CEO vision: Managing recruitment through technological changes and global crises

Image courtesy of Robert Walters

Enterprises are exploring new ways of work and speculating on what the workplace after the pandemic will look like. Arguably, few people are as qualified to talk on this topic as Toby Fowlston, the APAC CEO for Robert Walters.

Fowlston joined the company’s London office in 1999, rose through the ranks and assumed overall responsibility for the UK business in 2012. He moved to Singapore with the company in 2013, and now leads the company across the whole of APAC. As a professional recruitment consultancy firm that operates in 31 countries and has been in existence for 35 years, Robert Walters has proven itself savvy enough to navigate various disruptive events — from the 2008 financial crisis to market crashes and pandemics.

We talk to Fowlston on the continuous evolution of Robert Walters and expanding the business into new territories, the differences between the current pandemic and the 2008 financial crisis, and how technology has changed the recruitment game — as well as the company’s own operations.

How have the operations of your business transformed over the past two decades?

I remember when you needed to go to the office earlier than colleagues so that you could get to the fax machines before anybody else. You’d literally get in an hour before everyone else — that was a brilliant strategy because you got maximum productivity out of employees. Everyone came early to use the fax machines so that they could send out their CVs to clients. Of course, things changed: e-mail stopped that.

When I came into the business, I’d start work at 8 o’clock in the morning and stop at 6 or 7 in the evening and turn my computer off. Back then, there were no e-mails on phones and you weren’t getting pinged every two seconds.

Actually, you could genuinely switch off and go for a run or a glass of wine and it was a lot less complicated since we had a lot less data coming at us. When I look today in terms of burnout, pressure and stress on people, there is no escaping the workplace because it’s always there.

I was an accounting recruiter, and I was fortunate enough to be taught very well. Back then you made a cup of tea for your boss and sat down next to him and watched, listened and learned. It was a very rudimentary sort of training technique but my goodness, it worked! You’d have a training phone and you’d listen to calls and then he’d get me to do calls — it was a fantastic experience.

What were the best things that you’ve learned throughout your career?

I’ve had the benefit and misfortune of experiencing both the dot-com bubble bursting and then of course the GFC (Global Financial Crisis). It was really brutal and I learned an awful amount — particularly on the importance of relationships and the importance of how you treat people.

A big lesson for me was the GFC and obviously it’s all about cost management. The advice was to cut back — no more lunches for clients, no more entertainment.

Our CEO said to ignore all of that as it is absolute nonsense. “I want you to spend twice as much on clients and candidates because everybody else is cutting back and we’re not going to do that. We probably won’t make anything from it in the next 12 months because the world is topsy-turvy, but when things return back to normal — which they will — they will remember how they were treated.”

How was your experience moving from London to Singapore?

Frankly, it was quite a soft landing. People talked about the culture shock and so forth but it wasn’t a big one. The big difference was just the emphasis around food!

I come from London when during the lunch hour you go out, you get your food then come back, eat it at your desk for 10 minutes and then crack on back to work. The only advice my friend could give me [for work in Singapore] is whatever I do, “just don’t mess with the lunch hour.”

I was fortunate because I sort of watched, listened and learned the first three or four months rather than being pre-judgemental.

Actually, the reality is that it was a complete reset for me when I moved across – you’ve got to re-establish relationships. You have to build that trust within your team.

What were the key things that you’ve learned so far in managing territories in Asia-Pacific?

The biggest lesson I have learned was that whenever we look to launch a new business, we’ll only ever launch it with one of our own people. Our whole strategy has always been (that) and it’s sort of coming to fruition now.

For Robert Walters, persons in charge of the office ideally and hopefully are from that country. In many cases, we don’t have that luxury, but whatever we do, we build the next-generation local leadership and really invest in local talent. You might need foreign expertise or knowledge just to help but the longer term goal is to end up with somebody local running the business.

How did you manage to keep productivity amid the pandemic?

We were able to adapt very quickly from a technology standpoint. We had business continuity plans, thankfully.

Immediately, we started  shifting people to working from home. We were fortunate because three years ago, we initiated Project WOW (Way of Working) which essentially means that all our employees were equipped with Microsoft tablets. So we were able to almost instantly get people working from home with a full technology offering.

We started using Facebook Workplace about two years ago, then we got Microsoft Teams and we’ve got Zoom and GoToWebinar. Actually, we have a sort of ongoing joke with my team and mix it up purposely. We will agree for a time for us to speak but we won’t necessarily agree on what platform to use. The reason we do that is because sometimes, you’re just ‘zoomed’ out and you’ve had enough of screen time.

Do you think the use of office spaces are now history?

My view on that is it depends on the type of industry you are in and the type of role you are doing.

In our business, it is so important that we have the water cooler conversation with somebody which sparks up a new idea, something that we haven’t thought about. You lose this when you just have prescriptive calls on Zoom or Teams.

Our business essentially is about finding jobs for people. When you’ve got a team of four or five people, sharing all that day-to-day knowledge on the desk all the time, that’s incredibly powerful. My personal view is for our industry, we absolutely will maintain offices but the bigger offices will likely have reduced footprints.

There are some certain functional areas like some of the technological areas, perhaps some of the legal areas and some of the accounting-payroll areas which will be able to work in more of a hybrid capacity. There will be hybrid models in some cases and of course there will be some companies that go the whole way.

How did the rise of gig economy and freelancing affect Robert Walters?

The main purpose of the gig economy is to create diversity and flexibility in organisations. We’ve done quite a lot of research around it — we surveyed 1,600of our clients and 3,000 candidates. The survey found10 percent of organisations in APAC said that they would definitely lean on the gig economy to fill some of their resource gaps during the pandemic and particularly where it keeps costs down.

80 percent of employees expect more changes around flexibility to work from home, 53 percent of them expect more investment in technology that enhances working from home and 33 percent of the employees talked about more autonomy and trust given by the management team.

COVID has left lean teams in a lot of companies and when companies start to grow again, they might not come back with the same sort of talent structures they started the year with.

We’re definitely seeing organisations go for a more flexible model that allows them to scale up and down depending on the market conditions.

Somebody described that COVID-19 is the biggest work from home experiment and it has largely been successful. Of course, we’ve been in it for a relatively short period of time — so what worked in lockdown so far may not be sustainable. Companies are looking to understand which jobs are more location-independent so that they can start working out how they can distribute the workforce.

If you look at gig workers, they usually seek jobs that are sort of autonomous and require very little collaboration or social interaction. But professionals whose roles are collaborative or relationship-focused will have a lot more difficulty reaping the benefits of remote working.

How have recent technology advancements affected your organization?

It’s getting harder for candidates because now there is increased localisation. COVID displaced jobs, and there is more emphasis on hiring locally. Companies are also under tighter constraints on who they hire.

Data is becoming a lot more protected, so you have much greater compliance around capturing all the information and not falling foul on all the regulatory constraints. Plus, you’ve got an ever-increasing litigious society. There are many challenges — and I am not just saying this because I am offering it, but that is fundamentally one of the benefits of using a good recruitment business.

We take all that away from a candidate, so my advice for candidates is: it’s important to be selective about what you are applying for but it is also incredibly important to build a relevant recruitment contact and have a strong relationship with that company or that person.