As a young man, I worked like a slave. My first business did not take off immediately and in order to pay the bills whilst I was getting established, I did a milk round in the morning and shifts as a barman in a nightclub at weekends. For that period, I literally did nothing but sleep and work!
The period when I did this was over forty years ago. Times have changed and work/life balance has become much more important to people of every age. But I think Covid has done a great deal to hasten this process and make people question their priorities.
A lot of clients have told me how difficult they are finding it to motivate their staff. Before Covid, their top negotiators would think nothing of working until late into the evening to make their commission targets. But now people are questioning whether it is really worth working until 10pm every night in order to be able to afford a two-week holiday in the sun that they can’t book at the moment anyway. And, it is not just the sales staff who have been affected.
Many of my clients are telling me that they are dealing with constant requests from administrative and support staff to work fewer hours or even to work part-time. They seem to be taking the view that spending more time with their family is worth sacrificing 10%, 20% or even 50% of their salary for because the impact of Covid has made them reassess their priorities. This attitude is not right or wrong but it is a very sudden and powerful shift and employers will have to find ways to deal with it. This might include making greater use of part-time staff, offering job shares, offering flexible hours or using PropTech more extensively.
There is also currently a desperate shortage of staff so you can’t just replace people who refuse to work as they did before. This staff shortage has been caused by three factors. Firstly, there are people who prefer to remain on furlough rather than returning to work. Secondly, Brexit has caused a lot of European workers to return home. Thirdly, the property sector has done particularly well over the Covid period so many companies want to increase their staffing levels.
Faced with such a perfect storm, you will probably need to offer higher salaries to attract really good staff but this on its own will not be enough. You will also need to recognise that money is not the only thing that motivates people and you may need to offer other incentives such as flexible working hours and quite possibly the option to work from home for part of the week.
This fundamental reassessment of life’s priorities is not just affecting employees; it is also affecting business owners. For most of the last twenty-five years that I have been selling businesses, the main reason that most clients gave for selling was, “I am sixty-five years old and I want to retire.” Now, the reasons for selling are very different. The ever-increasing burden of dealing with compliance legislation and the savage fines for getting things wrong is still a big reason for selling a business for many people. But it is no longer the most prevalent one.
The most common motivation of all at the moment is to maintain or improve life balance. Covid has made many people reassess their priorities and they are no longer prepared to sacrifice everything for their business. A lady who we sold a business for recently said that having her children at home for six months made her realise how little she had seen of them before Covid came along and how much she did not want to miss the second half of their childhood.
An older client said that she had taken her phone with her everywhere for thirty years in case there was an emergency and the relief that she felt when she was finally able to switch it off was simply indescribable. A third client said that she had worked hard to buy a beautiful home and Covid made her realise that she had hardly had a moment to enjoy it.
Not everyone feels this way and thankfully we still have plenty of buyers who are ambitious and hungry to expand their businesses. However, even amongst these people, it is rare to find people that are prepared to sacrifice everything for their work and most have come to realise that work/life balance doesn’t have to mean that you do nothing but work in the first half of your life and nothing but relax for the second half. With hindsight, I am not proud of the crazy hours that I worked in my early twenties and if I could have my time again, I would like to think that I would do things differently.
Covid has taken a terrible price on us but by making us reassess our priorities in life, it may have taught us an invaluable lesson.
Adam Walker is a management consultant and business transfer agent who has specialised in the property sector for more than forty years.