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On Wednesday and Thursday last week Shana Schreier-Joffe of our office was invited to attended and present at the Global Mobility and Skills Forum in Adelaide. This was an international conference designed to explore the challenges facing business in dealing with skill acquisition and an increasingly mobile workforce.

There were numerous very experienced and thought provoking speakers at the conference, however one of the speakers, Aaron LePoidevin made a number of comments that we think require further discussion and consideration. Firstly, he noted that when he graduated from university some 8 or so years ago, most young bright graduates’ dream jobs were with the big end of town. If you were a lawyer, you wanted to work with the global or top-tier law firms, if you were an accountant you wanted to work for the big four accounting firms, and if you were into investment banking, you wanted a job with the recognised Wall Street investment banks. This however, is apparently no longer the case. Now young, bright and energetic graduates would rather work for up and coming innovative boutique firms, looking for the next big thing.

For quite a few years now we have heard about how the generation Y and millennial generation are not going to be in the same job for the next ten years. They want flexibility, autonomy and excitement. They are also likely to change positions and even careers multiple times in their working lives. We often hear clients despair at the lack of loyalty shown by these workers and feelings of entitlement that make it difficult for employers to properly engage or incentivise these workers. But perhaps as Aaron’s next comment shows, many employers are just going about this issue the wrong way. What if employers embrace the changes that are happening, rather than adhering to the old way of doing things. Aaron pointed out that he was not only a partner at PWC but also sat on a number of advisory boards and was involved in a number of start-up businesses. Now no doubt Aaron is an exceptional young man with lots of energy and ability, but apparently what PwC seems to have got right is the fact that Aaron, and I assume many others like him, do not wish to be straight jacketed and want more than the linear traditional career progression, and have provided these opportunities within its current structure.

How does this work. As an employment law firm, one of the key terms in almost every employment contract is the fact that the employee owes all his or her time and effort to their employer. There really is no scope for employees to do their own thing. This is the source of much of current employee frustration and why boutique firm are now so appealing. They allow employees more freedom. But why can’t all employers incorporate some of these lessons. It appears that PWC (at least according to Aaron) allows its employees to work more flexibly so that they can spend some of their time on developing their own business ideas. In return they may take a small interest in the business the employee is developing. If this is correct, it is an absolutely brilliant idea as it allows ambitious employees the scope and freedom to develop their own ideas but keeps them within the fold. It generates goodwill, loyalty and possibly also a very healthy bank balance.

Traditional business models are in real need of review if traditional businesses wish to remain relevant and competitive. Many companies spend vast resources in updating their IT infrastructure, and marketing and product development (among other things) in an effort to ensure they remain competitive in an increasingly volatile and changing market. Employers should invest as much time and energy in ensuring that their people policies match the needs of the next generation of workers. However, as some of the discussion at the conference highlighted, not all traditional old school practices should be jettisoned. One interesting observation made by a participant was that in the particular university in which he worked, they had done away with the lecturers’ staff room and canteen. This was a place lecturers and other academics had traditionally gathered for a meal and inevitably discussion. Since its demise the level of interaction and cooperation between faculty had significantly diminished. There is substantial research which shows that some of the best ideas come from incidental discussion. This is why companies such as Google, Microsoft and the like have invested so much in ensuring employees have places to eat, shop and effectively take care of most basic needs at work. It means their employees work longer, BUT also interact more. Naturally this results in a greater generation of ideas and problem solving, which cannot be replicated by one employee working alone, or even many forced to “brainstorm” or perform collective problem solving on demand.

Rather than lamenting on the lack of loyalty, and the immediate desire for gratification and autonomy now synonymous with a younger workforce, employers should use these motivators as a way to engage and retain their employees. So, what can businesses do in this regard?

  1. understand what actually motivates your employees;
  1. structure work in a way that allows for employees to take risks and create some autonomy;
  1. encourage innovation in your workplace, whether this is big or small;
  1. consider allowing employees to pursue their own interests by the use of part- time work, flexi-time, sabbatical leave;
  1. recognise that your employees may actually be partners in the building of future ventures and allow for these opportunities; and
  1. allow space, time and opportunity for employees to get together incidentally (this is even more important for employees who work remotely).

What we think is most important is to listen to your employees and to have a business model that can adapt in this ever-changing business environment.

If you require advice or assistance in developing workplace policies designed to enhance your business’ capabilities and engage staff, please do not hesitate to contact us.

This alert is not intended to constitute, and should not be treated as, legal advice.

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