Date: 05/01/21 | Duration: 00:31:16

Over the past 12 months many organisations in the UK and across the globe switched to survival mode. Whether that was due to a sudden surge in demand for key services or having to adapt operations as a result of COVID-19 restrictions, no business remained unscathed. One thing that is abundantly clear is that our working lives will not be returning to ‘normal’. The pandemic presented an opportunity for employees to reconsider how they work and whether it’s conducive to work-life balance. But are organisations prepared to make the necessary changes that contribute towards building a braver, fairer and more equal world?

Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests, Neil Morrison, Group HR Director at Severn Trent PLC, Deborah Lee, Group Engagement Director, Compass Group and Brad Taylor, Director of People at CIPD, as we take our first steps into 2021 and explore the key anticipated shifts in people practice as we recover and rebuild better and fairer organisations.

Nigel Cassidy: From surviving to thriving, what will or ought to change in how we organise our working lives in 2021? Hello I'm Nigel Cassidy and welcome to the CIPD podcast. 

Well we’ve made it through surely the hardest year ever for people professionals, as one, maybe somewhat jaded human resources manager put it, dealing with all the awkward employee matters that managers were too scared to deal with. So what happens next? Well cards on the table, time to pick out the crucial areas of people practice that this month’s crew think will be centre stage in the brave world of 2021.

With us firstly the Group Engagement Director of the food and hospitality group, Compass, her HR career spans BT and Yoox Net-A-Porter, I knew I should have dressed up for the first show of 2021, it’s Deborah Lee. Hello.

Deborah Lee: Hello. Lovely to be here.

NC: We’ve the Director of Human Resources at Severn Trent with HR experience at several household name companies, he's also helped steer the global merger between Random House and Penguin, it’s Neil Morrison, Group HR Director of Severn Trent, hello.

Neil Morrison: Hi there.

NC: And from the home team a people strategy person whose career takes in both HR and non-HR roles at Barclays and being workplace director of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants it’s the CIPD’s Director of People, Organisational Development of Workplace, Brad Taylor. Hello.

Brad Taylor: Hello good to join you.

NC: So Brad we start 2021 with a huge overhang don't we? I mean it’s going to be more of the same with near deserted offices still, workers stuck at home, not well-equipped. So I mean is this unfinished business as far as people policy implications go or have we actually just learnt to live with all this?

BT: I think it’s something we’ve learnt rapidly to live with as we’ve gone through the year. I think it’s taken us more quickly on a direction possibly that we were already heading in. There had been a lot of discussion about much more flexible working and how do we enable that, projects that seemingly would have taken years to get right and then all of a sudden we’d done it within a couple of weeks and we’ve been learning as we’ve been going along. 

So I think where we are now is we have people who are working from home and after being set up with all the equipment and pieces that they need because a lot of people clearly weren’t in a fit state to be set up for working from home, what we’re now discovering is that in many ways their quite enjoying the flexibility that it’s giving them. They’re enjoying the greater sense of collaboration that the technology provides them with but it has been demanding along the way. We know from our own surveys that people are saying they would like to do a lot more of this type of working in the future, albeit with the option of being able to come into the office to collaborate and meet up with colleagues and have that sort of face-to-face interaction as well.

NC: Well Deborah Lee I'm sure Compass has had to get to grips with all that, what are your thoughts about what continued support people professionals will need to give people, both practical and in terms of how their jobs are organised?

DL: Well I think the first thing I would say is occasionally I hear colleagues say, ‘When we get back to normal,’ there's no getting back, I mean for sure the way in which we approach work and life I think is entirely different. We’re used to working in different times, taking breaks during the day and operating in a completely different world. So I think it’s about how are you equipping employees, managers and teams, the methods and skills and tools that will allow them to work in this new world. And that means also accommodating the fact that life and work are slightly blurred. The blurring of the lines I think is one of the ways to look at it but for sure we’re not going back. 

There is something very, very powerful in this as well that we need to remember which is we can never replace that face to face interaction and that personal building that we have, I mean we’re naturally social creatures and whilst it’s nice to be able to see people on screen it is also nice to be reassured that people have the rest of their body. So I think that's from a human behaviour point of view something that we need to also remember. How do you create those moments of connection alongside also providing flexibility and adaptability.

NC: So Neil Morrison that does require quite a deep understanding just on the practical side of technology on the part of HR people who may not have been too concerned about it before?

NM: I think it does but the first thing I’d like to say is we’ve got to remember that it’s only about 40% of people who do work in the office, there are 60% of people who work in other environments as well, and so we are talking about a relatively small sub-section. If I look at our own organisation by far the majority of them have been working throughout this period of time in their normal working environments. And so one of the challenges for us as HR people is how we knit those different communities together and that's where, to your point, technology challenges do become quite difficult because if you've got employees in the field, if you've got some people in call centres, or if you've got them in treatment works, and others in offices or at home, actually creating a system that works for everyone in that sense is really quite tricky and difficult.

NC: Are you actually changing how you design jobs because of this, because I guess it has led to changes in how people spend their time or where they spend their time?

NM: So certainly for us we’re not because what we’re doing is changing how people do the things not what they do. And so as I say the vast majority of people are still doing the job in the same way, in the same place, going out into the communities and these are the key workers that we all went out on a Thursday night and clapped for. So we’re not changing job design as such but we are thinking about how people organise work on a daily basis, so they’re using their time in the offices, which are socially distanced, to do the work that requires you to be together, the sort of thing that Deborah was talking about, about how people need to come together in those situations and time at home to do the tasks that are better suited to be worked on individually.

NC: So Brad and Deborah before we leave this have either of you any other thoughts to add on the practical functions of HR and how they might need to evolve in this year in order to accommodate these changes that started last year?

DL: I think in terms of some of the things that we need to think differently about, if I take some pockets of some of our clients and certainly on the professional sides where the running assumption was people would come into the office, be there most of the time and take most of their benefits, the sort of fringe benefits that you would have, there. That needs to be looked at slightly differently. So I think the way in which we look at how do you attract and retain people given the changing expectations that they have in certain environments are required. So if you have an onsite gym or an onsite restaurant how do you provide those benefits for those working more flexibly in the future or a slightly different office layout. Is the office layout actually conducive to working in a way that allows people to have that flexibility where it’s relevant? But I agree with Neil by the way on there are vast swathes of people who aren’t in that environment and if HR are focusing all of their time and attention on these new ways of working actually you'll create more of a culture of us and them, the haves and the have nots, which would be a real travesty. 

One of beautiful things I think that's happened in 2020, and there's not that many beautiful things, but one of the beautiful things is actually a lot of the jobs that my people here do have actually had a higher status than they’ve ever had before, people are really noticing, appreciating and understanding the importance of some of the roles that maybe were overlooked in the past or looked down on, and I think it’s really important that we then take that moment and that ethos and continue to build the pride in those tasks, because they are so essential and so important. So I think that's been a nice thing that suddenly those roles have got an elevated status and I think that's the moment to grab of how do you maintain that.

NC: Well it’s interesting you say that about people’s expectations about their jobs because Brad Taylor looking at the sort of things people professionals might need to consider in the next few months I'm a bit conflicted here because on the one hand we know joblessness is going to continue to rise and you would think a lot of people would be glad to hang onto their job, if they’ve still got one, and yet individuals have done a lot of thinking about what they might want out of life and I suppose the talent could walk if it isn't treated right?

BT: Yes it’s a really interesting situation really isn't it because the situation that we had last year has helped people have a serious rethink about what they expect and what they want to get out of their work and their work/life balance. So we have this scenario where on one hand people want to be able to hold onto jobs and fear for losing jobs and certainly furlough and things like that placed people in a lot of situations where they felt perhaps they didn’t have control over their job and over their future, but as we emerge from this situation, and as the employers, the forward-thinking employers I think, will be thinking about what does this mean in terms of workplace design? How do we create work environments where people are able to work effectively from home but also be able to come into a workplace? And then what does the workplace actually provide for them? I think it’s going to be moving on. It has been and it’s going to be moving further from I come in, I sit at a desk or a workstation and I do my work to I want to go to a work environment because it provides a range of services or technology or facilities that I can't readily get from my home environment.

NC: That all sounds a bit millennial Brad.

BT: Thank you! Well I think this is. I think we have a generation of people who are more demanding of their employers, just like they are in anything in life, they know they can move on, they know they have greater flexibility. I think the challenge for employers will be if everyone’s workplace is the same, because effectively it’s your home, how do you differentiate yourself as an employer? What are the things that make you stand out amongst all the other employers to enable you to attract and retain the sort of talent that you want to be able to keep in the future?

NC: And meanwhile Neil Morrison of course things in many ways may get worse before they get better, the wider economy is not good and unemployment is at record levels already, how do you think that will have an impact, well obviously some jobs will go but on the other side of that on hiring and recruiting, on how people manage their careers?

NM: I think there's two things that are potentially likely to happen here. One is almost the opposite of what Brad is talking about is people who probably should be leaving will stay because maybe they’re at a point in their career or a point in their time in the job where it would naturally be sensible for them to move on and do something else but because of the insecurity in the labour market they’ll decide to stay. And so there's a real challenge in terms of HR professionals about how do you engage and motivate that population and make sure that they’re still contributing as much as they can? 

And then the other thing that we see, and we always see this whenever we get a recession, is job applications start to increase for the number of roles that are there and what you find is people start to take more chances with jobs, so they’ll be applying for things that they aren’t necessarily a fit. And so there's a real challenge again for the profession about how do you handle those people ethically and sensibly, those people that are desperate for a job but maybe applying for something that they aren’t necessarily suited for, or the pure volumes, without mechanisms such as closing jobs early because you've got enough applicants or resorting to some weird kind of algorithmic solution that just confines people to a successful or unsuccessful pile. So we have to wrestle with balancing the volume challenge with the ethical treatment and finding a way to manage both.

NC: And of course the hospitality industry Deb has been hit incredibly hard so I guess you've had to do a lot of this management process already?

DL: Well I think one of the key things is that it’s remembering before you go into any of these is it’s not the individual’s fault that we’re in this situation and they’re good individuals who we want to maintain a good relationship for because it will come back, and we believe really strongly in that. So we were able to very quickly understand the areas that were closing like some of our sporting venues pieces and we had really great people really keen to help us and very dedicated but we had a real need in some of our other sectors such as healthcare and so forth and we were able to very quickly redeploy some of those people into that world. 

It’s forced us really to think how do we create that level of flexibility when the government’s changing whether things are open or shut all the time and you have to be on the front foot because you required a different level of speed and pace and I think what it’s done it’s broken down and removed all the reasons why you wouldn’t make those changes and become more agile and more flexible. And in that I think always keeping that dialogue open with our people and giving them the choice because for some individuals there wasn’t really much of a choice because they had to be at home looking after their kids, there was no other alternative and how do we treat those people and look after them and maintain a really great relationship because it will come back and we do want all of our people to be ready and able to contribute as well. 

And I think one of the things that Neil mentioned around the algorithms that when you have so much volume and it does scare me too because when you want to build a real inclusivity into your business and you want to think about diverse pools you also want to be open to the fact that maybe someone has taken a chance but actually maybe this is the right move for them. So I think it gives as much opportunity as it does challenge and it’s how do you keep both of those things in balance that you want people to be successful fundamentally and it might require us to think slightly differently about what we’re doing to support people in that next phase.

NC: Well yes and just continuing that theme with Brad Taylor we’re going to see these divisions in our society continue aren’t we? It seems unlikely they’re going to be healed in the near future. So that of course raises all the questions about diversity programmes and initiatives, some of which sadly have been put on the back burner.

BT: I think there was a kneejerk reaction last year when the pandemic struck for things like diversity inclusion initiatives to be put on the back burner. I think then employers quickly realised that that couldn’t be sustained and there were a number of incidents that happened last year that demanded employers were treating those things seriously. But I think given where we are now this year and how we’re thinking about talent, talent attraction, where we get our talent from, I think on one hand there's a greater opportunity for employers to seek much more diverse talent because effectively we can recruit further afield, we can target where we want to recruit so that we can bring much more diversity into the employment place, but there's a different set of challenges I think for HR in how it helps people manage the workplace interactions. So for example if you think about people with neuro-diverse issues or disabilities how does the employer safely look after those people and adapt the working practices to make sure that it’s inclusive to that particular group of people.

NC: So Neil Morrison some big questions for the whole human resource function as to how they should prioritise this area.

NM: Yes and I think let’s not forget that those people that have been most effected in terms of employment by the pandemic have predominantly been female, they’ve been from ethnic minorities and they’ve been the young, because they tend to disproportionately be employed in those industries that have been most effected by the pandemic and so again it’s one of the reasons why when we’re having this debate we need to get away from what do the 40% of generally over-indexed white males in office jobs how do we treat them and start to think about the wider workforce and how we successfully manage all of that. 

But I think the other thing, even if you go into that subset of people who are in the office one of the difficulties I think is that when we’re in a remote situation we tend to speak to the people that we know the most and certainly what we saw over the first lockdown was the reduction in the number of contacts or the range of contacts that individuals are making. So their worlds become slowly smaller, they’re talking only to the same five or six or seven people and that isn't great for diversity of ideas, it isn't great for diversity of team and thought. And the other thing about physically being present together is you see different people of different backgrounds, of different genders, of different races and you remind yourself that those do exist in your organisation. And I think all of these challenges that actually make diversity and inclusion more important for the HR profession over the coming years than perhaps at any time during, certainly my working career.

DL: One of the things that we did see last year during the pandemic is actually we put more effort into communicating about our inclusive practices because we saw a link of that to engagement and we did some new things but we actually told our story because we felt it was important to have a drumbeat of communication. And the perception that our people had when we did our poll surveys is that our commitment to inclusion has increased. So we had a much stronger response. And I think in the absence of doing other normal stuff that often crowds the communication chains, we focused on this area and brought to light some of the areas. And that has had a particular impact on some of the communities that we really want to focus on more. 

And so what that's helped us to learn is actually things that we already knew which is the power is in the story, the authentic story, the true story, the warts and all story, and the willingness to be able to say we don't always get it right and we want to listen and hear your view on it. And it’s opened up a different level of conversation for us particularly. And as a result has opened up minds to the agenda. So I think to the point that Neil made which is when your world becomes smaller you have to put more effort into creating channels that will widen it if people can't see each other physically in an office and you can't control what their interacting with all of the time, what you can control of course is the stories that you’re getting out there into the business. That's really important I think.

NC: Well quite. These initiatives, Brad Taylor, cost money and in many ways of course HR has already been fighting for resources. So that could be a problem to carry out some of these ideas in the coming year?

BT: Yeah but then I think what happened last year enabled HR to take a much more front seat because so much of the business was relying on HR to see the business through the pandemic and through the crisis. So I think in a lot of ways it helped the profession to take the lead and demonstrate that actually there's a lot of things that it can do and initiatives that it can put in place that really can be beneficial, not just to the employee base of the organisation but the leadership team as well. So in some ways there's never been a better opportunity for HR to be putting these initiatives and new ideas forwards and making the case for these sort of things because I think we’ve got a ready listening ear out there to all of the things that we would like to be doing. 

And I’d echo the point as well that Deb was making earlier on about the fact that we’re seeing the same thing in terms of engagement has gone up and I think people being in this disrupted state has made them so much more open to collaborating with one another in different ways, to be more reflective about differences and how they come together to work effectively. I think it’s helped organisations think differently about how they communicate with their people. So it’s like an open playing field really in terms of being able to come forward with new ideas, new initiatives to take this forward.

NC: And of course one of the areas where initiatives are definitely going to be needed is in mental health and wellbeing and a lot of people, let’s face it, are going to start this new year burned out and isolated and needing help and in some cases Deborah Lee we may not even know which employees they are?

DL: Yeah for sure I mean I would have probably put HR quite at the top of that list because we’ve been at the front of a lot of the change, a lot of the emotional turmoil and like many folk we haven’t been able to even leave our home office environment for a breath of fresh air. So I think the need starts at home with HR and looking after each other and supporting each other and making sure that we’re conscious of the burdens that we’re carrying.

NC: You see Deborah I noticed it’s your view that this is an important area for HR to get involved with, I'm quite surprised you said that because does that mean some other parts of the organisation dealing with this that people don't look to HR to deal with this, or perhaps they haven’t dealt with it properly in the past?

DL: No I think HR firstly probably have got to treat themselves as a first point because often we’re the cobbler’s children and we don't look after our own needs in the same way, we spend all our energy in making sure everybody else is being looked after. I think the piece around mental health in general, it is a stressful time of year at the beginning of the year, we’ve just had Christmas and now we’re back and it’s miserable weather, certainly in the UK elsewhere it’s maybe a bit better, but the thing around not being able to know, I mean this is one of the things I think. Mental health as a topic is getting more and more coverage and people are beginning to say it’s okay but most of the time people aren’t reaching out which means you have to be proactive in a) starting a conversation around making it okay to say that you need help b) equipping people, managers and support and teams to be looking out for each other and creating channels which people feel are confidential that they can reach out to when they do say they need help. But often there are pockets of individuals who won't even admit it to themselves that they are struggling. And it pops out in different ways: you can observe it in the behaviours; you can observe it in the tensions. And I think this is where HR need to be incredibly vigilant because, as we know, we all look for evidence that supports our own mental model of thoughts and if we’d like to think everything is easy that will see evidence to being it. But I think being awake to the point that actually it’s likely that you've got a lot of people who are on the edge and therefore what are you doing to support that. But I would definitely say it’s important at this point more than ever to look after your HR colleagues because they are, like you, probably hearing a lot of the tension, the frustrations, as normal and being asked to solve them all. And there's only so much you can carry.

NC: So Neil Morrison at Severn Trent how are you tackling all that?

NM: It’s tricky isn't it because I think one of the things about mental health is that it affects different people in different ways at different paces: some people are very visible; some people aren’t; some people are more comfortable about talking; some people aren’t. We’re very lucky we’ve got a well-established network of mental health first aiders within the organisation, we’ve done a lot of work over the last three or four years to really raise the profile of conversations around mental health and that's been incredibly beneficial for us during the pandemic. 

But I think where it is tricky is often some of the visual cues that you would get from someone, so the ability to look at them, to look at how they’re presenting, whether they’re looking tired, whether they’re looking a little bit dishevelled around the edges, whether they’re just their body language is giving you a sense of being troubled is much, much easier to do in person. We are sentient beings. That sense of being around people is really, really beneficial to understanding how someone is and that's much harder online. And so what we’re trying to get managers to do where they are dealing with people remotely, is to be more explicit about asking the questions. So if you’re limited in the number of senses that you can use then you've got to over-index on the senses that you have, particularly around questioning and listening and tonality of voice and things like this to try and really understand.

NC: Brad Taylor I know the CIPD’s got a lot of resources in this area, any final thoughts for any of the work that you've done on what people professionals can do to make sure they’re doing the best for people? 

BT: Certainly one of the things we saw last year was that every time we would survey our people, asking them both in terms of how they were coping with more remotely and how did they think about the future of working remotely, every time we did that more people would then suddenly speak up and say, ‘Oh well actually I need help with a monitor, I need help with a chair, I need help with something else,’ and it really does, it struck us that you can't ask people enough, you've got to keep talking about it with people, making it clear about where you see the organisation going, because people construct their own reality in their heads about how long they think this situation might last for and if it’s left unchecked you have no idea that they're suffering with these sort of things. So I think poll surveying, speaking with your people and encouraging them to speak up is one thing. Using focus groups or sounding boards, groups of employees to come together with leadership and just talk through and try to validate what you think you’re seeing from your survey data with actual people’s lived experiences. 

And then the other thing that we’ve grappled with as well is the difference between blanket approaches or organisational approaches to these sort of things versus the individual role of the line manager. So we would worry a lot about people being on constant Zoom calls or Teams calls, video conferencing, and these are all ways of working that people are not originally accustomed to, so it’s causing people to have to work in ways that demand extra cognitive load because they're having to do things a lot differently, you know it’s a bit like when you first drive and you're thinking of everything that's going on inside the car rather than just getting to the destination, and that was draining people. So on one hand I think there are some blanket approaches you can do but it’s not going to work for the entire organisation because different teams will work differently and the key thing that we’ve tried to encourage is the role of the line manager really does have to be keenly interested in mental health, wellbeing, inclusion, development, and having conversations, initiating conversations with their people about these things all the time, because it’s dealing with the individual scenarios and working with your HR VPs to deal with those individual scenarios that will really make sure that as an organisation you’re getting to all your people and you’re helping them in their particular circumstances.

NC: Great and as we come to the end just a final thought perhaps from each of you for this new year, Deborah any particular qualities you’re going to try and deploy or get your people to deploy?

DL: I think optimism is the first one. If you believe it you can feel it, you can do it. But I think the other thing is really working harder at creating more connection and maintaining some creativity in the process. It’s one of the things that we see has suffered as a result of this remote working scenario in those teams because you’re just not sparking that innovation of thought that Neil was talking about earlier. So finding methods of creating the space to connect and create that creativity will be continued for us.

NC: Great and Neil Morrison what’s your New Year message going to be to your people?

NM: I think it’s about fairness. It really is about thinking about fairness throughout everything. We've talked about the difference between home workers and those people that are working out in communities. We’ve talked about inclusion; we’ve talked about the challenges of those people with caring responsibilities; we’ve talked about flexible working; we’ve talked about mental wellbeing, all of that comes back to how do we build fairer, better organisations? And that comes down to individual decisions made by HR professionals and managers every day. And so bringing that lens into everything that we do.

NC: Great. Brad Taylor.

BT: I think it’s about autonomy and openness, autonomy as in it’s going to be more and more okay for you to go about your working day the way that works for you and don't become prisoner to the conference calls or perceived expectations that you've got to be in front of the keyboard all the time doing something. Build into your day focus time, build into your day time out just to have relaxed chats with colleagues and connect with colleagues as well as time to work on the projects and pieces of work. And feel empowered to do all of those things.

NC: Great. Well thank you one and all, some terrific inspiration on that theme of turning surviving into thriving in 2021. This is clearly a year when the range of soft skills that we debated, you remember our last CIPD podcast we talked about soft skills, they should help us all support each other and get things done. And in that vein some great feedback from one listener, Ralph Lewis, noting how we all refer back, supported and developed each other’s points, exactly what we did on this show, compare this, he said, to political interviews! Well to be fair it can be a lot harder when your guests don't actually choose to answer the actual question. Well you all certainly have today and that is our lot for this edition. Lots of good podcasts planned for the months ahead so please subscribe to make sure that you don't miss any of them. But for now from me Nigel Cassidy and everyone at the CIPD it’s goodbye and here’s to a brighter and better new year.

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