sunset with signs pointing in different directions symbolising opportunities for skills development

Why smart employers don’t consider large scale redundancies

As we enter the uncharted territory of 2021, skills development could be the key in turning the uncertain future into a window of opportunity for employers.

Perhaps unexpectedly for an article focused on redundancy and skills development for employers, my starting point is that stalwart of popular entertainment, The Simpsons, specifically a moment from the 1994 episode ‘Fear of Flying’. “Did you know”, Lisa asks her father, “the Chinese use the same word for ‘crisis’ as they do for ‘opportunity’?”. “Yes”, replies Homer, “‘crisitunity’”. You’ve no doubt spotted Homer’s mistake, but this is also a rare occasion when brainbox Lisa also needs to check her information. The idea that the Chinese word ‘wēijī’ means both ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’ is a common misconception. The word does mean ‘crisis’ – but it’s a combination of the character ‘wēi’, meaning ‘danger’; and ‘jī’, which can have a range of meanings depending on the context, but generally indicates a change point.

Despite Lisa’s statement not being quite true, the idea that a crisis can also be an opportunity – a ‘crisitunity’, to use Homer’s invented word – can be a useful reminder to look for the silver linings when facing tough challenges. Redundancy is undoubtedly going to feel like a crisis for anyone facing it, and it’s unfortunately a prospect that’s going to become a reality as we embark into 2021, for more people than in most years thanks to the impact of the global pandemic. Despite more than half of workers who had been furloughed being able to return to their jobs by September 2020 with new tier systems and our current lockdown 3.0, the UK is now experiencing redundancy growing at the fastest pace since the financial crisis of 2008. But whilst it may initially be an upsetting thing for an individual to face, redundancy can be turned into a positive opportunity to take their life in a new direction and perhaps explore roles and even industries they might never have considered before.

code on a computer screen detailing skills

Thinking long term

So, what does this mean for you as an employer? First of all, redundancies should always be handled sensitively. Being made redundant can be one of the most distressing things an employee can face, so pushing them to immediately see being let go as a positive opportunity is likely to come across as somewhat insensitive! Importantly, redundancy should always be a last resort after all other alternatives have been explored. This is a crucial point for your business, as redundancy might be able to be turned into an opportunity for you and your workforce by avoiding it all together.

It’s worth taking a moment to consider the long-term impacts of employee losses, as the quick resource savings can often lead to greater outlays down the line. Open University’s 2020 Business Barometer report discovered that 56% of UK based organisations experience skills shortages, leading to a spend of £6.6 billion in order to plug short term skills gaps (an on-year increase of over £2 billion from 2019). Organisations often slash training budgets in the face of a crisis but by investing in upskilling and allowing your existing workforce to expand their toolkit you’re avoiding the inevitable outlay occurred from integrating short term staff to plug the gaps.

Utilise and develop your workforce

If redundancy gives those facing it the chance to exercise the transferable skills they have in new and exciting ways, it’s only logical that the best thing for your business might be to retain those skills – many of which have been developed under your employment, put them to work and develop them further. Our recent article on the UK skills landscape highlighted how, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses ‘want their workforces to be ready for whatever the future holds’. This doesn’t just mean in their existing roles.

Think about it: if an employee can be let go only to fly further and higher in a new direction, finding or creating a role that will allow them to do just that, whilst your business also reaps the benefits of their skills in new ways, makes sense for everyone.

architect working on drawings

Architect skills

Simply put, the positivity needs to come from your business just as much as from those finding themselves searching the job market again. “While most of us become short-sighted and irrational during crises”, says Claudio Fernández-Aráoz of Harvard Business School, “the best leaders and organisations stay calm and use them to their advantage, sprinting away from their competitors and never looking back”. Historically, the businesses that come out of crises the best are not those which either continue hiring new talent to expand or put a freeze on hiring and begin making redundancies – they think progressively and strategically, and do both. Or, as Fernández-Aráoz puts it, “they bring in architects to plan the new building even as the firefighters work to save the old one”. However, those new ‘architects’ do not only have to take the shape of new recruits – they can also be newly acquired skills. Skills are the foundation of any successful workplace and are essential in navigating the departure from workplace trauma. Creating a business structure that encourages upskilling and adaptability at its heart, for employees both new and existing, stands to put itself in pretty good stead. Investment of resources into the tools that allow your employees to work more efficiently can only seek to assist your business in its survival when faced with uncharted territory.

‘jī’: An opportunity for positive change

After the relative freedom of the summer months following the first few months of lockdown, the UK and other parts of the world entered into a winter of stricter regulations once again to keep COVID-19 under control. With the furlough scheme due to end in April, it’s likely that both employers and workers will once again face tough challenges about their future. Redundancies are inevitable, as is the initial distress they will cause. But as we all continue to figure out the ‘new normal’ of 2021 and beyond, both individuals and businesses face a choice: do they play catch-up in the post-COVID-19 world, or do they lead the way through innovation, proactivity and positivity?

We are living in a time of crisis, but also a time of opportunity. The Chinese word ‘wēijī’ may not mean both ‘crisis’ and ‘opportunity’, but the different meanings contained within the word should ring true for individuals and businesses alike. Whilst it’s important to keep in mind the dangers (the ‘wēi’) this year has dealt out, it’s also important to focus on this past year as a change point (the ‘jī’). As with any type of change, it’s how you respond in the longer term that truly matters.

We’ve assisted many businesses in navigating their ‘new normal’; putting practices in place to help their workforce tackle crises effectively and efficiently. Want to see what we can do? Give us a shout and we’ll talk it out.