On Thursday 12th November 2020, the Coastal West Sussex Partnership hosted a webinar in collaboration with Platfo9m all about building the workforce of the future.

Steve Bustin chaired the event, which was attended by over 70 local businesspeople. Steve kicked off the session by asking everyone whether they’d prefer to work from an office, from home, or a mix of both, in the future. 82% responded they’d like a mix of both. So, the role of the office is still key, but employers will need to offer a flexible approach to working in a post Covid world.

Henry Powell, Chairman of the partnership mentioned a recent research report called The Hatch Report that the partnership had commissioned, which provided key evidence as to what the future of the region might hold. One of its most interesting findings is that it could take the region six to seven years to recover after the pandemic.

The region has some wonderful opportunities for economic growth, but in order to achieve this we need to do better in terms of the skills that those coming from education possess, and in terms of upskilling people to find new careers later in life.

Unfortunately, Henry had to leave the webinar as his factory in Littlehampton had inexplicably been hit by a tornado the night before and he was busy dealing with the aftermath!

The webinar panellists included:

  • Shelagh Legrave – CEO of Chichester College Group. Group of five FE colleges with over 20,000 students.
  • Andrew Crudge – Associate in the employment team at Trethowans. A full-service solicitors based in the region.
  • Emma Cleary – Flexibility Matters – a recruiter specialising in flexible working.
  • Clifford Thomas – The Letting Partnership. A client accounting service for letting agents. TLP sees apprenticeships as playing a key role in the business.
  • Izzy Wardley – studying a degree apprenticeship at Classic Collection Holidays.

Steve’s first question to the panel was: what has been the difference between the two lockdowns?

The general consensus was that lockdown one was a shock to the system, everyone had to adapt very quickly so by the time lockdown two arrived, it was much easier to adjust. Lockdown two has also been easier as those with children of school age haven’t had to home school.

Shelagh commented that she spent lockdown one on her own in Chichester that usually has 3,000 students per day. Lockdown two has been generally business as usual but with only 50% of students in at any one time to maintain social distancing and very few international students.

Steve then touched on the important subject of engagement and asked the panel what the challenges are for employers and employees to stay engaged with work?

Having worked in flexible working for seven years, Emma has found the experience extraordinary, with the ‘holy grail’ of home working suddenly a nationwide situation. From talking to businesses and looking at research, Emma found that most people in business hav been surprised by how well people coped with lockdown and how engaged employees have been. It came as no surprise to Emma, though, who has been talking about how healthier and better engaged people are when they’re in charge of their work life balance. The history of lack of trust and absenteeism has been blown out of the water and people are motivated, but they are missing human contact. The office of the future will therefore likely be a central hub for brainstorming, planning and socialising.

Shelagh has 1500 staff and the vast majority had to switch mode of operation and deliver mixed learning, in the classroom and online. They hadn’t done much blended learning in the past, so it was a big challenge. Coming back and reopening was different, with a variety of anxiety in terms of coming back to college.

Izzy is taking a degree apprenticeship at the University of Chichester with Classic Collection holidays. She started in September last year and described this year as ‘really difficult’, especially as she and her colleagues all love to travel and work in an industry that’s been hit hard by the pandemic.  Izzy and the team have been trying to keep morale high with quiz and social nights online. 

Clifford and his team took to using Microsoft Teams really easily and have enjoyed plenty of banter over the chat function as well as some quiz nights. The Letting Partnership provides an essential service to landlords, and therefore the business has been busy throughout. Everyone was sent to work from home in March, but by the beginning of May half were back in the office.

Andrew explained that all files at Trethowans are now electronic and essentially, he and his colleagues can completely do their jobs from home, with phone call advice to clients. However, they’re missing the contact and the ease of making quick judgement calls when you have a colleague sat next to you.  

One of the attendees made a comment that all the panellists were talking from the perspective of office work, but of course we must remember that there are plenty of people who don’t have that advantage and can’t work from home such as manufacturing, construction workers and those in social care.

What about the challenges of adopting flexible working practices?

Emma made the point that employees have had the right to request flexi working since 2014. An ONS survey prior to lockdown showed that 87% of full-time workers had some element of flexibility in their job already, albeit many via ad hoc arrangements rather than having it built into their employment contract. Only 5% of job ads prior to Covid mentioned flexible working. Emma explained that flexible working has a history of being misunderstood by managers who think it’s hard to manage, and Covid has moved this trend on by 20 years or more.

Shelagh agreed and commented that they have a Director of HR position which is a job share. In order to make flexible working work for your business, you’ve got to ‘lead from the top’.

Emma talked about the differences in approach to flexible working according to people’s ages and previous experience – there’s many people who used to work 40-50-hour weeks which has been engrained in their working patterns, and so Millennials tend to be the flexible working champions.

Andrew commented that Trethowans had received a lot of enquiries from employers about requests for flexible working. The starting point is always the employment contract – changes to the terms can be agreed and an employee has the right to request flexible working hours. The employer has to consider the request; however there are eight grounds of refusal so if they don’t want to do it they can usually find an excuse. This could potentially lead to a discrimination issue, and there is talk of bringing in more of a legal requirement for employers to take these requests more seriously.

Talk then turned to apprenticeships…

Shelagh explained that colleges and universities work with employers to get work experience for their students but this has been extremely difficult to organise with so many closed offices. Interestingly, apprentice numbers are holding up well, especially on the coastal area of the region. However, they do need some help from local employers to speak to their students about career opportunities and ultimately to allow students into their workplace to experience it for themselves.

In terms of schools and colleges promoting apprentices, Shelagh explained that they have a legal obligation to show the route, but unfortunately many schools have their own sixth form and are therefore financially incentivised to keep their students in education rather than promoting an apprenticeship.  One of the other big issues is that many parents don’t understand apprenticeships as they dropped out of fashion and most parents favour continued higher education.

Izzy agreed and commented that her parents has been unsure of her decision to pursue an apprenticeship route. Izzy happened upon the apprenticeship at Classic Collection on the government website, was curious and decided to give it a go following a trial day, turning down a place at a university to follow it through. Her degree is a Chartered Management Degree Apprenticeship which is essentially a business degree with a focus on management.

The panellists then discussed the Kickstart apprenticeship scheme. Shelagh explained that a business has to be able to take 30 for work experience, however some organisations are applying for the facility to take them as a group and give them to SMEs.

What is an employee refuses to come back?

Andrew was then asked about employer liability in terms of refusing a flexible working request if an employee’s children have to be at home, e.g. if they are sent home from school because someone in their class has tested positive. From a legal perspective, it depends on what they do for a job and the age of the children. If the employee can work from home and has an older child that doesn’t need constant supervision, that’s a very different situation from someone that has younger children. In the case of someone that needs to be at home to look after young children and therefore can’t do their job, they could be asked to take the time off as holiday or emergency leave which is unpaid.

If an employee is refusing to come back to the office, Andrew explained it’s important to find out the details as to why and ensure the workplace is Covid secure and as an employer you’ve complied. The employer then has to explain to the employee that the office is Covid secure, that you can never completely eliminate the risk, but you’ve done everything you can. If they still refuse without a good reason, this could lead to a disciplinary matter which isn’t recommended, but it could be worth considering unpaid leave.

How can you balance home and work, when work is at home?

Emma suggested being mindful of the extra time you have in your day that you would have spent commuting, which could now be used for exercise, spending time with your family or something else which helps you look after yourself.

What about inducting new employees during lockdown?

Inducting new employees during lockdown is a real challenge for many businesses recruiting new talent. Shelagh explained that they hold a group corporate induction session online which includes talking about their culture, the mission and structure. Shelagh commented that it’s important to set culture right from the beginning and she feels the Chichester College Group only achieved their outstanding rating because they got their culture right.

Emma commented that it can be tricky to understand a company’s culture and that the language used on their website and tone of their social media is more important than ever.

Want to know more?

Employers that want to learn more about apprenticeships can contact Chichester College Group on 01243 812 948 or at apprenticeships@chichester.ac.uk.

Apprenticeships are also available from the University of Chichester, more information is available at https://www.chi.ac.uk/business-services/degree-apprenticeships-employers.

To read the Hatch report, please click here.