No wonder companies can’t find people

Work-life boundaries are way too loose, writes Patrick Woodman

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UK leaders began 2018 with levels of confidence in the economy at a five-year low. Could Brexit-related uncertainty and the ever-present turbulence of workplace change be combining to deadly effect?

According to CMI’s annual Future Forecast survey, only 28% are optimistic about economic prospects of the year ahead. Some 48% are pessimists, making it the gloomiest picture since 2012.

For many, Brexit was a vote to take back control. Yet that’s one of the things that a lot of managers will feel is in precious short supply in 2018 as they are buffeted by a range of forces.

While business lobby groups have focused on the strategic uncertainty created by negotiations’ slow progress, for some managers the effects are more personal. One in four managers feel a declining sense of job security due to the unfolding Brexit process.

Control is also a theme discernible in managers’ priorities for 2018. They rank controlling costs as their number one, picked by 75%. It’s followed this year by restructuring (62%), suggesting that a year of substantial upheaval lies ahead.

Now that might not be surprising. For most businesses, change is a permanent state of affairs. Quick responses to fast-shifting circumstances are essential. But it’s worth remembering that change is inherently unsettling and can affect people on the receiving end in ways that aren’t always obvious to those leading the charge. For many, the prospect of organizational restructuring will represent a potential loss of control –– not an improvement.

So, pair these internal prospects with Brexit uncertainty in the wider environment and you have a potent combination that could be tailor-made to chip away at employees’ confidence and motivation. Indeed, our survey suggests that workplace pressures are starting to build. We found that 66% of managers are working more than 40 hours a week, with almost a third (29%) working more than 49 hours. The ‘always-on’ culture is stronger than ever, with the majority of managers (59%) saying they’re checking email through evenings and weekends. The resulting gap between actual and contracted hours means managers are working an average of 44 extra days a year.

And yet, at the same time, the so-called ‘war for talent’ remains in full swing, especially for much-needed management and leadership posts: 82% reported that their organization is struggling to make management-level appointments. Surely organizations should be doing everything they can to retain, grow and enthuse talented managers, recognizing their value to the firm (and the costs of replacing them), rather than leaving them to stew in the face of long working hours, downward pressure on costs and strategic uncertainty? But in practical terms, what can organizations do?

Recognizing the potential impact of change is the starting point. If your organization is likely to be affected by Brexit, talk to your employees about it – and about how you’re preparing for what may be coming down the line. Refocus on communication of change programmes too. After all, we know that middle managers crave transparency from their leaders. In this climate, it’s more important than ever.

But don’t let Brexit dominate the discussion. Focusing on people factors needs to be a high priority. Prevent burnout by giving people licence to switch off – and actively encourage them to do so. Support flexible working, too; help staff take control of the balance between their work and personal lives. And develop managers with the capacity to manage teams through reward, empathy and praise, rather than micromanagement.

It’s time to break the downward cycle and invest in the next generation of leaders. A great starting point would be offering them a better-structured working existence with the boundaries needed to offer them not just a good living, but a good life.

— Patrick Woodman is head of research and advocacy at the Chartered Management Institute

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