For office workers, the workplace has taken on an amorphous quality over the past two years. In early 2020, it was a desk and a chair and cheap carpet tiles. Now, in January 2022, with WFH guidance back in place, it’s something altogether different: less a place, more a concept. At best, a nebulous grouping of people who pop up on each other’s screens and share roughly the same goal; at worst, a laptop at a kitchen table and a sense of isolation.
Into these strange conditions comes the anachronistically titled Best Places to Work 2022, a ranking of the UK’s top 50 employers by job site Glassdoor. The ranking is based on reviews of companies posted to the site by their employees. For some of those reviewers, it has been two years since they last set foot in their place of work.
Best Places to Work has been an annual list in the UK since 2015, but this year it has had a radical shake-up: only 17 of 2021’s top 50 employers remain on the list. Last year, the top five was a Silicon Valley roll call, featuring Salesforce, Microsoft and Google. This time around, it’s made up of less well-known employers: the top five are ServiceNow, an IT service company; And Digital, a cloud engineering company; last year’s top employer Salesforce; publisher Immediate Media; and Abcam, which provides support to research scientists.
In fact, half of the employers in this year’s top 50 are completely new to the list. Jill Cotton, a career trends expert at Glassdoor, said this is its “biggest shake-up to date”. Admittedly, some of last year’s top 50 have disappeared for reasons beyond their control – Bella Italia, which was at number eight last year, went into administration last July. But Cotton said the biggest factor behind this change is employees’ shifting priorities. “Work-life balance has increasingly become a priority for UK workers,” she told me, explaining that “67 per cent of people in full-time employment in the UK say that their expectations of the balance between work and home has changed since the pandemic began.”
In other words, what now constitutes a good employer is less a question of office architecture, ping-pong tables or a cake trolley, and more about flexible working.
Even before the pandemic, workers were beginning to wake up to the fact that the football tables and subsidised canteens installed in offices during the 2010s, were mostly a ploy to persuade them to spend as much time at work as possible. Law firms had been doing it for a while – but when Google (number four last year; number 18 this year) started installing sleep pods, the line between a cool office and an office at which people are expected to sleep was forever crossed.
Working mothers, few of whom miss the apologetic face they had to pull as they slipped out of the office on time in order to make it before the end of after-school club, had been banging on about this for years: snacks are great, but an employer that respects you and trusts you will get your job done even if you’re not in the direct eyeline of your boss is better.
As with many workplace trends, it’s worth noting that this change in priorities generally applies to the section of society that can afford to work remotely. Although Indian restaurant Dishoom was a new entry to Best Places to Work at number 12 and Nando’s is there at number 34, 19 of the top 50 are tech firms, while there are five finance companies and four consultancies. It’s safe to assume that most of the reviews for such companies are from white-collar workers with permanent contracts. The pandemic’s sunlit uplands don’t generally apply to zero-hours workers.
That said, the list demonstrates that the employers who are focusing on their workers’ new priorities are already reaping the benefits. Last year, the tech consultancy Gartner suggested that companies will find that the people they’re hiring assess them on how they behaved during Covid. “Employees and prospective candidates will judge organisations by the way in which they treated employees during the pandemic,” it wrote.
It’s also an indicator that, no matter what the government guidance is, WFH isn’t going anywhere. In a hiring market as competitive as the UK’s after Brexit, this a truth employers can’t afford to forget.