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Recruitment Expert Interview-Handling COVID 19 With Mark Woffenden of Lucy Walker Recruitment

Handling COVID19 was the topic of this Recruitment Expert interviews episode of the Recruitment Marketing and Sales Podcast, I had the pleasure of conducting one of our recruitment expert interviews. This particular recording is with a client of ours, Mark Woffenden the finance and marketing director from Lucy Walker Recruitment.

Below is the full transcription. Please excuse any typing errors as the power of AI technology has created this.

Denise Oyston: Hi there everyone. This is Denise from The Recruitment Marketing and Sales Podcast with a very, very special podcast today; I’m delighted to have the amazing Mark Woffenden here with me.

Mark is a client of ours. Actually, before we started the podcast, we were talking about how from four years ago, on my Facebook feed, popped up a few pictures. We were in the Lake District on a particular client retreat. I think, to be fair, Mark, that was when you started the transformation of Lucy Walker, wasn’t it?

Mark Woffenden: Yes, I think it probably was.

Denise: It was the website and everything else. I don’t want to steal too much of Mark’s thunder. A couple of weeks ago, we were having, I think, possibly, a giant meltdown with everything that was happening around COVID because I think it took everyone by surprise. Mark and I have been speaking quite a lot in the last few weeks. I think he can bring quite a different perspective to what’s happening because Mark has a financial background, he’s worked with Lucy Walker Recruitment, with Lucy Walker, who’s his lovely wife. They’ve been working in Leeds for, what’s it? 26, 27 years now, Mark?

Mark: Yes, 27 years.

Denise: Now, Mark is also head at the marketing for Lucy Walker, and you’ve delivered some innovative things. Today I have here nine questions to ask you. I will fire away. If I just start by, tell us a little bit about you, Mark, your background, and Lucy Walker.

Mark: Of course. Can I just say, thank you for that introduction. I’ve never heard the words, amazing and Mark Woffenden in the same sentence from anyone.

Mark: Thanks for that.

Denise: You’re welcome.

Mark: I’m the director at Lucy Walker, and like you just said, I’m principally involved in the finance and marketing side. I’m not recruiter trained, although, I probably feel like I could tell most recruiters how to do their job better. In fact, I know I can tell most recruiters how to do their job better. My actual background is in finance. I have to say, I am a chartered accountant, but we’ll keep that quiet, by profession.

Mark: I got involved in recruitment around 1998 when my son was born. Lucy Walker, as you mentioned, is my wife. We got married in ’97. Now, Lucy set the business up with the advice and guidance of her dad in 1992 with not much more than one of those Rolodex; I don’t know if you remember those?

Denise: I do.

Mark: Those Rolodex. Who needs CRMs when you’ve got Rolodex? Then, she had a service office space, a telephone, and the Yellow Pages.

Denise: The Yellow Pages.

Mark: The Yellow Pages, I know. Some might say the good old days, but indeed, times when the phone was key, the communication. I can even remember, it was a time when you got the post, and it was worth opening it.

Mark: Thinking back, what you say about the Yellow Pages seems quite bizarre now. The “let your fingers do the walking”, you remember that?

Denise: I do.

Mark: On the TV ads? I’d love to talk about it to my kids these days about those pre-Internet days and pre-mobile phone days, and no websites. I don’t think my kids believe me when I tell them there was a time pre-Internet and mobile phones. Going back then, I think the barriers to entry to recruitment have always been quite low and were probably even lower, because you didn’t need a CRM, you didn’t have to worry about GDPR. You just had a load of notes on your desk. I think our marketing, at that point, probably revolved around three things. We had the either Post-It or Fax and a list of hot candidates each week.

 

We had weekly press adverts in the Yorkshire Evening Post on Thursday night, and we would wait the next morning for the phone to ring for people to apply to jobs. Then, it was the design of our annual ad for the Yellow Pages. I remember when the new Yellow Pages edition used to come out, you used to go through, and you look in the employment agency section and see how well your ad was placed because that could be the key for your marketing for the whole year. There was no email marketing or blogs back then.

 

Lucy had set the business up in 1992, and it grew fundamentally on a reputation as an excellent recruiter in the market, which there is an ability to meet and service client needs. That’s how the word spread. She was very cautious in those early days, as we generally have been about overexpanding it because we never needed to create a multi-site monster. Probably, three or four years of steady growth before we expanded, firstly, which we started off doing perms before we expanded into the temps market. Then, at that time, we were in the Manchester market.

 

We did this, as often happens in recruitment. If you get another fantastic recruiter, that can open many doors for you. Off the back of another recruiter, we have enjoyed around 1995, we’ve diversified into these markets. I had my other job at that time, but this let me get more involved with, firstly, in the payroll for the temp workers of an evening and as that grew, it took up more and more time, and I still have my day-to-day job.

As I said, it never had been really about us chasing every dollar because we’ve never wanted to take over the world. It’s always been about providing an excellent service to clients, cementing those good relationships, and above all, I think having a good work-life family balance for us. Kids came along. It just made sense, rather than me working in the evenings, to become involved in what was the time when the business could sustain both of us. I think we’ve achieved that with two kids at uni and one about to go.

 

Currently, we have 17 staff, and we operate principally in Leeds and West Yorkshire area across the commercial sector, which can cover everything. Be it legal, financial, business services, property, manufacturing, logistics, any environment with desk-based roles, I think. We work from anything with PAs to EAs, juniors, secretaries, receptionists, account execs, lots of senior managers, and directors. Very extensive and diverse, but that’s us in a nutshell.

Denise: Obviously, you’ve said, Mark, you’ve grown over the years, and I think I read on your website, you place over 100,000 temp positions, as well, over time, too. Let’s cycle back to six weeks ago when the world seemed to change. I think one of the things you’ve often said to me is like, through Lucy, she’s got amazing respect out in the markets. People often go to her and say, “What’s happening in Yorkshire?” I wondered, from your perspective, because I know you guys are very in touch with your client, what’s happening for Yorkshire businesses at the moment when it comes to business and recruitment, and working with the teams?

Mark: I think they closely mirror the issues of all businesses and business owners, really, facing across the country, Europe, and the world. God, when you hear that America has around, what is it, 20 million people have registered as unemployed?

Denise: Yes.

Mark: Then, you got the price of oil is in negative territory. It’s a strange world out there. As a business over recent years, we’ve tended to work that way, from the bigger organizations, which work on reduced margins and extended payment terms. We’ve partnered more with other SME businesses and with their plans for growth. At that level, I think the pandemic is potentially a lot more crippling.

At the moment, we don’t seem to have any clear direction, do we? I listened to Boris yesterday on the length of lockdown for businesses, and with economic uncertainty over the speed of any potential recovery. We’re all just speculating on funding requirements, how we access those funding requirements, what business planning we do, when will the markets pick up? Against that, I think any business in Yorkshire, wherever it makes, is very difficult.

Comes back to that old saying, doesn’t it? “Cash is king”. Everyone’s conscious of keeping hold of their money and that, in itself, has impacts on other businesses if people aren’t paying other people. Interesting that from some of our discussions, we can talk to different businesses in the same industry and I’ll have one who’s treading a path and probably going along relatively unscathed, might have furloughed a few people. While another in the same industry, they could be struggling because of who their customers are and how they’re impacted to start knock-on effect of– Every business is different, and that supply chain can really hamper some businesses and not others. All the problems seem to be intertwined at the moment.

Denise: I think, as you rightly pointed out, I noticed that on your website, your value proposition is about working with SME businesses across Yorkshire. It does seem like it is, and we’re an SME business, we’re a micro-business, that it’s us that have been really, really impacted through everything that’s happened. Obviously, we’ve had furlough as an opportunity, but what other support do you think people are tapping into in Yorkshire at the moment when it comes to resources funding?

Mark: Again, really, I think it probably mirrors the UK-wide approach. We’ve had clients, obviously, trying to access the Siebel scheme and that’s not been without its issues, has it? The original one.

Denise: No.

Mark: Also, it’s like you said, many are taking advantage of the ability to furlough staff, and once that’s started, it’s like seven out of 10 companies nationally, which is just huge, isn’t it?

Denise: Yes.

Mark: I think to start with, almost, companies wanted to keep furloughing staff quiet from other people, as if it was an admission of some sort of corporate failure of theirs. These are unprecedented times as everyone keeps telling us and the need to utilize help support is key to keep businesses going. I think there was another scheme, wasn’t it? Introduced yesterday to make access to funds for smaller business easier, which is great. I think my concern, as always, and probably comes from my finance background, is, what we are doing at the moment is we’re replacing lost income with additional debt.

Even if you’re able to defer VAT payments or take money from these schemes, it’s money you’re going to have to pay back, and you need a valid and profitable business to enable you to do that going forward. We don’t know what the world’s going to look like. I must say, I think, certainly, in terms of Yorkshire, and as you know, I’m a Southerner, even though I don’t sound like it because I’ve lived up here for far too long, and I know you’re a Lancastrian. I don’t want to get into any War of the Roses type stuff with you!

It is a very resilient county, full of very resilient people. It’s a huge county. I think with the GDP of Yorkshire is something like 110 million, which is bigger than, is either about nine or 10 of the countries in the EU. It’s massive, and a very diverse economy. If there was any region that can bounce back strongly, I think Yorkshire will be one of them.

Denise: It is a very resilient region. Believe it or not, I was born in the South, as well.

Mark: You were.

Denise: There you go. An Islington girl before Islington was trendy. You talk about resilience in Yorkshire. How are the team at Lucy Walker coping with COVID? I know you’re very process-driven and you do work like a well-oiled machine because we’ve known you for many, many years. What are some of the things that you guys have been doing over the last few weeks?

Mark: I think when this all kicked off, we, like everyone else, were forced into a very quick calls to our IT people saying, “Can you sort us out this? Can you sort us out that?” Literally, take stock in mid-March and readjust so that we could get everyone working from home, which we did. I think that home-working went on for about a week and then, we made the decision following the Coronavirus job retention scheme, not immediately but soon afterwards, to furlough several members of staff after we’d assess the economic data, the government indicators.

I remember talking to you, as well, and you said to me, “These pandemics, it’ll be at least three months.” What our own information was telling us, of all the jobs we had on, we’d go one day to the next; we’d hear clients pulling jobs and roles, cancelling start dates, and potentially, go into hibernation. You’re faced with little option but to follow suit, really. In the backdrop of that, we have furloughed staff, but we have retained a key base of experienced recruiters in place to work on the jobs which haven’t been pulled.

Are also having detailed daily discussions with clients and our candidates to assess how they’re feeling about it, where they are right now with their own thought processes, and what support and guidance we can offer to them in both the short term and the long term. We’ve had really good feedback from that; people have been really, really grateful for the calls. It can be quite daunting because I think if someone hears there’s a recruiter on the phone or whatever, you just think, “I haven’t got any jobs.”

Fortunately, we haven’t had that type of feedback because we have some good relationships in place. It’s interesting because I think some competitors appear to have almost muffled in the short term. Although, like I say, I appreciate there’s no appetite for recruitment amongst a large proportion of clients at this time. I think you need to stay in touch.

Denise: Did Lucy do a video recently? Haven’t you got a report that you’ve pulled together?

Mark: We have got a report. We’ve pulled together a report based on clients, yes.

Denise: I know that one of your goals is to stay front and centre of your market, and you’ve been very innovative in the past. You have your own podcast, you’ve also been on BBC Radio, Leeds. I know Christina has a regular slot on there, too. You’re running a webinar at some point this week, might even be tomorrow.

What’s your take on sales and marketing, generally, and maybe some advice for people because you’ve really embraced it. This situation won’t be around forever. What are some of the ideas that you’ve had from a sales and marketing perspective? What would you be thinking about as you move forward and prepare for the bounce back?

Mark: As you know from our own close association over the last few years, we’re big advocates of the importance of modern-day marketing within businesses. It’s not the size of our Yellow Page ad now. It’s a massively competitive market, and we’re up against many good, local, regional recruiters in the area, and we have to try and stand out and use our knowledge and expertise to do that. I think I’m pleased that we made the decision, probably three years ago now, to having discussions with you guys to have in-house marketing support.

So Christina- was an ex-recruiter or a recruiter with us, and we put her in the role of marketing, and she’s now a qualified marketeer. I think that massively benefits us as a business, thinking about it, to other businesses of a similar size. Thinking back, when the first waves of panic and furloughing started, one of the best and biggest decisions we made is that we would continue with our marketing in a different way. We had several email marketing campaigns, but we scrapped all those. We didn’t think they were relevant; we paused them.

We thought now was the time to really try and claim the space as ours with consistent and relevant information, and I hope we’ve achieved that. I think a lot of the bigger players have almost stopped putting anything out. In fact, when I looked at our marketing stats for April, I think they’re up on the same month of last year, which is even more of a surprise. That tells me we’re, hopefully, doing something right. Myself and Christina have been busy with blogs, client surveys; you mentioned getting the results out. We’re just about to do another client survey in a few weeks.

Next stage of the recovery, we’re going to do a candidate survey as to how candidates might be seeing matters. We’re doing a webinar on Thursday on CVs. We’ve got another one or two planned. Just getting as much relevant content out to the market. Trying to do some videos. Everyone loves to watch a video. Sadly, as you’ll see from this, my face is more for the radio these days!

Mark: But I do try to do them without frightening the audience. I just need to make sure I sit a bit further away from the camera! Now, Christina is excellent on video. She does quite a lot and when they’re all in, so do we encourage the other guys, too. It’s just a good way of getting it out there, really. When I read other blogs of experts in the market, I think we’ve done everything that we can do at the moment from a marketing perspective.

Denise: I know you and I are big fans of Greg Savage. I think that Greg has talked about it, as well. I think interesting because you said that your stats are up in April. The challenge is people pull back the marketing when people want the information. They need information. They’re losing confidence and all things around that. If I could lead you on to the next point because you’ve mentioned it there. It’s about candidates because over the last couple of years, we’ve all operated in a skill short market because of, I think, probably the previous recession. Now, what do you think will happen for candidates because historically, we went into this pandemic being candidate short. What do you see happening now, Mark, in the market?

Mark: In a strange way, I think, probably, at the moment, it’s almost a state of calm, really, before the storm from a business perspective, as I see it. The schemes in place, like the furlough scheme of taking the pressure off businesses, to an extent, in the short term with regard to their expense base. Once this is lifted, and I was concerned that, obviously, they were ending in at May and then, it moved to June because I think a lot of the bigger businesses will have to go through a 45-day redundancy process, per se. What you’re going to do about this? If you’re not going to do something, we need to do something. That gives you the backdrop, really, of the way businesses are thinking.

I think if that’s not lifted, furlough in a structured and intelligent fashion, whatever that means. I’m always thinking over 80% and if it’s all right, we will move it to plucking figures out of the air. 60% and then, 30% because, otherwise, I think you’re going to see a raft of redundancies like never ever before. Sales and cash aren’t going to come flooding back into businesses overnight because once people are back in, they’re going to look at the structures and think what they want to do and they need to keep workable cash flow. Any expense they can cut back on, they will.

I fear I do see a situation, unfortunately, of mass redundancies. Looking at the employment stats for the UK in January, it was 3.8% unemployment, and it dropped steadily from around 8% at the start of the last decade. I think they’re saying with current projections, even in a very short term, that could shoot back up to about 11% from 3.2%. Now, I’m old enough like you to remember the UB40 song. Do you remember that “I am a One in Ten”?

Denise: Yes, Red, Red Wine. A favourite comes to mind.

Mark: It looks like we might be going back to those days now. I do think they think if it goes back up to 11%, that it will, obviously, hopefully, it starts to decrease again from that. I do think we’re going to see a raft of large-scale redundancies and it will be a fiercely competitive job market. I think what you’re going to see then is allowing– employers are going to say, “This job, it might have been a 40K job. This is a 35K job. If you want it to be a successful thing, it’s yours.” I think, will that lead to pay deflation?

I think, potentially, it might do in the short term because whenever some of our recruiters have had discussions with candidates and trying to understand where they’re coming from with how they perceive the market – I don’t think any of them are thinking in terms of, “If I want to move, I’ll get a pay increase.” I think it’s going to lead to pay deflation. I also think it’ll spark a spike in the gig economy. What I’m probably thinking, in terms of almost like a bedroom economy with people starting up in their bedrooms these days because the technology allows for that, doesn’t it?

Denise: Yes.

Mark: I also think all the really big businesses will be looking at their risk exposure during the crisis and really, whether they need those huge support teams anymore and whether they can consider outsourcing those tasks going forward. There’s always going to be an opportunity for creative and savvy people, isn’t there, at events such as this, but I think, unfortunately, it’s going to bring a lot of unhappiness and pain to a lot of people in the short term while they consider their options.

I also hope that we might see out of it, I hope I’m not being naive, but some greater collaboration and help from within our own sectors. The recruitment sector has been very supportive. The number of WhatsApp, Facebook groups, and support networks that I’ve seen reach out to me and others, has been heartwarming. I just wonder how that might continue, as well, but as I say, I think it’s a period of big change that’s coming.

Denise: You mentioned the gig economy. Also, you mentioned earlier about remote working and looking at different ways of the work. I know you guys at Lucy Walker have always been very positive where you have people with families and childcare, and all the different things that have gone on there. At the beginning of the year, you instigated a four-day working week, didn’t you, for your team?

Mark: We did, yes.

Denise: Already, you’ve mentioned a couple of things there, Mark, on remote working. What do you think will happen as we move forward for people?

Mark: I think elements of it certainly will remain. Whilst I don’t think for the reasons I’ve just explained, employees will be in a position to start knocking on doors on their return to work and start making demands of employers, given the change in the economy that we’re envisioning. I do think employers who had resisted previous calls to allow employees to work from home, will now be on the back foot of it, especially more when within the space of a week, they’ve proved that they can change the whole operation from being office-based to home-based. I think there’ll be a big rethink.

From a cost-saving perspective, as well, a hot-desking strategy, a remote working policy could save a lot of money on-premises costs for businesses. I think that the experience we’re going through and having needs to be reflected on first and used advantageously where possible. Genuinely, I think it’s about learning about the easy experience. There’s always going to be the need, isn’t there? We all like the office banter, the camaraderie, the togetherness, we connect collective working, to a degree, essential to maintain and ensure we reach those common business goals.

I do think, certainly, with more experienced members of staff, that there has to be an idea of the change. As you said, we are big advocates of trialling these new ideas and initiatives for the benefit of staff. When it struck, we were trialling a four-day week, which was showing positive signs of increased productivity. We’ve always looked to implement ideas here. I think where you’ve got people who aren’t direct customer-facing staff; we’ve always been more than happy to work around people’s lives and personal restrictions to allow flexible working. For me, as long as the work gets done, I’m happy as an employer.

Denise: A couple of final questions. One is about furloughed staff. As you mentioned, I think furloughing is happening across the board. You can understand in a corporate organization, there might be lack of work for people to do, but it’s also happened in the SME sectors, which sometimes, it tends to be all hands to the grindstone, doesn’t it?

Mark: Yes.

Denise: If the clients aren’t there, what do you do? I think people in that furlough situation are probably going through a bit of a change cycle themselves, thinking, “Why was it me?” There’s a euphoria of, “I don’t have to work. I can sit up and do my garden,” but then, I think that’s something I read. I think I might have shared about China and what would happen after about five weeks, is that people start to get quite restless. What would be your advice to people that are on furlough that might be thinking–? When we start to reflect, and we get away from our everyday life, you start to think, “Is this the job for me, is this the career for me?” What would your advice be to people going through those sorts of things?

Mark: As I’ve said, I think this year is going to be very difficult when it gets going again for the jobs market. I think everyone needs to understand; this isn’t going to be an easy fix where people are unfurloughed, and life and business go back to normal, and we just look back and say, “That was a funny few weeks, wasn’t it?” I do think it will be life-changing for many people. I don’t wish that to sound negative, but that’s my belief.

If I was furloughed, I’d be using my time very wisely. I’ll be registering on webinars, training websites, reading educational blogs, reading books, upskilling. Also, in some instances, considering alternative career paths. Don’t be caught out by this; this is not going to return to the way it was. If you’re unfortunate, whereby you think you are at risk and you will lose your role, try and do something that makes you stand out from the intense competition that there’s going to be.

Take the time to have a look at your career and your career development plan, whether you’re likely to hit those goals or whether you need to take a different approach on that. I’ll tell you, if anyone wants to look at a career development plan, we’ve got some downloads on our website, which are good forms to fill in, and you can just take stock. I also think that it’ll be a good interview question, as well, going forward, asking people, “What did you do when you were furloughed?”

If your answer is you watched the whole four series of Money Heist on Netflix, I don’t think you’re going to put yourself in- although, it is quite good, I must admit, I don’t think you’re going to put yourself in the best of positions. I’d say, don’t let the time pass you by and make the best of it.

Denise: We’ve talked an awful lot about what’s going on in the market, how you can prepare and plan. It’s been a pragmatic conversation, Mark, because we can’t avoid what’s going on and we need to plan and think about the future. I’d say to anyone, particularly if you’re based in the Yorkshire area, check out the Lucy Walker Recruitment website because there are tons and tons of resources on there to help you. I have to ask this question. Anyone that we’re interviewing in the next few weeks, we’re going to ask this question too. What will be Mark’s top three things that he does when we know that lockdown is over?

Mark: Three things. Sadly, I think two of my three things might take a while to come to fruition. My first and possibly, my saddest, will be going to watch West Ham. “Why?” I hear everyone say-

Denise: How did I not know? I know you were going to say that!

Mark: As you know, Denise, I’m a home-and-away season ticket holder. Having my weekends regularly ruined by the failings of my beloved and shambolic club, have been a rite of passage for me for years and years. I feel sorry for my two eldest kids who come with me and have got into that habit now of seeing guiltless displays week on week, and us sitting in the car on a four-hour trip home from home games, analyzing why it’s so bad and why we do it. Then, getting in the car the same time the next week. It’s character building, I think. That’s what I say to my kids. I think Lucy’s got another name for it, but I’m not sure if that’s repeatable.

Mark: On that note, I must give a special mention to my eldest daughter, Libby, who’s in her first year at uni but insists on still coming with me to games. I told her “Why don’t you give it a rest in your first year?”, but she insists on coming. She stays up all Friday night and then, jumps in the car with me at half 7:00 on a Saturday morning. Now, is that dedication is that just stupidity?

Denise: If she’d just come home from a party?

Mark: Yes, she has!

Denise: West Ham, what next?

Mark: I’m not sure. I think football – it will be a long time before we get to see football again. I don’t know if I should look at that as a blessing, really. Secondly, as you know, my next great love is the Lake District. We visit there several weeks a year, seven or eight weeks a year, probably, if we can, as we have a lot of the peace, tranquillity, and beauty of the area. I’m certainly having major withdrawal symptoms at a moment because we’ve not been since Christmas. We always used to go at Easter. The day I’m back in Tweedie’s beer garden, in Grasmere, cannot come too soon.

Mark: Again, I don’t know the time frames on that. With social distancing, that could be a long time coming.

Denise: It could be. It might be just the massive gatherings at the start. What is it, in Italy, that everything– not everything but restaurants, pubs, places, either it can open it beginning of June? Maybe you might get there before the end of June, who knows?

Mark: Whether they restrict the number of people in them, as well, because we have to make sure we get in earlier when we go.

Denise: And what’s the final one?

Mark: Obviously, those two might be way off. I thought I’d go for another one. My third one is even sadder. It’s a Greggs sausage roll.

Denise: You can drive to Newcastle for one because apparently, Greggs is going to open 20 shops in Newcastle, I read on the news.

Mark: I might have to do that. I’ve tried to get onto my fitness regime a bit more during this lockdown. I’m not sure whether Greggs sausage roll goes well with that.

Mark: I have missed them. I must say I have missed them.

Denise: Good. Thank you for taking the time today to do this particular podcast and video. As I said, again, because we will share this and Mark, obviously, will share it, if you were based in the Yorkshire region and you want to build your team as we come out of this or you need some help and advice on your career, then Lucy Walker is definitely the place to go. Thank you, Mark. Maybe we’ll do something similar again in the future. Bye for now.

Thanks,

Denise

 

 

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