How to avoid a winter of discontent

By Gordon McFarlane | 29 August 2022

Finally, we had a proper break. We at last got the opportunity this summer to take some uninterrupted downtime after enduring two years of interruptions, stress and enforced change.

Time out gives us all a much-needed opportunity to recharge and reflect. As I have done that, it has become clear that come the autumn a new wave of people challenges are ready to test the resilience of individuals, teams and organisations as a whole.

It is also clear the HR teams in local authorities will be key to mitigating their impact and navigating a path through what could easily be a winter of discontent.

The great hiring crunch

The first and biggest challenge we face is getting the right people in the right jobs to deliver our services.

The scarcity of people and availability of jobs from the likes of Amazon, local supermarkets or neighbouring councils means the labour market is white-hot and employees and candidates have more choice than ever. Pay is clearly a factor, but local government careers can offer many wider benefits which help us compete.

Whether it is the working hours, location, flexibility, training and career paths or the positive impact on people’s lives, local authority jobs and careers can still offer something outstanding and different. We have to be on the front foot when it comes to marketing ourselves.

Financial wellbeing and the cost of living

Of course, we cannot get away from pay altogether. The rising cost of living is taking chunks out of everybody’s monthly budget. A surprisingly good pay offer for 2022-23 has just been made by the local government national employers which could change the landscape.

But a tough winter means we need to be ready to support people facing financial stress. Organisations which do not already provide access to financial wellbeing resources should consider what they can put in place now.

Benefits teams can step up communication of the range of non-salary benefits which might provide additional support to people, or even review what is on offer to ensure the proposition is aligned to what people need. Financial stress may impact job performance, for which managers will need guidance.

A third challenge will come from the need to rewire the way we operate as we face the greatest financial challenges in a decade.

While we have shown in the pandemic that we do transformation and reorganisation at pace, we have to anticipate and respond to the impact this will have on the wellbeing, retention and engagement of our people.

Hybrid working is the fourth area where HR teams need to take stock and plan ahead. The shift to remote working has, in some job roles, given organisations the opportunity to compete more widely for talent, reduce expensive office space and work more flexibly. But how many organisations have considered the long-term impact on culture?

Do leaders and managers have the tools they need to support teams effectively in the new environment? Are organisation and employees getting what they need now and in the future? HR and OD teams are key to ensuring that these challenges are addressed.

The last concern is the ability to map the kind of people, roles and skills required to deliver future target operating models that support automation and transformation. Organisational design and HR knowledge will be critical to the successful transformation of services which can unlock savings, increase productivity, making change stick.

In conclusion, the people agenda is a significant one, but there are a number of connecting points. For example, pay, reward and hybrid working have an intrinsic link to recruitment and retention, culture has a huge impact on wellbeing, and workforce planning will be a vital tool in change and transformation.

Now that we are back after the summer, those leaders that seek out and then deploy the knowledge of their HR teams will be best placed to find solutions to the challenges that lie ahead.

Gordon McFarlane is president of the Public Services People Managers’ Association


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