I write this post because, like most People teams throughout the United Kingdom, we have been trying to stay abreast of the Brexit negotiations and government machinations so that we can best support our team. This has been very difficult, and I hope the People-people (aka cool people) reading this can take some comfort from the fact that we are all in this together! This is one People team’s story through this quite unique period in time.
Strength in Diversity
Like many of our fellow fast growing Tech start-ups in London, we rely heavily on international talent to help us build a product that will enable our mission of building an open world where identity is the key to access. There is nowhere near the supply of skilled UK-born technology professionals to enable us to grow at the speed and scale we need to win the online identity verification market.
As of October 2018 36% of the London team were from the EU/EEA area, with this proportion rising to ~50% in the Technology Group. As a case in point, our critical Research/ML team does not have a single British citizen in its ranks, with a roughly 50:50 split of EU representatives (French, Maltese, Dutch, Polish, Italian and Greek) and non-EU representatives (Chinese, Indian and Iranian).
Therefore, diversity has always been one of the biggest strengths of Onfido. We are formed by three founders with an immigrant heritage, who created the company because they saw the difficulties their families had in proving their identities when they didn’t have a credit bureau history.
Our vision is to create an ‘open world’ and one of our values is that we Succeed Together. This strength in diversity is a key part of the Onfido culture and the open-minded, welcoming and collaborative culture is something that we all enjoy. What’s more, it makes us a more effective and impactful business; better able to deliver value for our customers.
Brexit therefore represented a challenge to these values; certainly in terms of the perception of the UK’s own openness to the wider world. This is a time where we need to double down on our values and who we are as a company, ensuring that we maintain the diversity which is in our DNA.
Supporting the Team
Brexit goes beyond the - up till the last couple of years - prosaic issue of right to work and cuts to the core of who you want to be as a company. The best companies support people in their lives because they care, not just because you need to tick a compliance box.
Not long after the EU referendum we were advised to encourage our European employees to pay some money (I think around £60) to get a letter issued by the state declaring that they had been living in the UK prior to the vote to leave the EU.
I held off on this; one, because this wasn’t the government’s actual guidance to EU citizens and businesses which was due to be announced at a later date (and now has been with the EU Settlement Scheme); and two, our employees in London who are citizens of EU states did not seem to be panicking, and quite rightly too; we shouldn’t have been either. This advice always struck me as a knee-jerk move that could be a waste of time and money, and create an undue sense of alarm internally.
Sure enough the government later announced their actual plans, now finalised in the EU Settlement Scheme. However, at that point, the government was proposing to charge EEA citizens who had been in the UK for 5 years for the pleasure of registering their status in the UK.
Given that we want to do everything we reasonably can to support our fantastic team, whose great work and personality Onfido’s success has been built, we communicated to the affected employees that they could expense these costs to the company. It just didn’t feel right to us that EEA citizens would have to bear the cost to register and safeguard their right to live and work in the UK - a right to which they previously never had to worry about.
As an olive branch to the EU states in the later negotiations, Teresa May’s government then rescinded this charge.
However, our stance did at least show our employees that we are there for them and will help wherever we can.
This very example is why Brexit has been so difficult to navigate. The uncertainty still remains (is the UK going to leave in October 2019, as per the most recent extension? Will the government’s plan finally be ratified by Parliament? Will the path forward be decided by a public vote?) and the fluidity has been difficult to manage. The situation, and thus advice to businesses, has sometimes changed on a fortnightly basis.
In fact, we have found that immigration advisors have been hesitant to speak to our EEA employees about what they can do to safeguard themselves precisely because of the lack of clarity. They didn’t want to give advice to people that could become incorrect or irrelevant later on.
Now it seems that the EU Settlement Scheme is firmed up in the event of a deal or potential no deal, and I have finally been able to write up some guidance to employees on what next steps they need to take.
(N.B. we share this guidance for download here, as we’re hopeful that it can be of use to other companies too. Please note: this guidance should not be construed as legal advice.)
However, this has come two years down the line. And the wider issue of the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU, and how this will affect businesses trading with Europe down the line, is still not clear.
All we can do as People teams and businesses is to keep ourselves informed and up-to-date on the Brexit developments, taking the necessary steps to assess and mitigate any risks.
To Sum Up
Our pillars of support to employees through the uncertainty of Brexit have been:
Providing information (but the right information, not reacting to the Brexit with knee-jerk responses that create more uncertainty and don’t actually help affected individuals)
Support can of course be provided simply in terms of practical help with the settlement process.
Focus on Wellbeing
However companies should also understand that Brexit has been unsettling and potentially stressful for those affected. As a business you should have a holistic wellbeing package that individuals can tailor to their own requirements to best support themselves too.
At Onfido we look after the Body and Mind. This means a gym/exercise subsidy, paid yoga and football as well as weekly mental health coaching and meditation classes. This gives people an outlet to talk about how they are feeling, or simply connect with themselves and their emotions. Physical exercise is also great for mindfulness and stress-burning.
A human approach, where empathy, understanding and care underpin everything that you do is the best way to show the team that you will hold steady to your culture and values no matter the external environment.
Get in Touch!
If anyone would like to talk to us about our experience of navigating Brexit or how we have supported our team, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from other People teams on how you have, and are, supporting your employees through Brexit - we’re always open to sharing and collaboration :)