Negotiating in uncertain times

by Tom Williams Partner

Email +44 (0)7841 103973

Why it’s important to plan effectively and focus on mutually beneficial outcomes

In the shadow of coronavirus (COVID-19), the ways we are learning to adapt at work are much like the ways we are learning about the virus. We watch, learn and respond - then repeat with the benefit of experience. Here we look at how successful approaches being used in unionised organisations can help clients plan effectively during the pandemic.

Focusing on joint goals

A shared understanding of the scale and impact of the pandemic has led to unprecedented levels of cooperation between stakeholders. Management and unions are focusing on outcomes which benefit both employees and employers. Robust consultation is alive, but at present realism and pragmatism have generally replaced adversarial industrial relations. At a macro level, this was exemplified by advice issued jointly by the TUC, CBI and ACAS in September 2020 on how to avoid, or where necessary implement, redundancies. Unions and employers are facing the future with a shared desire to survive, with hard choices being made fairly and openly. Change activity can happen faster, but with more genuine dialogue, if parties focus on minimising negative impacts on employees whilst also delivering effective outcomes that mean businesses survive the pandemic. Employers who have not pursued a cooperative approach have received strongly negative reactions in traditional and social media, in turn opening up political scrutiny.

To take advantage of this approach consider opening up new ways of talking to your unions. Look beyond your existing facilities to create a forum to look at future-proofing your organisation and its people, where participants must commit to focusing on jointly beneficial approaches and day to day talks are off the agenda.

Scalable solutions

Probably the most successful approach to effective planning when the future is uncertain, but one that can easily be missed in a crisis when strategic planning can lack the immediacy of tactical solutions. Finding a path to change once is hard. Having to start from scratch if the environment shifts and the plans you have agreed were not enough will add significant effort, human stress, time and cost. Whilst we may not know what is around the corner, trying to achieve one-time agreements about how and who to engage with, change processes, redundancy selection and flexible working opportunities, will mean that organisations facing difficulties during the pandemic are well set up to react quickly if additional change is needed.

Look outside your organisation to seek ideas from the wider market. Use benchmarking to find out what creative solutions other businesses in your sector and beyond have used to build scalable options for change.

Investment in key relationships

Another point that can be neglected, but which is often the difference between successful and unsuccessful negotiations, is the positive effect of good working relationships. Operating in an uncertain environment every day is exhausting, and this may feel like a nice to have, not an essential point. Putting up a logical business case for change is critical, but in a crisis, a business must connect with its people in a way that engages them to effect change quickly. Achieving this often relies on trust and good faith between key leaders, employees and union negotiators. Those businesses who spend time getting to know and understand these critical constituencies will be a step ahead: and importantly, it’s never too late to start.

Above all, engage directly and regularly with your stakeholders: listen to them. Time and resources are stretched everywhere, so pare back and approach employee engagement using existing data, simple communications tools and channels, and key messages that reflect both business-critical issues and an understanding of what matters to your people.
Please do not hesitate to contact Tom Williams ([email protected]), Julia Harrison ([email protected]), Laura Nadel ([email protected]) or your usual PwC contact if you’d like to discuss any issues relating to the issues raised in this note.

by Tom Williams Partner

Email +44 (0)7841 103973