Richard Harris, Chief Legal Officer, Robert Walters Group
ON LIFE & RECRUITMENT
POST PANDEMIC & BREXIT
Since 2011, Richard has been with the Robert Walters Group, a leading global talent acquisition & RPO specialist. He lives in Acton, in West London, with his wife and two children. He is an enthusiastic cyclist, and loves taking his family to the countryside in their cherished VW camper van.
Q. How did you keep you & your children busy during lockdown?
Honestly, a tale of two halves. When we first went into lockdown it was a case of adjusting to working from home in a totally different way. Also being at the centre of the company's response to the pandemic, normality just went out the window (a window locked to the outside world).
Just before we went into lockdown, we had a family visit to HobbyCraft and stocked up all kinds of stuff for us and the kids. I bought an Airfix model of a Campervan, determined to actually paint all the detail properly. The reality was a bit different. Understandably the schools were in a bit of chaos early on and there was so little structure to the day. Like many others, sometimes the kids would spend the day in bed watching Netflix. We did remember to feed them but, that was about it.
The second half was different. More organised and more structured especially with online lessons. I took up the Ukulele, rode my bike with my new cycle buddy (Liberty my 9 year old), rediscovered art and yes there was the Peloton bike. We did lots of baking and cooking as a family – we can cook up a mean bagel now and Liberty’s ravioli do not split. Liberty’s also become quite good at coding using scratch. My son, Reuben, for all the toys he has, spends lots of time building structures and robots from the Amazon cardboard “wreckage”.
Q. What’s the one thing you are desperate to do once all pandemic restrictions have been lifted in the UK & globally?
Holiday! I want to hit the road in the Campervan and spend some time outdoors. Surprisingly for a foodie, I've not really missed eating out. For my kids, they just want to “play with people with who they don’t share DNA with” to quote my daughter.
Q. Have you enjoyed working from home, and to what extent do you see it becoming the norm in the future?
Covid has really become an accelerant for lots of things and one of them is working from home. It's a forced experiment that does show that it can work and work well. However, it's all about the execution of it. Technology which is stable is an obvious hygiene factor. As we look to the future post-pandemic, there is still much to be developed around WFH. In particular, I think collaborative working and those watercooler moments are more tricky done remotely.
Ensuring the good management and wellbeing of your team is another. We have not evolved to be solitary, and we thrive in the hive. I highly believe hybrid, between in office and out of office, is where we will end up. Note I say, “out of office” as they may not be home. I also think that VR technology is getting increasingly good, and we will see this start to enter the mainstream shortly. WFH is no longer a dirty word (other than at Goldman Sachs).
Q. Did you always want to be a lawyer?
Having watched Indiana Jones as a kid, I originally wanted to be an archaeologist. When I found out it was more Time Team, I went off the idea. I did also consider journalism and had a summer placement at the Times which I enjoyed. I am from a family of lawyers, so I was always close to the law. Out of 4 siblings, 3 of us are lawyers. When I finished University, I had come round to the idea that there must be something to it and I have always had a strong sense of justice.
Q. Has Brexit impacted the way your business thinks and acquires talent for its clients?
Surprisingly, it has not been particularly impactful yet. I think that Covid has “conveniently” met that wave hitting the UK and merged into another larger one.
We are locally established and licensed so that has not been an issue. In the longer term, it is very hard to tell what will happen. We have seen some disruption to trade but in the big scheme of things, it's not fundamental.
Q. Let’s pretend the pandemic hadn’t hit. What changes did you see happening to the UK economy as a result of Brexit alone?
I personally think the government has been “lucky” that the social and economic effect of the pandemic has masked the true initial impact of Brexit. Demand in the Labour market has been temporarily reduced, however, we are already seeing a strong surge as we exit lockdown. What I think we will be left with is a skills shortage in particular sectors and not just in the hospitality sector but also in IT.
What I also believe will happen is a bigger state sector and state intervention pushed by the “levelling up” initiative. The government are only too aware that they need to deliver investments and jobs within the former “Republic of the Red Wall”. Finally, there are still questions around the City’s place as Europe's key financial centre. Ultimately, my view is that it will remain a critical hub, but will have competition. There needs to be an approach of making London a more liveable city with better transport infrastructure and communications investment.
Q. What do you see as the key trends developing from UK businesses as they bounce back from the pandemic?
The obvious answer is the catalyst of hybrid flexible working. This point is being done to death – but I do think careful thought needs to be put into what develops. For example, does training work as well remotely? What is a company’s culture if it's simply remote – does the differentiator simply become about pay and benefits. How do you measure the intangibles which a good employee brings to a business? There is also health and safety and wellbeing if your workplace and your home are the same place. Do we become more inward looking as people or is it a case of breaking down geographical barriers?
A second trend is that businesses that were possibly passed their sell by date (although iconic) collapsed. And although there was no mass extinction event, these dinosaurs either had to adapt very quickly or became a fossil existing only as a brand. We saw this with department stores and retail.
What comes next, I suspect it will be a hybrid of an experience led shop front and presence – more about brand and marketing than sales – with a strong online presence. Finally, I think accessibility to online marketplaces and in particular to logistics and fulfillment platforms will be critical to a new wave of entrepreneurs.
Lockdown was a time that gave people “time” for better or worse and I definitely see that people especially those with some career experiences are less afraid to take the plunge. It will be interesting to see how these cottage industries develop. I worry slightly about how they scale up at pace.
Q. What will talent acquisition, RPO & MSP services look like in 5 years' time? And is this completely different from the future we would have had with no Brexit and no pandemic?
Like many things’ recruitment does not operate in a vacuum and in today's world 5 years is a very long time. The danger with making too many predictions when the pace of change is so rapid is that you can sound like a fantasist. So, I will go out on a bit of a limb and make 5 predictions.
1. The government will finally grasp the nettle define who is and who is not an employee.
2. Recruitment will polarize into technology driven, low touch, high volume, operators who will be very dependent on AI and high touch although still, tech supported operators focusing on more senior, lower volume roles. My feeling is that the middle will get squeezed.
3. Immigration from Europe will still play a major part in plugging talent gaps, however, a candidate is just as likely to come to the UK from Australia, the US, South Africa, or Japan.
4. Outsourcing will continue but rather than taking large functions, I can see a form of micro outsourcing to subject matter experts who may or may not be UK based.
5. Those operating in the MSP and RPO space will need to diversify their offerings to include other aspects of HR – the reason why I say this is that industry needs to stay ahead of technology which can and is replacing human “knowledge” based tasks and focus of “wisdom, experience and creativity” which is harder to replicate. In terms of COVID, I think this has sped up some changes, but these would have happened anyway – the technology was developing it is just that businesses had less reason, not to deploy it.
Brexit is different. In 5 years’, time we will know whether the UK has secured its own trade deals and we will see if there is a skills shortage caused by the schism with other European cousins. I think we cannot know if Brexit will make long term change – we are all so close to it and it is so polarizing it is hard to get perspective. I cannot see the UK going back in, however.
Q. Why is there a shortage of women in tech, would companies benefit by addressing it, and, if so, how?
There really should not be a shortage of women in tech – my own daughter who is 9 programs in Scratch (the educational programming language developed at MIT) and wants to be a coder. I think that things have really changed through society and education. I am a governor at a local school, and I see this. The generation coming through does not associate IT with particular sex or gender. The stereotype from 20 years ago of the pale spotty nerd, into LARPing and D&D, death metal music, and living at his mum’s house in a boxroom bedroom that smells of “boy” is outdated and is almost unrelatable for the generations coming through. In the long term, I'm confident that the situation will correct itself in terms of creating a pool of great talent. If the talent is available, then companies are crazy to pass it up. In terms of what can be done now, it's about reinforcing the change with positive role models, who are not tokens. Someone coming into IT wants to see themselves working within a particular place and identify with it.