Steve Shutts is the CEO of Astriid, a UK-based charity working with corporates to create jobs and find meaningful employment for people living with long-term health issues. Over the past two and a half years, the organisation has been tapping into what its members call ‘the invisible talent pool’ – up to 11 million people in the UK (and many, many more around the world) who either suffer from an illness or are carers to those who do and, therefore, cannot work the ‘normal’ 9 to 5 office hours. However, the world is changing and even more so with the impact of coronavirus on everything related to the workplace. In this new reality, corporates have had to quickly become flexible, or risk closing their doors. And, it turns out, a lot of business can continue to trade, even with remote working and within different hours. Will this different approach to the ‘office’ stay? And how will the last few months shape the future of corporate approaches to human resources?
What is Astriid? How did it start and how has it developed? Where do you hope to take it in the mid- and long-term?
Steve Shutts: Astriid is a UK-registered charity that was set up by its founder, my brother David, in late 2017. Our mission is to connect people who have long-term health conditions to companies that are looking for talent and expertise, offering meaningful work to those who cannot work full time or need more flexibility in the way in which they are employed. My brother had run a hugely successful career initially in the Royal Navy and latterly in businesses and the CBI, but 10 days after his 50th birthday he was diagnosed with stage IV renal cancer. His experience in the months that followed taught us that no matter how well qualified you are, not even that you have been recognised by the Queen for your services, if you are diagnosed with a serious illness there is a good chance that you become completely invisible to the job market. David experienced this first-hand and wanted his legacy to be one of providing opportunities to people like him, who still had ambition and talent to burn, yet found themselves unable to connect with companies that offered them meaningful work.
If you are diagnosed with a serious illness there is a good chance that you become completely invisible to the job market.
In the medium term, we need to develop our narrative to support the post Covid-19 world that we are about to enter. Whilst we have been talking in the past about the size of the skills gap in the UK (810k vacancies according to the ONS in February 2020), we will now be talking about how businesses that are on a recovery program can utilise the skills and experience of people who are already operating flexibly, and who cannot wait to help support organisations as they pivot and grow according to the changes in their marketplace. We have had to put our own growth strategy on hold for this year and concentrate upon delivering as much value to as many of our candidates as possible. Whilst right now there are very few jobs being posted, we can still help people by signposting the support they need, setting out training opportunities, or even just helping them to recreate their CV in order to give them the best opportunity when the market once again unlocks.
What are some of the most important lessons you have learnt along the way from Astriid’s candidates?
Steve Shutts: Work is such a powerful motivator. I am constantly amazed by the resilience that our candidate base demonstrates as they seek to return normality to their changed lives. There might be a temptation, when a member of the team declares an illness or health issue, to pat them on the head and suggest that they might return to work when they feel better. This is as far from the right way to behave as it is possible to be; everyone needs to feel that they still have something yet to achieve, and work often provides that definition. No matter how far away it might be, and how much pain has to be endured on that journey, there is an enormous number of people who recognise that the effort is worth it.
Why is it often harder for people with chronic illnesses to find employment? What skills and talents can people with chronic illnesses bring to companies?
Steve Shutts: The problem if you have a chronic illness tends to focus on your lack of convention when it comes to the recruitment industry. You could probably work as many hours as non-sick people traditionally do, the difference would be that your hours would span the whole seven day week and would often mean that you might be working in the small hours of the night, when your illness is keeping you awake and you are desperate for something else to think about. Another big issue for candidates with a long-term health condition is determining exactly when in the interview process they declare their hand. Do you start the interview with the statement that says: “I have cancer and I need to find a job that fits around my treatment schedule” undermining the whole recruitment discussion, or do you wait until the end, just about the point that you might be offered the job, to declare that your health condition means you need to work one week in four from home as you are unable to leave the house.
Our recruitment processes in this country simply don’t allow for this variance to the norm, and what is desperately needed is a program that recognises the absolute requirement for flexibility and connects the work with the person rather than the other way round. But diversity and inclusion are all about bringing people into the organisation that have a different life experience and point of view; people with a long-term health condition do not want to waste time. It is far too precious, and they know it. So they bring an energy and a focus to the work they deliver and often have a beneficial effect on the team around them as a result.
How can Astriid’s candidates help the wider business world, considering many have been living and working in isolation for years, not months? How can their experience help others navigate this ‘new normal’?
Steve Shutts: Having had so much exposure to amazing people, it’s quite hard to hear that some of today’s employees are complaining about the social isolation they feel, and the disconnected nature of their relationship with work, as a result of four, six, even 10 weeks away from the office. Many of our candidates have lived with this isolation for many years. This does, of course, mean that they are already set up to work remotely and to fill in the gaps that might be left by more ‘able’ colleagues who now feel the pressure. They know how to organise their work lives, have set up their space at home, and can immediately slot into a role that sees them being part of the team but connected only by technology. I would very much like to think that our candidates will become even more valuable to businesses who now need to re-organise themselves and quickly around their market.
Employees worldwide have had to work from home throughout the pandemic and companies have had to be flexible in this time. What are some of the changes you hope to see in the ‘new normal’ workplace, in light of all the challenges companies have faced in the last couple of months?
Steve Shutts: First off, I very much hope never to hear from businesses that whilst they are supportive of our program and cause, remote working and flexible employment is not something they could deal with. I heard that repeatedly from businesses prior to the pandemic; it wasn’t believable then and it certainly isn’t now. How many businesses have we heard say that their experience of a different type of work engagement has actually opened their eyes to new opportunities? As they seek to re-organise their businesses, the savings that will come from not insisting that all their employees are present and correct at their desks from 9 to 5, Monday to Friday, will be palpable.
My feeling is the business owners will need to be much more flexible on the contractual arrangements that they strike with their team. This will mean flexible hours and remote location will become a factor. I have already heard of businesses that have traditionally operated call centres where they feel they have scraped the bottom of the talent barrel. They are now recognising that there is a new way of working; why not operate remote customer care centres where people work predominantly if not exclusively from home? Investment needs to be made in the training for the middle management group who will need to come to terms with not seeing the team that they are managing. But this is absolutely surmountable, and I have a community of more than 1,000 candidates who will be delighted to offer their help and advice to businesses!
Unfortunately, health specialists estimate that coronavirus has long-term physiological effects, meaning that a lot of people might sadly have to face long-term health problems. What steps do employers need to take to adapt to this possibility?
Steve Shutts: Quite simply, to recognise that the community of people who have long-term health conditions are here to stay. We estimate that all those that are currently covered by our definition would number more than 11 million in the UK. Adding those who are now directly affected as a result of the virus, and the volume clearly increases. So adapting working schedules, re-training middle management, adapting key performance indicators to reflect job sharing and part-time work contracts, all of this is absolutely within the control and ability of businesses of every size.
We can all fully expect the number of people unemployed to skyrocket as we close out 2020, but we also know with equal certainty that many of those people will be re-employed in the subsequent two years. So we will once again endure a skills gap, where businesses are not able to recruit for the roles that are vacant. My advice would be to start thinking now about how to tap into what we call the invisible talent pool.
What steps do companies need to take to actively create a more inclusive workplace culture?
Steve Shutts: I would start with the training of all hiring management. Creating an awareness amongst this community of the likelihood that they will be managing people with long-term health conditions, whether they know it or not, in the very near future. These individuals do not require huge allowances to be made for their condition, what they do require is a degree of understanding and flexibility which cuts both ways. Start managing the output rather than the time spent visibly in the office. Encourage the discussion and challenge that can emanate from someone with a very different life experience as you reshape conventional processes and even more conventional answers.
Clearly, a number of things will change, particularly in the way that people interact with each other within the business. The office drinks on a Friday night at 5 o’clock may no longer be a feature of our future work world, but they can be replaced, and with some creative thinking around the ways in which people can stay connected to each other, we will establish this ‘new normal’ in a way that can be even more productive. Again, there is a community of individuals available right now who can help to establish these new patterns.
As a lot of companies are rebuilding the new workplace, how can they put ED&I at the core of their business/HR strategies?
Steve Shutts: Opening their minds, and their business processes, as they strive to identify what constitutes the new normal in their working practices. A big part of this must include recruitment and talent development, as will new practices of leading and communicating with remote workers. Thinking about how your business can tap into the invisible talent pool, in a variety of ways, is surely going to give you the opportunity to make the most of this hiatus.
People with a long-term health condition do not want to waste time. It is far too precious, and they know it. So they bring an energy and a focus to the work they deliver and often have a beneficial effect on the team around them as a result.
About Steve Shutts:
A management consultant since 1995, Steve’s corporate background lies in Retail where he was the first Head of Strategic Marketing at Sainsbury’s, before leaving to establish a consultancy centred on the development of CRM/Loyalty solutions.
However, in 2017 everything changed as a result of the diagnosis his brother had received. David Shutts OBE had been diagnosed with cancer two years earlier, but at this point, it became clear that if his legacy was to be maintained, some additional energy was required to drive the charity, Astriid. At the time Steve was the chief people officer of global digital marketing company Clicksco, and so people, talent development and recruitment were very much in his blood. The challenge that the charity chose to address, that of connecting people with long term health conditions to meaningful work, clearly would benefit from Steve’s drive and enthusiasm. He became the CEO and took over David’s legacy.
Steve is hands-on, passionate, and motivated by the opportunity to create value through direct, personal impact on the business. His career has centred on innovation, strategic thinking, the ability to create and build enthusiasm for new products and concepts. Whilst operating in the Third Sector, Astriid is now benefitting from that commercial experience.