One week on - the known unknowns?

A week on, and we are deep into an increasingly surreal post-Brexit turmoil which no one could have predicted.

This is without doubt a time for strong leadership, not only for reassurance, but for a sense of vision and direction. But we have a vacuum of political leadership in the UK, following the fall out in both major political parties, which is going to take some months to resolve. There is also a nervous tension across the leadership of the EU calling for decisions that the UK is not yet ready, willing or able to take.

Despite pressure from EU leaders, who have their own concerns about the ongoing uncertainties, the formal process of the UK leaving the EU by invoking Article 50 will not happen for some time. We will wait until at least after the new Conservative leader and Prime Minister has been selected and we are closer to some understanding of what we will be negotiating for.

One thing is clear though. We all need a clearer vision of our future – a vision for the UK in an increasingly global, digital, diverse and changeable world, what some have termed a new industrial age, in to which we can frame the debates of immigration, economic growth, and societal change. And our profession has a vital role to play in this – our Future of Work is Human initiative, we hope, will help to focus our contribution.

It’s in these times of uncertainty that people will be looking much more to their immediate communities, places of work, and organisation leaders for a sense of stability, of reassurance, and even a confirmation of identity – what we still stand for and believe in.

Of all the messages that so many were trying to send through how they voted in the referendum, the loudest has to be the sense of disconnection and disaffection with the ‘establishment’. That lack of trust that has been steadily growing, and sadly being reinforced almost by the day as politicians seem to row back from some of the claims made on both sides of the debate. This backdrop impacts us all in the workplace, and we have to respond.

A crisis of trust is a challenge of leadership. Trust is elemental to supporting change, to resilience, and to well-being. So the agendas we have been pursuing on the importance of engagement, employee voice, well-being, diversity and better support for people are more important now than ever. Leaders have to be open, to listen, as well as communicate some calm and reassurance. Trust starts with these, but is sustained through consistency of word and action, of fairness, and of humility.

At the CIPD, we are working hard to play our part, to connect with our community, to listen and to support. As we talk to HR Directors and people across the profession, we are seeing the difficult job they face of needing to be a key channel for reassurance, counselling and support in their organisation at this time of uncertainty. At the same time as fulfilling this supportive role, many are working on some of the immediate reactions from many businesses to a Brexit result; slowing down on recruitment, of investments, and possibly planning for downsizing or relocation scenarios.

We have started what are going to be regular pulse checks of how organisations are responding to Brexit, alongside our wider regular market surveys, and engaging through our networks and communities. From a response of over 400 organisations last week (and reported on by the BBC’s Newsnight), most were very concerned about declining staff morale and anxiety. Over 57% were concerned about weakened ability to attract and retain staff in the future, and whilst many still thought it too early to tell, 1 in 3 were seeing a hiring freeze or slowdown in recruitment. A quarter of organisations said they were starting to develop broader post Brexit plans, but only 18% are currently considering how to secure their non-UK workforce.

These sorts of findings were broadly echoed through a CEB webinar and a series of polled questions that I participated in earlier in the week with a panel of ‘experts’ (a term that also seems to have lost some value in recent weeks!) and an audience of more than 3000 business people. Interestingly, the most popular question was whether we actually thought the UK would leave the EU. There seems no doubt judging by comments both from Europe and Westminster in recent days, although as we know, there are many different options as to how we might continue a relationship.

So the mantra has to be to remain focused and not overreact, to reinforce the values, support and connections within our organisations for all our people, but also to think ahead. We must work with all our colleagues and leaders across business to understand possible scenarios and to consider workforce planning implications. In the end, the best way to predict the future is to help create it.

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