The outcomes of our 5th Action Learning Group Event on 15 October 2021

Finding our way through this ever-evolving new hybrid world is not easy. Securing continued growth whilst allowing a level of freedom for individuals is a tricky balance which involves a new  mindset. How do we stay in touch with our teams and maintain productivity? How do we ensure everyone feels involved and valued? How do we know if they’re happy and well? What level of contact do we need and how do we encourage the creativity that comes from collaboration?

Emma Cleary, Founder of Flexibility Matters commented, “our recent Action Learning Group event focused on sharing best practice and encouraging open discussion, to guide, advise and help all businesses to implement flexible working for the long term to benefit everyone”.

The 5th Action Learning Group, kindly hosted by the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS), covered a range of topics, including employee engagement, use of workspaces, helpful technology and wellbeing tools. With experts from Pfizer UK, Wates Construction Group, the FSCS and Paddle, along with technology, psychology, HR/People and data specialists from People Matter, OpenBlend, and Equalital, and the expert insights from charity, Working Families, there was no shortage of recommendation and advice to be gained.

So what were the learnings?

1) Have a strong, trust-based culture

The greatest mistake people make is to look on flexible working as a problem to solve. “Instead”, says David Blackburn, FSCS, “smarter working is a benefit to embrace and we should use it to unlock productivity and diversity of talent”. The foundation of successful flexible working and really the starting point, is trust. Discussion kept returning to the need for people to be trusted to do their jobs in the way that suits them. Leaders should be looking at delivery not visibility.

2) Engage with your people

It’s clear that the companies leading the way in hybrid working are heavily engaging with their people. What does engagement mean? Literally, ask them how they’re doing, through regular ‘pulse-check’ surveys and focus groups. The aim is to see how people are finding flexible working or hybrid working, what works and doesn’t work, whether they have the right support, equipment, and what the level of workload is, as well as how they are feeling in themselves. Do this regularly, continuously – not just a one-off, and log the results to monitor the change.

3) Your Day Your Way

Born out of consistent engagement and consultation with their people, the FSCS created a mantra of “Your Day Your Way”, giving people the choice of where they want to work, when they want to work and what they want to wear, within the core hours of 7am-7pm.

It’s a constant education and takes a complete change of mindset, so naturally people take time to ‘bed in’. Dagmar Alberts, D&I Lead at Pfizer UK explained that it’s important for leaders to say it’s ok to have a break and they must remove any guilt about being ‘visible’. Remind people that they don’t need permission and that they are trusted to do their job in the time that works for them.

At Pfizer UK, there is now a “digital first” mindset, founded on trust and Sarah Sainsbury, HR Director explained how they have used experts to help people move through the change, with the mindset of login for your day, when and where, and take time out of the day to do something for you, supported and modelled by senior management.

“smarter working is a benefit to embrace and we should use it to unlock productivity and diversity of talent”
David Blackburn, Chief People Officer, FSCS
4) Think about what the office is for

It’s important to clarify to everyone, the purpose of office life. The businesses making hybrid working successful are using the office for connection, collaboration, creativity and celebration, not simply to sit on Zoom all day long.

5) Resources, Spaces and Places

With all this behaviour change, you may need to re-jig your office space and get some new kit, to ensure the right environments and technology are available for different uses. For quiet time, which may not be possible at home, quiet rooms or noise cancelling headsets are needed. You may need to create collaborative spaces and creative spaces, and meeting rooms may need to be enlarged and equipped with technology for hybrid meetings. An annual equipment allowance is a good way of ensuring everyone has everything they need to be as productive as possible when working remotely. It’s important to keep reviewing things, and you can use technology to monitor how the space is being used, allowing you to re-shape your working environment to what people need it for.

As you move to a hybrid working model, you may find some parts of your building are unoccupied, and Sarah explained that at Pfizer UK and other large organisations, they are now renting out parts of their office space to other companies. Apart from the cost savings / revenue gains, sharing disused space with other companies has added to the vibrancy of their office.

Hanna Smith, from software company, Paddle, explained that pre-pandemic Paddle was flexible but you had to request it. Now their mindset has changed to Digital First, investing in digital tools and processes to enable seamless collaboration and giving people the freedom to work anywhere, with no disadvantages for those working from home. Employees receive a working from home allowance and where people live near each other but far from an office, Paddle will rent space for them. Offices are called ‘Hubs’ and are designed as collaborative spaces, and they use pulse surveys, focused on trust and collaboration. Hanna added “the approach needs to be practical and to apply common sense, and if it doesn’t add value don’t do it”.

6) Smarter working principles

Energy is generated when people come together so it’s important to create reasons to engage, connect and celebrate. Actively think about putting on people-focused events, perhaps for setting the strategy or to celebrate successes. Think about those who can’t make it – can you use technology to create a hybrid event and involve everyone?

“the approach needs to be practical and to apply common sense, and if it doesn’t add value don’t do it”.
Hanna, Head of People, Paddle
7) Performance management techniques

So with this hands-off, trust-based approach, how do you monitor productivity? Dagmar explained that “there used to be a huge list of targets. Now people are asked to set just six goals – two financial, two operational and two ‘bold moves’ which are ambitious and intended to propel the business forward. The idea is to really focus on what matters, be bold and understand that output is about delivery not hours worked. Dagmar continued, “it’s important for leaders to be loud and proud about flexibility and model it – reassuring people that you have permission, you’re trusted and it’s ok”.

David explained that the FSCS has replaced cascaded annual objectives with quarterly priorities which are team-focused and linked to the company’s core objectives. They focus on impact and outcome, and always keep a keen eye on continuing to do the things that make a difference. They ask their people “what are the three things you’re doing right now that are making a difference?”. Supporting teams is paramount and requires a focus on motivation, wellbeing and regular feedback.

8) Inclusion and equality

Working in D&I at Pfizer, Dagmar’s main focus is on closing the gender pay gap, so flexible working has opened up opportunities for women and fresh new talent, previously put off by remote locations. CEO of charity, Working Families,Jane van Zyl’s focus is very much on empowering working parents and carers, and giving them equal opportunity. The charity also works with employers and drives meaningful, positive policy change, to see flexible working as the default. Parents and carers are supported with free access to a Helpline and lots of practical advice pages, with free downloads online and they’re impacting more than 1.6 million working parents and carers on all sorts of issues including discrimination.

it’s important for leaders to be loud and proud about flexibility and model it – reassuring people that you have permission, you’re trusted and it’s ok”
Dagmar Albers, D&I Lead, Pfizer

Working Families are also very focused on supporting employers and one of the most important services is their Happy to Talk Flexible Working, which is free to anyone from small businesses to large organisations. Jane added an important point, that flexibility should not only be for parents and carers.

9) Flexible working for every business, “if not, why not?”

You may think flexible working just isn’t going to work in your industry but Amy Thompson, Human Resources Director at Wates Construction Group, revealed fascinating insights into the transformation of Wates. In an industry of, historically, long hours, with people physically on-site, and where flexibility was only allowed on request, Wates have worked hard to change things up collaborating with leadership teams, to work effectively, enable productivity and by 2025 they want to make all roles flexible on the basis of “if not why not?”.

Flexible working is about working intelligently – where, when and how. It’s important to make it simple, so Wates asked teams “what one thing would make the week better?”. They had great positive results and answers included simple solutions such as start/leave earlier. Wates have asked people to sign up to a wellbeing charter, to be fair and mutually supportive.

10) Make wellbeing the centre of your people management

Business Psychologist, CEO and Co-Founder of People Matter, Amy King explained how they use a data-led approach to provide employers with platforms and insights, to understand and better spot the signs of burnout or poor mental health, and enable them to create healthy environments and cultures which promote mental health and wellbeing at work for the long term.

Performance enablement programme, OpenBlend, founded by CEO Anna Rasmussen, gives employers tools to enable people to perform at their best, and to nurture and grow high performing cultures. Anna explained that the software gives managers coaching-led one-2-ones, focused on wellbeing, individual drivers, feedback and personal development to discuss alongside their KPRs.

“It is important to have the support networks and encourage people to take time to switch off, to avoid burnout, especially when people have intense, heavy workloads”.
Amy King, CEO & Co-Founder, People Matter

Jessica Hornsby, Founder ofEqualital uses proven psychology to help clients find, develop and motivate the very best talent, nurturing and capitalising on the unique perspectives each person can bring, to help businesses succeed through people. Jess explained that it’s important to be agile but informed. It’s about gathering data to inform how we’re going to act, and acting quickly. Jessica says “it’s about progress not perfection”.

So how can all this work in small companies?

Some small businesses perhaps adhere to a more traditional culture, where managers feel they have no time to do the “people” bit, so how can it work in these businesses? The answer seems to lie in changing mindsets, from the top down. So that flexibility and wellbeing aren’t seen as add-ons, or another set of things to be done but instead, a lens through which we look at what we need to do, by supporting people to be leaders, to trust and empower their teams, and carve out time for people. If the intervention is there, having a smaller team can make it easier to listen and learn, and to have the right conversations.

Our grateful thanks to:
  • All who attended the Action Learning Group and joined the debate
  • David Blackburn, Chief People Officer, Financial Services Compensation Scheme, for kindly hosting
  • The incredible leaders who kindly gave their time and shared their experiences to benefit all:
    • Dagmar Albers, D&I Lead, Pfizer UK
    • Sarah Sainsbury, HR Director, Pfizer UK
    • Amy Thompson, HR Director, Wates Construction Group
    • Hanna Smith, Head of People, Paddle
    • Amy King, Co-Founder & CEO, People Matter
    • Anna Rasmussen, CEO & Founder, OpenBlend
    • Jessica Hornsby, Founder, Equalital
    • Jane van Zyl, CEO, Working Families
Our next Action Learning Group will be in February 2022 – follow us on social media for more.

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