There are a number of reasons why companies decide to move – consolidation, cost savings, space – but whatever the rationale, it is likely to have a big impact on staff, particularly if they are being asked to move house or commute further.
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Julie Davies, HR manager for strategy and policy at Cheshire East Council, says distance was one of the biggest issues for staff when the unitary authority was established last year. The amalgamation of various legacy authorities in the county led to relocating about 1,000 employees, many of whom were transferred from Chester to Crewe, 25 miles away. The authority hired a consultant to devise travel plans for staff, started shuttle bus services, and introduced a reimbursement programme for employees whose travel costs increased. Even so, not all were prepared to move.
“We had some people refusing to move,” says Davies. “Some couldn’t move for personal reasons. They couldn’t add an extra hour or so travelling each way into their lives and there was no easy solution to that.
“Amazingly, we only had six formal grievances about the move itself. We attribute that to the amount of support we offered,” she adds.
One of the council’s solutions involved re-organising the office space and working hours. “To mitigate some of the travel, we’ve stepped up our mobile and flexible working initiatives,” says Davies.
Stephen Fleetwood, head of global location advisory at property consultancy DTZ, says this is an increasingly common strategy. “Homeworking is something that five years ago was rare, partly because of the lack of technology, and partly because organisations were reluctant. But now it is becoming much more of an option, particularly where companies have hot-desking and people work one or two days at home.”
Giving employees plenty of notice and preparing them for a move is another important step. Sage, the academic and professional publisher, recently announced plans to move its warehouse from London to Peterborough. Carol Irwin, HR director, says nine of the 15 warehouse staff have agreed to relocate.
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“Following the announcement and first consultation meeting, we organised a trip to Peterborough for the staff to see the new warehouse and to look round the city,” says Irwin. “We also invited partners and families to come on the trip. We prepared packs for everyone who came, with information on the local area, including accommodation and schools.”
Getting families on board is a crucial step, but one that is often overlooked. A study published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation in 2003 found that many employers were failing to acknowledge the impact moving may have on an employee’s family, and that partners and children were often negatively affected.
A desire not to uproot families is one reason employers are increasingly shortening overseas or long-distance placements, says Neil Bishop, business development director at corporate relocation firm Bishop’s Move.
“There are definitely more companies shortening assignments, whether that is somebody being asked to relocate to New York, Paris or Edinburgh. In the past it was usually a two- or three-year secondment. Employers are now wondering if it is really required. Maybe they’ll move them there for six months; perhaps they can commute and they won’t relocate the family.”
Bishop says the recession is another factor behind these shortened postings, as commuting costs are often cheaper than paying to relocate entire families twice over a two- or three-year period. He says firms are also cutting back on other relocation allowances.
But Lynne Marr, partner in the employment law team at law firm Brodies, says helping out with expenses is often vital if companies want to keep employees.
“Companies might want to give some consideration to paying towards relocation costs for employees, because if they don’t – if they don’t help them move house, for example – it might be impossible for them,” she says.
Marr believes incentives can help dissuade employees from becoming disgruntled and taking action against employers, but warns it is not a fail-safe plan. “If you made a financial payment to them, it wouldn’t necessarily stop them from making a claim, and it wouldn’t necessarily stop them from being successful.”
The recession is also likely to have had an impact on employees’ willingness to move. While unemployment has risen to its highest level since 1994, the housing market is also stagnating, and many people are reluctant to sell property in this environment.
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“Staff generally aren’t prepared to travel or move if the labour market in their area is such that they could seek alternative employment,” says Fleetwood. “It is certainly not the case that it is all doom and gloom out there. I don’t think it is as much of an employers’ market as the press would have us believe.”
Moving people away from the South East remains particularly problematic, adds Bishop. “There has always been the problem of the price differentiation of the value of a property in the South and the value in the North. While an individual might get a bigger property with the relocation, there is going to be some stage where that individual might want to move back to where their roots are. The likelihood is the value of the property is not going to increase as much in the North, and they are going to have to struggle to relocate back to the South. Some employees will not relocate because financially, it is damaging long term.”