Guest Blog by Steve Herbert, Head of Benefits Strategy at Howden Employee Benefits
Anyone familiar with that seasonal classic “A Christmas Carol” will of course recognise that of all the spirits that Scrooge met, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come was by far the most unsettling for the old boy. The story concludes with Ebenezer’s actions of the moment being very much shaped by the potential uncertainties ahead.
And that seems like a pretty good analogy for businesses across the United Kingdom as we approach Christmas 2018. For the future is indeed deeply uncertain, and even organisations with no direct international exposure may soon find that their client and/or supply chains are impacted by the spectre that is Brexit uncertainty.
The choices ahead
At the time of writing – and with less than 4 months until the UK’s scheduled departure date from the EU – it appears that Britain faces not so much a fork in the road as a trident of choices. And each of the available options contains the seeds of yet greater uncertainty. The three choices are:
1) The Prime Minister’s deal: At the time of writing there continues to be much speculation about whether or not this will be accepted by Members of Parliament. And even if approved, years of negotiation to finalise the details of the plan lie ahead.
2) No Deal Brexit: Should (1) not be agreed, then this option is considered by many pundits to be the default position. Forecast after forecast predict that this option will represent at least some short-term economic and supply shocks. And then there is the added uncertainty of which future international trade deals will be secured and delivered for the nation.
3) A “Peoples Vote”: The calls for a 2nd Referendum are growing despite opposition from the Government. Whilst this may be seen by some as a suitably democratic solution to the current deadlock, it should be remember that there is no certainty that the result of such a vote will make the future course of the nation any clearer.
Now it’s often said – with some justification – that uncertainty is very bad for business. What is less often voiced is what that same ambiguity does to the employees of those businesses. And right now millions of workers in the UK are facing a worryingly uncertain future.
Such a lack of clarity has the potential to dent morale, engagement, and that important old chestnut productivity (which nationally already trails most of our G7 competitors). The bottom line is that each and every employer needs to achieve maximum productivity per worker so as to be best placed to weather any Brexit storms ahead.
So now is the time for Human Resources professionals to become a key influence in this story.
What actions can HR take now?
It is probably a fairly safe bet that most employers are (by now) quietly making preparations to mitigate the vagaries of the above three Brexit scenarios. Yet far fewer will have actively or routinely communicated their plans to employees. This lack of communication will probably be magnifying the unease felt by your workforce, and HR needs to address this issue as a matter of urgency.
Of course HR can and should go further than mere communications. But where to begin with such an exercise? A few thoughts…
Firstly, consider offering support and explanations to those workers that are (or are related to) EU Citizens as to their choices and actions needed to remain in the UK. This is sure to be welcomed.
Then there is the wider swathe of the UK workforce who may now be starting to become genuinely worried about their income levels, jobs, and futures. Different people will handle these pressures in differing ways, but HR should be on the alert for any obvious signs of increased stress as a result of these pressures. Promoting the Health & Wellbeing tools available at your company would be a shrewd move here.
Finally, and not least, don’t forget the personal economic impact of all this uncertainty. Many employers have already seen a slowdown in order-books and this change will inevitably reduce the income of those workers whose pay is linked in some way to fiscal performance. Many more employees will be impacted if – as predicted – the current Brexit uncertainty forces the value of the pound lower still. This matters hugely as the price of imported groceries will inevitably go up as a direct result of such an adjustment. Either or both of these changes might be difficult for employees to absorb, so offering financial education support should be considered a priority. Employers can and should also revisit and re-communicate their benefits offering to ensure that any personal monetary savings inherent within it are recognised and fully utilised by the workforce.
The above simple changes won’t of course resolve all the concerns of the current uncertainty, but will at least show that your organisation is doing all it practically can to support employees at a time of great change. This in turn should help maintain morale, engagement, and that all important productivity.
The moral of Scrooge’s story is that it is never too late to make important changes to improve the possible futures ahead for all. Now is the time for HR to put that theory into practice.
My very best wishes for the festive season, and a prosperous 2019 to you all.