The number of job seekers in Aberdeen currently far outweighs the number of job opportunities, and with a high number of employers forecasting further redundancies before the end of the year, the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. We are on a proverbial cliff edge that can, and will, decide the future of Europe’s Energy Capital.

While I fully understand and appreciate that many people will have to accept any job in order to keep a roof over their heads, it’s careless for employers to become complacent.

The Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent UK lockdown has changed us all.

People have woken up to the fact that they have been little more than a commodity, living unconscious lives, sleepwalking through their days. Most of us have been on a destructive treadmill of sleep, eat, work, repeat for far too long. Coronavirus has shone a spotlight by exposing many of our employers as archaic and draconian, showing their true colours in the face of adversity.

Others have taken a far more human approach; by embracing the WFH situation, focussing on becoming more efficient, and taking a long-term view, they can see how this can ultimately improve the bottom line. It’s not just good for staff, it’s good for business. This doesn’t mean they haven’t had to make tough decisions and for most businesses this has meant severe cost cutting and redundancies. But the way in which many of the more progressive companies have gone about this dreadful process has really set them apart.

Having worked through three major downturns over the last 13 years, we all know what typically happens from here. Companies and people forget; they have short memories. They rush back to what they know, what’s comfortable and what’s made them money in the past. No lessons are learned. Before you know it, everyone is fighting over the same people again, over-using recruitment agencies (yet complaining about their high recruitment spend and lack of quality) and the cycle starts all over again. Hands up if this sounds familiar?

But this time we’re witnessing a change.

Job seekers are asking different questions.

It’s not solely about salary, a vast array of generous benefits and a swanky office with onsite Starbucks. If you’re wondering how you can set yourself apart from the competition, hire and retain the very best staff and position yourself as an employer of choice now and in the future this is what you need to know:

1. Flexibility

I’m talking about being human – giving people the ability to take time off to attend a doctor’s appointment without having to book it in weeks in advance. The ability to start a little later the day after knocking in a 14-hour shift to make month end close. The ability to drop the kids off at school before work without feeling guilty about starting at 9:20am. To go for a run late morning because it energises you. A little compassion and an acknowledgement that every single person contributes to the success of the business goes a long way.

Moreover, is it the best use of our time to all be stuck in traffic at the same time? Heck, there’s even a name for it, it’s called…. “rush-hour”. Who ever thought it was a good idea for all of us to jump in our cars at the same time, to drive into the same congested spaces? It just seems silly now doesn’t it…

2. Autonomy

Micromanagement is one of the top reasons why people come to us looking for work. Although there are some people who need (and want) more direction and supervision, the vast majority of people do their best work when they have trust, freedom and autonomy to manage their own workload and to complete projects. In my view, this is one of the key reasons why most people have really enjoyed working from home.

Yes, we have to be sensible about this – micromanagement means different things to different people, and it very much depends on their individual personality. I’ve worked with people in the past who felt they were being micromanaged when in actual fact they needed rigorous supervision. By discussing management style at interview, and by truly being open and honest and trying to understand someone’s personality, this should ensure the best fit for all parties involved. See point number six below as this is often where the problem starts.

3. Relationships with co-workers

Number three on our list of reasons why people look to change jobs – toxic work environments, colleagues and managers.

People are generally social creatures. Whether introvert or extrovert, when you’re surrounded by the right kind of people you do your best work. Now I’m not suggesting that I condone or encourage hiring a workforce of clones (much to the contrary in fact), but creating a good environment where people have a mutual respect for one another is essential if you want to grow a successful and profitable business. So, embrace equality and diversity, make decisions to remove toxic people quickly, build more robust and logical HR processes, and deal with situations and people with more compassion.

Again, word gets around and Aberdeen is a very small place. If you always struggle to hire into a particular department the reason could be very simple. Take a look at the team, ask the difficult question (if you don’t know already know the answer) and deal with the situation head on. Yes, it’s complicated and challenging, but trust me it’s far simpler than having to re-hire every six to twelve months because you have a toxic member of staff.

4. Financial stability of employer

No one can predict a global pandemic. However, businesses must begin take a longer term view. This clearly becomes more difficult when margins are slashed and we are fighting for survival, but is there really an alternative. The world has changed in the wake of COVID; countries can, and will, shut their borders overnight, companies who rely on import/export can be faced with impossible situations and let’s not forget that 80% can be wiped off the price of a barrel of crude oil like that* (*clicks fingers).

Bad things happen, and it’s impossible to be fully prepared for every possible eventuality. However, there are mechanisms every business can put in place to ensure they’re better equipped to shoulder huge drops in revenue. See Simon Sinek’s seminal work “The Infinite Game” for more on this very topic. We also all know the oil industry is cyclical – it’s always boom or bust with little to no middle ground. Shouldn’t we all run our businesses a little more frugally in the good times, so that we can weather the pain better during the bad times?

5. Investment in systems and efficient processes

This is another major reason why people choose to leave an employer - a lack of investment in systems and processes. If you have a high turnover of staff and teams who regularly work in excess of 50 hours per week, could it actually be your systems and processes that are to blame? It’s always important to look past obvious answers and to drill down into the root cause. This rarely has anything to do with the quality of people in your team and everything to do with clunky processes, manual overrides (good old Microsoft Excel), and an accumulation of poor processes that have been allowed to grow arms and legs. How often do we all hear “because it’s always been done this way…”?

I regularly see companies who spend thousands of pounds every year on recruitment fees for their accounts department. And this isn’t due to growth, I’m talking about re-hiring the same roles (often with great difficulty) due to people leaving within the first three to six months. This isn’t due to a bad manager or poor culture, but primarily down to manual processes and systems which simply frustrate the hell out of them.

I get it. I know how costly and time consuming these projects are. It’s difficult to justify that kind of spend at the best of times. But the companies I know who have invested in technology, who have structured a proper implementation and embedded it in their culture, more than recoup their spend by reducing recruitment spend, overtime bills, compromise agreements and downtime. Imagine being able to run a full re forecast for an unplanned Board meeting within minutes? All on one system, with no manual Excel work. Nirvana eh?!

6. Career devlopment

Not everyone is cut out to be a Manager. We all know this.

When people are promoted into positions of authority without the right soft skills, you’re asking for trouble. It’s a domino effect and nobody wins, because more often than not, that person knows they’re not cut out for the role and they hate it, causing them to become more frustrated with the team they manage.

However, for many, management is the only route to “progress”, to increase their salary and to climb the corporate career ladder. There’s still far too much focus on career progression being linear which ultimately focusses on staff management. If you really want to retain great staff, you must create opportunities for people to progress without stepping into a management role when they don’t have the desire, or skill set, to supervise a team. This is certainly not easy but surely it’s worth the effort?

7. Purpose, culture and values

This is a biggie.

More and more, we’re hearing “I want to work for someone who actually cares”. People are fed up with working for companies who brandish their values on the office wall but work their staff into the ground. They’re fed up with being treated like a commodity while scrolling through their company’s sponsored ad on Instagram about their amazing culture where people come first. We all know companies like this - many of us have worked for them.

Companies are too afraid to be honest about their culture. Many are trying to be the “cool kid” with a flexible, forward thinking management team and a focus on innovation when in actual fact it’s imply note true.

You have to remember that everyone is unique and people have different values. Rather than hiring people who, three months in, leave the business because of the mismatched cultural fit, why not focus on hiring people who really do fit with your culture. If you have an old-school style and want people who’ll work long hours, but reward them with large bonuses at the end of the year, focus on that. There are people who love that kind of environment and thrive in it. The worst thing you can do in a recruitment process is lie to someone about the culture and values of the business. We’ve lost count of the number of calls we’ve had from people 48 hours into a new role which starts “this isn’t what I signed up for”. It’s a waste of time, money, and energy for everyone involved, and always ends in tears.

Breaking the cycle

At the end of the day, it makes good business and commercial sense to create a good working environment and to look after your employees. It’s not always easy; we all have challenges whether financially or culturally, but if the last six months has taught us anything, it’s that we all need to adapt to survive.

Sticking-plaster remedies simply don’t work – they’re costly and make little to no difference to the bottom line. So, if you want to lower the number of grievance cases your HR department has to battle with, reduce your recruitment spend, increase productivity and drive employee retention, it’s maybe worth reading this again….