HR coffee mornings: June and July

4 months ago Richard Grove

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​As organisations start to look to the future, many are planning their return to the office – or contemplating a new way of working entirely. Giving senior HR leaders the opportunity to share advice and best practice, Investigo’s June and July HR networking events discussed what the return to the workplace might look like. They were hosted by Richard Grove, Head of Public Sector HR in our Public Sector team.

Bringing back furloughed staff

“It’s an HR swearword,” said Richard, referring to the government’s furlough scheme. A significant consideration in companies’ return to the office will be how they ease back their furloughed employees. “While it’s a fantastic scheme, it’s hard work for the people team. How do we support our people returning to work?” Investigo plans to go back to the office in August, with core office hours of 10am to 4pm and the opportunity for staff to make up their working hours remotely. Two days a week will be from home. It’s important that everyone feels safe in the working environment and there will be a comprehensive programme of cleaning in place throughout the day. There will also be training to help furloughed people get back into the norm. “It’s not going to be a case of starting up where we left off,” said Richard.

Adele Wright, Head of People and Organisational Development at Save the Children, was concerned about the impact of an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to staff on furlough. “They’re not on all our HR distribution lists. Some have found it hard. They feel like they’re in a vacuum, neither working nor employed, not part of the team. We expect that we’ll be able to adapt to the mindset of working from home more frequently, but is that the case? We’re all working from home now so we’re playing on a field that’s level. If we’re working two to three days a week, we lose the ability for corridor conversations. People in the office on those days will get pulled into meetings again. We could have to go to a phase of chaos to get that kind of working from home that we have at the moment, where we’re always available for meetings. If many are working from home or shielding, how can we make them a part of the team?”

There’s been a great deal of value in keeping furloughed colleagues involved through WhatsApp groups. “Support leaders to build really psychologically safe teams,” said Isabel Coe, Organisational Design and Development at the Department for International Trade. “Building a real community, where people feel safe and have those social connections. Get leaders to have an emotional bank account.”

Planning the return

“No office-based staff will come into work unless absolutely necessary and I don’t think that will be before October,” said Peta Caine, Assistant Director of Property Services at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. “Working from home will be the first base. People will only go in if they have a meeting. It’ll be maybe one or two days a week. We’ll have a new homeworking policy and will be looking at the equipment we provide, risk assessments for teams, return to work forms for people coming back into the office, and checking in with people to see how they are. We’ve done a lot of work.” This approach will represent a massive change for an organisation that traditionally “expected bums on seats,” with no flexible working.

“We were quite lucky as we already did remote working and video conferencing. All roles can be done from home,” said Lindsey Stafford-Scott, Interim Director of People at Ofwat, where only IT and FM have been going into the building. Ofwat recently sent out a survey to find out its people’s concerns, when they would be prepared to return to the building and on what basis. The workforce was split, with many happy to continue working remotely and a smaller number finding it difficult working from home due to mental health or looking after small children. “People might want to come back to work, but it will be a very different place when we come back,” she said. Indeed, the fact that the organisation’s based on the 17th and 18th floors presents a number of difficult logistical challenges, such as managing colleagues’ entry to the building. “It’s okay working from home with a bit of kit for a short time, but there’s more to think about when it’s for a period of months. We need to start thinking about contractual changes and policies.”

Investigo has involved its staff in the decision-making process on the return to the workplace and the way we’ll work in the future. “The situation has allowed us to reinvent the wheel,” said Richard. “A big part of this will be branding. Agile working is already an important thing to offer to attract candidates. How many activities do we not need anymore? It’s about working smarter, not harder.”

70% of staff at Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing are on the frontline. “They’ve not had the choice to be furloughed unless they’re shielding,” said Eva Phillips, People and Operations Director. “Operatives, plumbers who are going in and fixing things are also considered key workers. In a world of social distancing, how will I be able to go into someone’s house and fix someone’s boiler with geared-up PPE on the front steps? We have customers and a workforce of 1900 to protect.”

The organisation sees its return in three phases: planning (defining its contact centre strategy, deciding how to maintain distancing in the office space, providing equipment and PPE); the return (which colleagues to prioritise – perhaps those who don’t have wi-fi) and maintaining wellbeing. “We’ve embraced the world of tech so that we’re all Zoomed to fatigue,” said Eva. “The next phase is how to keep that going when we may not be sitting next to the team. Suddenly we really value each other’s thought-processes. We’re desperate to see each other and talk to each other. Historically, people put in a form to work from home and were told no.” She added, “We have three core principles: look after our customers, ensure our people are safe and ensure we’re following government guidelines. The next wave will be psychologically challenging. It’s how you maintain the team’s wellbeing remotely.”

Homes England is not going back to the office this year. “Being a government department, we haven’t furloughed. The CEO is very people-first and is allowing people to work how they can work, which helps with wellbeing,” said Tina Ohagwa, Interim Head of HR. “As an HR team, we’re thinking about whether this will work for the rest of the year, but for now it works. We were locked down from about 16th March, a week before the government announcement. It’s evident we can do it, so we’re having discussions about whether we do return. We were having a new office built in Coventry. We’re now reviewing whether we need offices. We’re working with people on a case-by-case basis. People first, family first.”

Not only has remote working removed the need for Tina to travel to Coventry, Leeds and Newcastle on a regular basis, but’s it’s also saving the organisation a considerable amount of money. The first Teams call, of nearly 300 people, saved nearly £65,000. Recruitment processes for organisations could also now be easier, with video interviews becoming the norm. Richard observed that this seems to be the only way organisations can get three panel members on a call at the same time.

The return for the Francis Crick Institute has been science-led. Keen to get back into the building, which has been redesigned, the scientists began a phased return in the middle of June, floor by floor. The organisation’s approach was initially quite prescriptive, with the chief people officer and head of HR asking the HR team to put their names down on a rota with a view to going back on 1st July. However, “they have gradually changed their rhetoric, softened it,” said Christine Hamilton, Interim HR Partner. “You don’t have to if you feel uncomfortable. Go in once a week or every couple of weeks. Others like communications and public engagement are not going back till November.”

The IOSH has had only four to five people onsite, for the purposes of maintenance or printing. “We’re not looking at a return to office date anytime soon,” said Suzie Dawes, People Business Partner. A survey of its staff has revealed that some are finding it more difficult working from home due to their setup and workstations. The organisation has therefore been looking at what it can do to support people. “We’re going to give an initial date but the feedback is that people want to change their ways of working. They aren’t desperate to go back to the office Monday to Friday, 9-5. They’re not desperate for the commute.” With silo working creeping in, IOSH is looking at how it can work across teams. “From working from home once or twice a week, we’re looking at predominantly working from home and going in maybe three times a week. Keeping staff engaged. We’re using Workplace and staff are really engaged with that.”

“Working in a hospital, nobody was furloughed, but most of the HR department has been deployed into resourcing,” said Fiona Knight, a senior HR interim. “At one point, about 20% of the 12,000 staff were either shielding or in self-isolation. Occupational health had to tier staff to see if they were in the vulnerable category or had people they were looking after. The line was ‘we have to get people back to the frontline.’ The place never shut down. We’re not switching off, we’ve got to get back to work as quickly as possible. Lots of people didn’t have computers, so some had to wait for a laptop to arrive. My experience from HR is that we’re lacking that communication and leadership. A lot of Teams calls have been cancelled as people were too busy, which takes away that drumbeat of what’s happening.”

Reluctant returners

How can HR leaders manage staff who don’t feel comfortable about going back to work? Hayley Caspers, Head of Learning and People Development at NCS, said “We’re giving people the option already. We understand that people will feel fearful about jumping on public transport.” From a mental health perspective, working from home has “really worked” for some people, but “others need an environment where they’re with other human beings. I predict that we’ll end up in a hub environment. We can’t assume everyone’s in the same boat. It has to be on a case-by-case basis. A focus on the individual. And that’s the challenging part.”

Metropolitan Thames Valley Housing is looking at every means of getting people back in. “It’s the first organisation I’ve worked in where having to be in a location is quite key,” said Eva, who manages a team of 20. The wider HR function is staying connected with regular meetings, although these will be extremely tricky to hold in a physical environment where distancing needs to be observed between 59 people.

Hayley felt that the current climate has given organisations the chance to re-evaluate their culture. “Focus on outputs, not time. It’s an extraordinary opportunity.” Colin Rodden, a senior HR projects interim, added: “We’ve got policies in HR but we need processes. Risk assessments, making sure people have got the right kits, space for confidential information. As HR professionals, we need to formalise all this to protect our employees, customers and organisation. It’s important to work with what we’ve got but look after staff, customers and the organisation.”

“Everyone now realises they need HR!” said Richard. “It’s the first time HR has had such a big voice.” Karen Chapman, a senior HR leader, added “There’s been such a huge sharing and collaboration of ideas. I’ve been able to join all sorts of different discussions. It’s been open, transparent and engaging. I hope we don’t lose that. HR professionals now need to see the strategic value HR brings, not just the practical value. Move into the strategic agenda, which is more about how we can change to support changing customer needs or the new normal. Design organisations and roles that support that. How can we continue to support people remotely in a different way?”

“The way we engage staff has to be completely different,” said Peta. “Even silly things like celebrating the completion of a big job by taking them to the pub or buying them chocolates will be very different.”

Maintaining team culture

There was a feeling that remote working could erode team culture. “For some critical posts, people are in the office,” said Isabel. “We’re looking at new ways of working. We’ve done a number of surveys and have lots of info and data. We’re thinking about what we want to keep, and making the transition into this over the next six months. We aren’t pushing people to get back into work. We’re saying work where you need to, and for most people that’s from home. Some are finding there are too many meetings and they have too much to do. The majority are okay, so it’s how we keep them in that okay space, providing chairs and tables if they need them.”

“One thing that concerns me is about young people coming into the workforce,” said Alison Stott, an experienced leadership and development specialist. “They don’t have the experience of going from workplace to workplace, bumping into people and learning from them. They’re probably more used to and comfortable with tech, but it’s challenging to bring them into the workforce and ensure they learn on the job as well as providing formal learning.” There’s great value in “having someone over your shoulder to say there’s a better way to do it,” said Richard. But at the same time, managers need to be brave enough to allow their staff to make mistakes. “Thinking of a way to manage learning will be really different,” he added. The answer could be a mixture. “In the past we’ve done online courses and blended them with learning from those informal learning moments that happen because you just happen to be there,” said Alison.

Ricky Forde, a talent, D&I, culture and organisational development lead, cited the importance of the chat facilities on tools such as Trello and Teams in updating colleagues on what’s going on and making everyone feel included. Without being able to have an informal coffee or breakfast to chat through work challenges, leaders need to engage their teams in other ways. Tina manages three business partners. “I took for granted that I knew what everyone was doing,” she said. “Surprisingly, we’re communicating more and know more about what they’re doing. I’m having weekly meetings with the business partners as well as independent meetings. Communicate more, keep in touch. We had one chat on a Saturday morning as that was the only time they could do it.”

“A big thing coming out of this is about inclusive leadership,” said Kate Huselbee, an interim HR corporate services director. “In the longer term, leaders and organisations that embrace flexible working and inclusive leadership, who allow people to work a certain amount of days from home, will be those who get talent. Leaders that embrace that will have that competitive advantage in terms of talent. Those who can virtually put their arms around teams, listen to them and be compassionate are the ones thriving at the moment. It’s a massive shift for people. They won’t put up with the didactic leadership we’ve had in some places before.”

Perhaps the way companies acquire talent will have to change in order to remain relevant. For years, the most important things to a candidate when looking for a new job were location and money. But in the new working world, many will accept a lower salary for the ability to work from home and have their travel costs covered. Organisations will need to rethink their approach to talent attraction and ensure they provide employees with the technology and facilities they need to work from home effectively.

Conclusion

The new world of work will make new demands on the way companies work, interact and hire – essentially, their very culture. As companies look to define who they are and how they should face the future, HR leaders have the opportunity to provide not just advice, but strategic direction. Many thanks to all our attendees for their contributions. If you’d like to attend our next HR roundtable or you’d like to talk to us about finding your next HR job or hire, please contact us.