Don't like WFH? Prepare to find ESG hiring challenging

Matt Baty Matt Baty
28th July 2022

In over 20 years of recruitment experience I have seen various cycles of the power dynamic between hiring teams and candidates. Post 9/11 the market changed to favour employers. Recruitment was still fairly traditional, databases were primitive and in the boutique I worked for, we had one PC between 3 researchers. It was usual to receive CVs through the post; we even received one beautifully hand-written on high-grade Basildon Bond paper. It was usual to discuss relocation with candidates and with the property boom still in its relative infancy, quite common for people to live away during the week or even abroad for work.

In the years immediately preceding the Credit Crunch of ‘08/’09, a national, even global talent war existed across most industries, particularly within the public sector as the Blair-led Government expanded creating a swift knock-on into Infrastructure and Construction. Business leaders scrabbled to find the best talent, salaries grew exponentially and HR specialists became increasingly creative in how they positioned roles and the packages on offer; the phrase ‘work/life balance’ became part of the hiring lexicon. Candidates, to a degree, began to dictate terms, particularly within areas of national shortage or highly specialized industries resulting in increased career transitioning. Firms invested in training (and L&D professionals became more commonplace) and looked at new ways of identifying potential in people.

The ‘08/’09 turned everything on its head. I spent 2 years working on a DWP contract, offering careers guidance and support to executives flushed into the market, many of whom had never been an active job-seeker before. Thrust unwillingly into a new digital world where onsite teams acted as a screening process, many people (particularly those in the latter stages of their career) struggled. Frankly, people were willing to do anything to find work for a period of time and often found themselves in roles below their experience level, but outside of their outdated skillset. Salaries stagnated, and companies, particularly those outside of London took advantage of this new population of jobseekers. People would willingly accept low offers and put faith in unsubstantiated pitches of progression. Firms with a compelling pitch or attractive EVP tightened their screening processes and totally dictated the terms of engagement. For everyone else, people assumed that their stars would rise and they would move quickly through the ranks. Some did of course, but it did stunt the investment in employment packages and moves towards flexibility. Some may disagree, but training and development took a back seat in many companies. Team were run leanly; people were grateful to be back in work. Job enrichment was rarely discussed and, coupled with changes in tax legislation particularly relating to IR34 and Benefit in Kind, people lost perks and aspects of their packages that made life more affordable.

For the last 10 years, the needle on the scales has shifted left and right several times; some industries have experienced wage inflation (IT development, engineering, Financial Services for example) whereas others have fallen behind. People have tended to stay longer in roles, with HR focusing a lot more of their time on retention and longer-term incentives than getting people over the threshold. Hiring has been hard, but overall, natural attrition fell behind hiring for several years leading up to the pandemic.

Then Covid-19 struck and probably the biggest change to affect workforces in a generation took hold. Within ESG, mass-hiring within Asset Management has only really known life under the cloud of a pandemic. Whatever your thoughts on work from home / flexible working, the reality is that the tug of war between a workforce clamouring for increased flexibility and an employer exerting command and control changed overnight. Companies fearing homeworking or perceiving it unworkable had no choice. The vast majority of companies adapted rapidly and successfully and workers used to spending an hour of their lives or more pressed into the armpit of a fellow commuter on a train, or bumper to bumper through a sea of redlights were suddenly based from home. They could walk their dog at lunch time, be in for when their kids finished school, sell a car, set up a home office to suit their own personal needs and do their job to a comparable standard. Of course, many industries were unable to avoid in-person work, and it was no picnic working from home with unreliable internet connections, uncomfortable workspaces and domestic distractions, but for those of us who were used to working nationally or commuting long-distances it had the potential to be lifechanging.

Whichever side of the work from home debate you hoist your flag, for the time-being at least, it is here to stay.

Within ESG search, across c.50 interviews in the last 8 weeks, every single candidate with no exceptions has asked about a company’s work from home policy.

In a discipline that requires deep-dive research, the understanding of complex frameworks and legislation not to mention working across multiple offices and even countries, homeworking could be considered a necessity as well as a preference. The often-talked about collaboration, relationship-building and office culture is of secondary-importance. Let’s be honest, do senior ESG professionals really gain anything meaningful from those oft-vaunted water-cooler discussions, or are they an unwanted distraction? I have worked from home now for 3 years and actually, I feel I have built better and more meaningful relationships with the majority of people I work with through Teams / Zoom or ‘phone. Those in-person meetings are more valuable due to their rarity. Meetings are more concise and focused. Video-interviews are easier to schedule and you can do more in a day. Candidates don’t have to travel and all that entails to meet with prospective employers.

Right now, whether you believe in the ESG talent war, or the Great Resignation or not, the reality is that a lack of clarity and maturity around home-working will put you at a significant disadvantage. ESG candidates currently afforded flexible working conditions, hybrid or remote working are unlikely to surrender it, irrespective of the offer on the table. People who have structured their life around their working pattern and maintained their professionalism and output are naturally loathe to roll that back.

For some industries either for cultural or practical reasons, working from home is not optimal, but right now in the ESG space, unless candidates are actively interested in a particular role or company they are highly unlikely to accept an offer with a wooly WFH policy or an increase in office time. Simply put, for those who do not value office time as a necessity of their work, live out of area or have structured their domestic arrangements around their working pattern yet have maintained their productivity throughout the pandemic, they will seldom see nor buy into reasons for this to change. When skills are in demand as they are within ESG, a hiring team must recognize the part work/life balance plays in an individual’s career decision. Perhaps everyone does have their price, but personally, even a 50% increase in my renumeration couldn’t entice me back on a commuter train at 6am or the M6 at 8pm on a Friday night. Perhaps this is career limiting in the long-run, but for now, my work/life is balanced; this is important for anyone who understands the occasional mayhem of family life!

No doubt the market will change again; if fears of recession are founded, the balance may tip back again towards employers dictating the terms, but even if that does happen, increasing office time would be churlish. Those who want it will welcome it, but are unlikely to change jobs because of it. Those who have it, will guard it preciously. If you are not clear on what you can offer, nor creative in how you afford flexibility you may well find offers are turned down with frustrating regularity.

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