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Levelling the Playing Field: how Remote Working has Impacted Recruitment

People walking over crossing

In 2018, Leeds-born, London-based journalist Ben Machell wrote a surprisingly thought-provoking article about the significance of woolly hats as they relate to illustrating the demographic makeup of big cities.

How did Machell manage to do all of this by simply observing the headwear of his fellow commuters?

The answer has to do with football. In the UK, football is played in the winter. That means there is a non-trivial market for woolly hats at football matches. It’s something of a rite of passage for a young football fan to get their first football hat. These hats tend to be acquired in childhood and cherished for life. I still have the Wolverhampton Wanderers from my first game in 1988.

So it was because of these hats that on a particularly cold day in central London, Machell was able to observe, in a very unscientific way, just how many of his fellow commuters were from outside of the city.

’I’d always assumed that these City types were just spawned in huge breeding tanks deep underneath Canary Wharf and then immediately sent to work. But there’s something instantly humanising about knowing that somebody is, like you, making a go of it in London while retaining their old sporting loyalties’.

The point I’m trying to make here by intersecting Machell’s hat observation is that most people care about where they come from. But not everyone stays put. Even if they’d have preferred to.

It’s been four years since Machell’s article and I’d bet that a lot of the people that inspired him to write it have left London. They may not have moved back home, but since a significant portion of the population is now able to work remotely, many will have left behind the high cost of living in a big city like London. And many, after giving it a year or so, will have moved back.

The pandemic and our response to it have removed a lot of geographical and physical career barriers. If you work in the so-called ‘knowledge economy’, you can probably do your job from anywhere now. So why live somewhere you don’t like?

If you don’t work in the knowledge economy, you’re probably already fed up with articles that talk about the great liberating benefits of remote working as if they apply to everyone equally. This is one of the themes of the book I co-authored with Professor Sir Cary Cooper. It’s important to acknowledge that while I.T consultants and creative directors are thinking long and hard about whether to move somewhere near a beach, engineers, forklift drivers, and delivery riders remain constrained by the geographical realities of their job.

It used to be one of those things that were unequally bad. Everyone had to go to work. Now, only some people go to work and others let work come to them. Prior to remote working becoming a norm, if you wanted a job in politics, the media, law, academia, the recording industry, you’d have probably needed to move to London. And - believe it or not - not everyone wants to move to a big city.

The removal of these barriers has done two really positive things. It’s allowed people who were putting up with living in a place they didn’t like to go and live somewhere they do like without giving up their career. And it’s opened up opportunities for people who would make great politicians, journalists, lawyers, or academics, to do so without the disruption and inconvenience of moving across the country. There are lots of very important reasons for wanting to stay in one’s hometown; family obligations, caring responsibilities, social support networks, affordability.

Disabled people in particular are a group that knows all too well about the inconveniences of getting to work. Not only do they have to deal with the standard inconveniences the rest of us face, but they also need to deal with things like inaccessible public transport, badly designed buildings, street clutter, and so on. Many of the disabled people I’ve spoken to about this topic say that they not only need to dedicate time to planning their journeys but also allow extra time in case those plans fall through. For example, if I miss a train, I can just get the next one. A wheelchair user can’t necessarily do that as there may not be anyone to assist them. And that’s not even mentioning the individual challenges they face in relation to their impairments. So remote working could potentially bring some much-needed equality to both work and recruitment.

There’s another historically marginalized demographic that stands to benefit too. People from deprived backgrounds are under-represented in many of the most in-demand industry sectors. A large part of that is down to the expense required to relocate to a large, expensive city in order to take an entry-level job (or internship) in a sector such as law or the media. In fact, entry levels wages often aren’t enough to cover the cost of living in London, so the only people who can actually do it are those with family financial support. That’s changed already. Amy Williams, who we interviewed in the book, is a commissioner at the BBC. She told us how delighted she was to be able to offer jobs to people from working-class backgrounds like herself without the candidates having to immediately start worrying or stressing about how they’re going to afford to relocate to London.

The absence, or at least shrinking, of these barriers is good for employers too. It widens the talent pool infinitely. Prior to the widespread adoption of remote working, employers would be hoping to find the best-fit candidate within a commutable distance, or they’d need to make the package sufficiently appealing for someone to relocate, presumably from a different metropolitan hub. The talent pool is now global.

It’s not all upsides though. Businesses may be able to cast their nets wider in the search for talent, but they’re also now competing with organizations from all around the world who have taken the same approach. And many of those organizations may be operating in different economic environments, with fewer regulations, which means they can offer more appealing packages at little relative cost.

Essential Content, the communications agency I founded in 2015, has been remote since day one. So it would be easy to assume we might have a natural advantage over the organizations that are going remote now, as a response to the global pandemic. And while we’re happy that our processes and procedures are very much built and optimized for a distributed workforce, what we’re also finding is that the things that made us appealing to certain types of people, such as the ability to work from anywhere, flexibility and asynchronous hours, and the general levels of autonomy those things facilitate, we’re now no longer an appealing novelty. It is no longer a point of difference that you can work for us while house-training your puppy.

So while lots of organizations are planning and implementing policies to help their workers thrive in a remote context, we’re looking at new ways to compete for the same talent.

This also means that the friction of switching jobs is lower for employees. There’s no new commute to get used to or a new house to find; people can now move jobs without leaving their spare bedroom. And that’s something employers are very quickly realizing. Which is a good thing as it forces them to focus on tangible, measurable retention metrics.

And while less friction and more freedom are objectively good things for employees, employers need to be careful to make sure that their remote hiring processes are equitable and accessible. It would be very easy to assume that remote means accessible by default. After all, how hard can it be for someone to attend an interview from their own home?

That’s a mistake a lot of organizations are currently in the process of making. Recruiting remotely creates a temptation for organizations to focus less on individual needs and to treat the talent pool as an amorphous blob separated only by competencies.

Even when they’re working from home, different people have different needs and it is incumbent on employers to learn about those needs in order to facilitate a good and fair recruitment process. For example, not all video conferencing platforms have closed captions on, as default. Some candidates who lip-read may need interviewers to sit at a certain proximity to their camera. Other candidates may legitimately benefit from having their cameras off for periods of the interview. These are all legitimate accessibility requests, but they feel counterintuitive to the idea that remoteness heightens accessibility. And that’s before we consider the fact that some candidates, whether or not they have accessibility requirements, will simply perform better in person.

For most knowledge economy workers, the future will be a blend of remote and office-based working. The dynamics of this will take time to become normal, but for the majority, it will mean better opportunities for work-life integration, better productivity, and access to a wider range of career opportunities.