly early career candidates that are prioritising work from home over almost all other factors.  At first this seemed counter intuitive because they tend to have the least responsibility and the best chance of achieving a work-life balance.  However, we sometimes find that their relative lack of time in the office means that they can underestimate the learning and relationship building that happens in daily face-to-face interactions.

Discussions with candidates favoring remote options consider the possible consequences for their career development if they insist upon working remotely for a company that is not attuned to this way of managing and operating.  Research published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2015 suggested that despite higher productivity, improved work experience and lower attrition home workers in their study had lower chances of promotion.  A long term study from the UK is even more stark in reflecting that those who exclusively worked from home were, “….on average paid less, less likely to get a bonus, less likely to get promoted, and less likely to receive training, even after controlling for a range of other factors.”

We respect the right of candidates to make life choices but are equally interested in ensuring they have thriving careers and make a long-term difference to the company they join.  Businesses are becoming more flexible and creative in recognizing these issues but, the reality is that there may be a systemic downside to being exclusively remote.  The current buzzword “hybrid”, where office and home working are combined, sounds like a good compromise but has been called by McKinsey “the next great experiment” and needs full commitment on all sides.

Nobody’s Right If Everybody’s Wrong***

Our conversations with clients suggest it is often people who might be considered individual contributors, such as programmers, that are giving the biggest push back about returning to the office.  Providing a fair assessment of how an individual role is treated, particularly when it operates in a team context or influences a combined output, can be time consuming and complex.  But the criteria need to be transparent because other individuals or whole departments can feel marginalized or treated unfairly if a work from home decision is not easily understood and communicated effectively.

All of this is before considering the advances in technology that have made remote working and being in touch with the office while travelling increasingly easy.  As connectivity increases, and even the prospect of virtual reality meetings becomes more real, there is every reason to believe that proxies for being physically in the same space will make distance less of a barrier.  It brings with it a reasonable number of other considerations, of which cyber security is high on the list, but that is the price any forward-thinking company pays for success.

It’s also worth saying that nobody should be thinking that remote and hybrid have a monopoly on desirability because research published in the Harvard Business Review in May 2021 showed that while 32% would like to work from home five days a week there were 21% who never wanted to work from home.  The author, Nicholas Bloom, William Eberle Professor of Economics at Stanford University, makes the further point that underlying these numbers are important issues related to managing a diverse, equitable and inclusive workforce.

The good news is that there is plenty of help available to leaders who want to know more about the options and the challenges.  One article that caught my eye summarized the recent book “Leading at a Distance” which claims that “virtual leadership” will become an increasingly vital skill.  It’s certainly something that is on our list as we source and recruit the finance leaders of the future.

Notes

*Inventor, Al Gross, patented the first telephone pager in 1949.  The first successful consumer pager was probably Motorola’s Pageboy 1 introduced in 1964. By the early 1990s there were over 60 million pagers in use but the number has dwindled to around 2m today. Thanks to ThoughtCo for the brief history.

** The first public, coin-operated phone booth in the US is reputed to date from 1889 and was located in a Connecticut bank. Various sources suggest that the peak number of payphones in the United States was 2.6 million in 1995 or 2.2 million in 2000.  The Federal Communications Commission indicated that in 2018 there were 100,000 with around 20% situated in New York.

***Congratulations to sharp-eyed readers who saw the connecting lyrical theme in our sub-headings.  Composer Stephen Stills captured the counterculture clashes of 1966 in Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound)” which celebrates its 55th anniversary this year.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

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