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Thames Valley: Call for a 'brand' and identity to challenge the Northern Powerhouse

By Dan Teuton
10 October 2017

Thames Valley businesses have much to feel confident about the region’s economic prosperity, but should avoid complacency. That was one of the messages from a thought-provoking Future of Work seminar held last week in the Royal Berkshire Conference Centre at Reading’s Madejski Stadium.

Guest speakers from business adviser EY and performance-based training company Dale Carnegie addressed an audience of over 60 local business owners, directors and senior managers. EY revealed details from its Thames Valley Index report, scheduled for release before the end of the year. Bill Burton, managing director of Dale Carnegie for the South East, shared ideas on ways businesses can improve employee engagement.

The future has arrived

Commenting on economic growth in the Thames Value and the wellbeing of its businesses and citizens, EY business development director David Rutherford said: “We shouldn’t become complacent. There is a case for developing an economic plan for the region to give a strong branded identity, similar to that of the Northern Powerhouse.”

EY’s report examines barriers to progress, particularly congestion, the high cost of living, the need for affordable housing, and fragmentation with businesses spread across the region. “Are we taking advantage of all opportunities, especially greater collaboration between businesses and academic institutions, and attracting more international trade?” asked Rutherford.

“The future of work is here now,” noted Marcus Haddrell, director, people advisory services at EY. “We could see as many as 15% of job roles replaced by automation in the next few years.”

Sarah Lavan, partner, people advisory services at EY, commented that although initial post-referendum Brexit worries appeared to have subsided, there was a real threat of skill shortages in the region. “Many businesses have their heads in the sand and still think the issue will go away,” she observed.

Business must be resilient and adaptable in the face of red tape that can slow the pace of change, thought Lavan. “Companies need to consider how they operate and how they manage their people, so individuals don’t feel vulnerable. If workers are worried they are likely to be less productive.”

A question from the audience was “Is the younger generation happy at work?” Lavan replied: “Generally, I’d say yes. And they are probably more resilient to change than we might think. But they do want to see clear career progression and it is up to companies to adapt to keep them happy.”

Another audience question focused on how flexible working could create empty offices that hindered productivity and motivation. Haddrell agreed it could be a problem. “But it’s important that businesses don’t lose empathy with, and between, employees. The workplace is changing and we have to accept that,” he said.

Winning hearts and minds: employee engagement

With Reading’s football pitch as the event backdrop, Burton kicked off the second half of the seminar by getting the audience on its feet for an interactive task looking at how people greet each. This led to a wider discussion on how companies engage with their people.

“Employee engagement is the emotional and intellectual commitment of employees to deliver high performance. It’s no longer a fad,” said Burton. “But winning employees’ hearts and minds can be a battle.”

Delegates shared views about three types of employee: those who are actively engaged, not engaged, or actively disengaged. Burton explained that, on average, around half of a company’s workforce falls into the middle category, with the rest divided between the other two types.

He added that satisfaction with their immediate manager was the most important driver that can improve employee engagement. Second was belief in senior management, followed by pride in your organisation.

“The better the leader, the more productive people are. Effective leaders bring out the best in people by inspiring and motivating them,” said Burton.

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