It has been apparent for some time that record vacancies in UK companies are forcing employers to develop innovative approaches to employee engagement as a means of retaining and recruiting people. Although there is debate as to whether the concept of work-life balance is changing in a material way, from the IPA’s experience of talking to managers and employee representatives in many different types of organisation, two things are becoming clear: flexible working is the most common ‘hot topic’ and there is a growing sense that decisions about hybrid working should be based on clear business rationale taking in considerations about productivity and safe mental health.  

Employee Benefits 

A recent article in the Daily Telegraph notes that “ping pong tables, jazz bars, free food and on-site gyms have become synonymous with desirable offices of tech giants, designed to attract and retain talent” but this type of benefit is loaded towards a specific demographic and it is possible that some of these offers could potentially switch people off rather than engage them. An investigation of the degree to which these types of benefits, which some may consider ‘gimmicks’ actually contribute to engagement, retention and recruitment may be worthwhile.  

Certainly not all organisations are convinced, because according to the Daily Telegraph, some are “offering lavish benefits, better working hours and hiking pay in a bid to beat the Great Resignation as staff quit in record numbers”. The paper cites as an example graduate bankers demanding starting salaries of more than £60,000 (according to professional services recruiter Dartmouth) to compensate for an “infamously poor work-life balance amid the war for talent”. However, not all organisations can afford to do this. Two years of the pandemic have forced these organisations to place future proofing at the heart of their strategic decisions – for these companies, innovation and creativity will be the key factor in their success or failure. 

Four-day Working Week

This is why more than 3,000 workers at 60 UK companies will trial a four-day working week in the six months from June. This is thought to be the biggest pilot scheme worldwide and it might prove how desirable working fewer hours has become. Whether organisations will have the means to effectively measure productivity is another matter but, if the core business objective is to engage people, it will be fascinating to see whether any of the assumptions made around this subject are proved to be correct. Regardless, there is a strong argument that this type of innovative thinking based on rationality is a better way forward than a reliance on gimmicks.

The Daily Telegraph also notes the example of Citigroup who have announced plans to open a new hub in Malaga which will comprise a 30-strong team of junior analysts who will work eight hours a day but on half the salary of their peers in London and New York. They claim that this “revolutionary idea” will “create a competitive advantage” over rivals while being “more conducive to an improved work-life balance”. However, one ex-employee is quoted as saying, “it's a nice PR spin that some people have taken at face value, but if people think about it hard enough they'll see it doesn't make any sense.” If innovation like this is seen by enough people as a “PR spin”, it is unlikely that it will have the desired effect.

Other examples of innovative ideas being explored include unlimited annual leave, an extra month of paid holiday, full-time remote working, signing-on bonuses and even the hiring of a chief happiness officer to make their organisation “the most vibrant, happy and uplifting place to work in the world”. The chief happiness officer oversees six-weekly micro-retreats, books from employees’ favourite authors sent over on publication, a four-day week pilot and “sponsorship for passion projects and hobbies”.

Job Vacancies

According to Ipsos, over half of 16 to 34-year-olds considered quitting their jobs or were actively looking for a new role in the last three months. This has created a record 1.3m job vacancies in Britain, according to the latest figures by the Office for National Statistics, and this is the crux of the problem. Organisations are actively seeking ways to keep the staff they have, as well as attracting new ones, but it is difficult to see how gimmicks and “PR spin” will make a sustainable contribution to solving the problem. As Gaelle Blake, head of permanent appointments at Hays UK&I, states in the article, “if employers don’t get the basics right such as offering competitive salaries along with flexible and hybrid working – the majority of professionals will look elsewhere.”

There is another potential problem that might come to the surface as this trend continues. Almost half of 2,000 UK workers recently surveyed by LHH Recruitment said new employees received preferential treatment, from pay to better benefits. There is already a growing divide between workers who are unable to work flexibly due to the nature of their jobs and those who can benefit from hybrid working and the “wooing spree to make office life more attractive for new recruits” may widen this divide further leading to more workplace discontent, rather than better engagement.

Employee Engagement

All of this reminded me of a conversation I had in the late 1990’s with a hugely respected manager at Legal & General who had decided to run a team building exercise which involved orienteering. She loved outdoor pursuits and had not considered that others might not share that passion. I felt terrible in denting her enthusiasm when I pointed out that several people in her team would probably hate the idea and that it could actually cause more problems than it would solve. Fortunately, she took my feedback well and she went away and discussed the idea with her team. That discussion became the team building exercise in itself. This is the key lesson when it comes to engaging and retaining people - organisations have to listen to their employees, both to find out how their ideas are perceived – welcome innovation or irrelevant gimmick? – and be open to ideas generated by employees themselves that will best meet both the needs of the business and colleagues. If they do not, people will continue to vote with their feet.        


Derek Luckhurst

Training & Development Director

Mobile: 07780 697024


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