North East business groups aim to make ‘good work’ a legacy of the pandemic

“At a time when many UK businesses are finding it hard to recruit and retain talent,” said Newcastle bank Virgin Money this week, “offering a comprehensive and market leading employee benefits package is vital.”

The company’s statement came as it launched a new employee reward package called A Life More Virgin which will give staff 30 days’ annual leave, five additional ‘wellbeing days’ and up to 20 weeks’ parental leave for mothers, fathers and those adopting children.

The generous package came after the company surveyed expectant parents and found that 60% of working parents would switch jobs for better parental leave, while one in seven (14%) have already left a job due to poor parental leave.

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The bank will also allow most of its staff to work anywhere in the UK, saying that “by taking a purpose-driven approach to how we work, we can help colleagues achieve a work-life balance that brings out their best.”

The Virgin Money package was revealed just two days after fellow challenger bank Atom, based just down the road in Durham, announced a four-day week, with staff getting the same rates of pay for three hours less in the office.

“With Covid-19 causing vast numbers of people to reconsider how they want to live their lives, anything that leads to more productive, healthier, and, crucially, happier colleagues, is a win for everyone,” said chief executive officer Mark Mullen.

Virgin Money Jubilee House, Gosforth (Image: newcastle chronicle) Atom Bank headquarters in Durham (Image: from Atom Bank website)

Both banks hope the new working practices will improve the lives of their staff and are open about the fact that they are not acting entirely altruistically. The two companies believe that the increased benefits will make staff more productive, as well as giving them a potential advantage in what is becoming very much a buyers’ market for jobs.

The moves by Virgin Money and Atom Bank come as the concept of ‘good work’ has become an increasingly hot topic in the business community, in part after the Covid pandemic made people look afresh at the way we work.

This week saw three North East organisations – the region’s LEP, the North East England Chamber of Commerce and the North of Tyne Combined Authority – all weigh in on the subject.

In a report compiled with Durham University, the North East LEP said that changing working patterns over the last 18 months had accelerated employers’ ability to ensure improved working practices for their employees, providing better quality and more meaningful work.

Drawing on more than 20 interviews with major employers that were carried out between January and April, the LEP’s report includes a set of recommendations to help businesses in the North East introduce better working practices for their employees.

Michelle Rainbow, skills director at the North East Local Enterprise Partnership, said: “The unique thing about this research is that it was developed in real time during the pandemic, which was a period of huge change for businesses.

“Almost all organisations were compelled to introduce some form of flexible working, which introduced its own set of challenges for employers and employees. How do you provide a supportive and rewarding working environment when your staff are instructed to work from home by Government?

“What we’ve found is that lots of businesses in the North East have been installing the principles of Good Work as a result of the pandemic. The introduction of remote and hybrid working has helped employers focus on important employee issues, such as work/life balance, flexible working, health and wellbeing, and communication.”

The LEP report was issued a day after the North East England Chamber of Commerce had published a ‘toolkit’ for its members which aims to show how creating a fair company and rewarding employees makes good business sense.

Also developed with local businesses, the Chamber’s guide takes in areas such as flexible working, Living Wage accreditation, training and wellbeing.

Chamber President Lesley Moody said: “In this new normal work environment, we should grasp the opportunity to use the learning and experiences of the last 18 months to help our staff achieve a better work-life balance.”

The concept of good work has been promoted in the North East for a number of years, with the North East Initiative on Business Ethics leading the way. Three years ago the Government released its own Good Work Plan, partly in response to the feeling that many poor quality jobs had sprung up after the 2008-9 financial crisis.

North of Tyne mayor Jamie Driscoll has made ‘good work’ a central part of his administration, issuing a good work pledge that he wants businesses in the region to sign up to. Companies accredited under the scheme so far include a number of big employers, including Sage, Learning Curve, Newcastle University and Northumbrian Water.

The North of Tyne Combined Authority’s pledge is centred around five pillars – promoting health and wellbeing; effective communications and representation; valuing and rewarding workforces; demonstrating social responsibility; and developing a balanced workforce – and a report to the authority this week will update councillors on its progress.

The report describes the North of Tyne good work pledge as a “central component of our economic recovery plan” and says that it is “gathering pace, impacting thousands of employees and becoming a force for good in the region.”

Now the North of Tyne authority is to work with the Chamber to develop ‘good work partnerships’ and see if the principles of better working practices can be instilled in start-up companies in the region.

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Graeme WhitfieldRegional business editor