Life after furlough: talent and the ExCo in 2021 and beyond

In a lot of ways, November has been a month of progress and possibility. Although the UK is very much still in the grips of COVID-19, the development of a potential vaccine, and the extension of Rishi Sunak’s furlough scheme has begun to shine a light down what has been for many (and still is) a very long, dark and uncertain tunnel.

On 5th November 2020, the country entered into its second nationwide lockdown, and once again, all ‘non-essential’ businesses such as shops, bars, pubs and restaurants were forced to close.

Having had little time to recover from the first round of Coronavirus restrictions, many organisations are facing a very difficult future, and for business leaders and employees alike, the next few months will be make or break.

At the start of November, before lockdown 2.0 was announced, Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed that the government’s employment support initiative – the CJRS – was to be extended until March 2021, and in many ways, the nation seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

However, a number of researchers have predicted that the rate of unemployment in the UK will continue to rise. This year, the country has been hit by the biggest drop in vacancies since records began, and in spite of government support initiatives, it seems that the trouble isn’t over yet.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the UK’s economy has shrunk by an alarming 20%, and although things are beginning to look up, full restoration will no doubt take years rather than months.

A number of ExCo members have also pointed out the level of confusion that has been caused by Lockdowns 1 and 2. Although the extension of furlough comes as a great relief to many, there still appears to be a lot of ‘grey areas’ and concerns that have not yet been addressed.

For senior level execs such as Musab Heysmi, director and partner at law firm LeyLeyton, more details are still needed if the business world and the economy are to ever make a full recovery. For Heysmi and thousands of other business leaders like him, furlough has acted as a stopgap, offering a much needed life raft for all those companies that would have otherwise been forced to make staffing cuts, but when it comes to forward-planning, not enough is being done.

It goes without saying that ‘life after furlough’ is going to look very different than before. But what this means in practice will vary greatly from industry to industry, business to business, and department to department. As CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese points out, the CJRS has prevented thousands of jobs from being lost unnecessarily in the short term, but from now on, long-term thinking must be prioritised.

In this sense, when planning for the future, and attempting to predict the unpredictable, the key, for HRDs, and members of the ExCO alike, is to plan accordingly, and to adopt a responsive – rather than a reactive – attitude toward change. Since the start of the first lockdown, it’s become clear that even the largest and most profitable organisations have had to adapt, or risk an uphill struggle.

According to many HRDs, some degree of restructuring will be necessary, even within the most stable of organisations. However, as the more experienced talent professionals have pointed out, this doesn’t have to mean losing out. When it comes to fixing staffing gaps, of course, the ideal solution would usually be external recruitment drives, but in the current climate, that is simply not feasible. But it’s not all bad. As well as facilitating more job creation and greater skills diversity, COVID-19 has encouraged ExCo members and employees alike to be less goal-oriented, less ridgid, and more imaginative than ever before.

A large number of businesses have been forced to reassess strategies, reign in targets, and think about developing – and aiming for – new definitions of success. For some, this means downsizing, for others this means restructuring, and for many, this means calling upon existing employees and board members to tap into and utilise valuable transferable skills.

Making the most of the extended period of stability afforded by furlough, ExCo members ought to look ahead to 2021 and beyond by capitalising on, enhancing and amalgamating existing skill sets, utilising advancements in technology, and embracing the many and varied opportunities for collaborative working.

Within a boardroom context, the focus here should be on encouraging HRDs and ExCo members to think outside the box, particularly where talent, recruitment and resourcing are concerned. How this manifests in practice will look slightly different depending on the industry, but across the board, the key lies in flexibility – be this in the context of working environments, skill sets, or everything in between. Gone are the days of ‘buzzwords’ and competency tests. The post-lockdown workplace is all about thinking on your feet, managing expectations, and being able – and willing – to adapt.

In recent weeks, the Resolution Foundation think tank described the CJRS, and its predicted impact on the economy as a price worth paying to protect the businesses and incomes of our nation. For some ExCo members, the UK’s ever-increasing redundancy figures are an all too frank indication that the furlough extension was simply ‘too little, too late’, but in the eyes of the majority, the situation is not quite so bleak.

Wilbury Stratton predictions

Although the outcome of the CJRS, and the resultant impact on the economy won’t be revealed for many months (at least until the end of 2021), it is clear that without it, many businesses and employees alike would have struggled to survive. From a leadership perspective, the fight is by no means over; employees, board members and talent professionals alike all have challenges ahead. But for every curve ball COVID-19 has thrown, and every hurdle businesses have overcome, there have been many valuable lessons learned. As such, the hope is that as we emerge from lockdown 2.0., the difficulties on the horizon will be much more manageable than before.

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