How well do we adapt to change in the workplace? Reply

Matthew Haigh (1)

Guest blogger: Dr Matthew Haigh is Senior Lecturer in Accounting at The Open University Business School (OUBS). Dr Matthew Haigh is leading the Festive Networking event on Wednesday 6 December. For more information, visit the OUBS website.

This mis-named Brexit – the existential crisis of our day. Maybe, or maybe not. What to do about it seems the more pressing question. Any period of substantial structural change represents an opportunity to examine ourselves as much as an opportunity to understand employment markets. Take the City of London as an example of a regionally important market. The interesting thing here is that one can see the best parts of regionally important industries dumped into a tiny area, all co-operating, competing, communicating and relying on each other. Basically, the City’s an ant’s nest and not many outside it know much about what happens inside. In the lead up to EU-withdrawal, we might be able to learn both something about the City and something about how well we adapt to change in the workplace.

At the time of writing, EU-withdrawal already tells us something about the City. What stands out in public discussions and the press is a generalised fixation on the City. It’s interesting that the City’s borders – who’s in, who’s leaving and where they’re heading – has suddenly become a matter of national concern, when what the City does is organise a market without borders: globalised financial services. The City supports 100,000 business administration positions; 87,000 positions in financial services; 80,000 in professional services; insurance, perhaps surprising some, comes in at 50,000 positions; technology, 25,000 and growing fast, and retail with 23,000 positions (1). All in one not very square mile, plus Canary Wharf. As we approach the big date of 29 March 2019 – the day the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union – how will this employment pattern change?

If one were to look at recent data, it would appear that net employment losses in the City, going forwards into 2019, are likely. Perhaps net losses in 2019 will prove no larger than any of the five big employment dips since 1997. Certainly, there has been widespread expectation that the City’s employment landscape is about to change. Between March 2016 and November 2017, the fourteen regional newspapers distributed in central London published at least 700 articles alluding to the City’s future relationship with the European Union. Four rhetorical themes emerge in London’s daily press: in descending order, we have Loss (42% of headlines), Existential Threat (30%), Uncertainty (15%) and Hardship (11%). Let’s take a peek at two articles.

Extract 1, 8 November 2017:
“Wall St warns Trump team of Brexit point of no return. High-level meetings hear lack of clarity threatens thousands of UK financial jobs. […] Absent clarity from the government about post-Brexit plans, the executives said jobs would move back to the US or to other European capitals as banks begin to enact their worst-case contingency plans, the sources said.”

Extract 2, 31 October 2017:
“Brexit/City job cuts: Oliver’s army: Consultants predict the loss of 75,000 jobs, but forecasts of shake-outs are often wrong.”

Extract 1 adopts a militaristic tone: ‘Wall St warns’, ‘point of no return’, ‘threatens thousands’. Many headlines have used numbers to frame predicted losses in the City. A headline from October 2016 predicted 100,000 City positions at risk. A few weeks later, another warned “Losing clearing would cost London 83,000 jobs […] up to 232,000 losses across the nation”. A year later, one read “Uncertainty over Brexit transition ‘could put 75,000 City jobs at risk’”. This type of arithmetic rhetoric speaks strongest to Existential Threat.

Extract 2 may prompt your knowledge of military history. The headline alludes to the professional status of soldiers in the New Model Army and their eventual fate: unemployment. The New Model Army fought for a Commonwealth of England, only to be disbanded in 1660 following disputes over pay and political demands. A connection to the ‘army’ of commuters heading for City of London is clear, as is our classification of Extract 2 under the Loss and Uncertainty categories.

In all of this, the City has been cast both as a victim of circumstances and as something to blame, or that should be made responsible, for the consequences. Why both victim and scapegoat? The answer, of course, is employment multipliers, with the Office for National Statistics using multipliers between 1 and 5 for financial services, insurance and related industries (2). Whatever happens in the City in the run-up to March 2019 we might expect that to be felt across a range of employment markets. So we might benefit from considering how well we adapt to change.

Conveniently, a tool exists to help you gauge how you adapt to change. It’s called a career adaptability scale, it’s from vocational behaviour research, and it’s been tested in English-speaking and non-English-speaking countries. Access a copy of the instrument and score yourself using a five-point scale: 5 for ‘strongest’ to 1 for ‘not strong’ (3). If your total score comes out below 60, you might need to work on your adaptability strengths in the run-up to March 2019.

  1. See The Impact of Firm Migration on the City of London, http://www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/economicresearch, accessed 10 December 2017.
  2. See ONS tables ‘Type I employment multipliers and effects by SU114 industry and sector (market, government and NPISH) Reference year: 2010’.
  3. Mark L. Savickas and Erik J. Porfeli (2012) “Career Adapt-Abilities Scale: Construction, reliability, and measurement equivalence across 13 countries”, Journal of Vocational Behavior, Volume 80, Issue 3, Pages 661-673.

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