How are you balancing new working freedoms with post-Covid realities? For many organisations, remote working was a boon that enabled their businesses to carry on through the pandemic. All the while their people uncovered and experienced the benefits that working remotely had to offer. But as we unwind from the pandemic, some organisations that had seemingly settled on a balanced hybrid approach are making headlines for scaling back offering flexible remote working.
Join Nigel Cassidy and this month’s guests: Danielle Harmer, Chief People Officer at Aviva; Kevin Lyons, Senior HR Manager at Pearson; and Claire McCartney, Senior Policy Advisor at CIPD, as we explore how your organisation can take a more nuanced, deliberate approach to hybrid working.
Nigel Cassidy: Flexible working has changed millions of working lives for the better but at what cost? How can we replace or reinvent the face-to-face connections and shared valued that shaped our organisations in the first place. I’m Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD Podcast.
Welcome. Would you believe it’s our 200th podcast. Well done team and thank you for keeping listening. To mark our 200th, the topic that we know from CIPD research is one of today’s trickiest people issues; how do you balance our new working freedoms with post-Covid realities because our whole business culture is built on behaviour learnt from physically working alongside each other. The more we work alone, the more we risk losing shared purpose and belonging, the glue, the us in organisations, if you like. We ought to be concerned about this when we keep reading about yet another well-known business that seemed settled on hybrid working but is now using sticks rather than carrots to get staff back in but is there a more balanced approach which will allow workers to keep much of the autonomy and freedom from commuting that makes them happy?
Well, three great guests with us from Aviva, from Pearson and CIPD but first, as it is our 200th edition, we asked a selection of workers and managers what they felt about the pros and cons of remote working in their organisations:
Vox Pop 1: There’s a office culture. Young people coming in regularly, getting to know each other more and more and the remote working culture is mainly the older members of staff who’ve been working remotely for the last three years and that’s problematic, I think.
Vox Pop 2: Out of about 90 employees, we’ve now downsized to an office that roughly takes about 40 people. We now need to book in otherwise won’t get a spot. That creates a nice culture when you’re in the office, as well, because part of the reason of going into the office is to see people and to be sociable.
Vox Pop 3: We live in Egypt. We have the different culture here. The biggest challenge was culture of the top management or line managers. They cancelled the working from home. That’s an old fashion. We can develop the working from home policy to achieve what we need.
Vox Pop 4: Having meetings with people online has worked reasonably well. You know, you don’t pick up the nuance of when someone is about to add their point and so you come to a stop. You might be reminding staff about your aims and objectives and there’s something about when you do that online, it sounds rather forced.
Vox Pop 5: Online remote environments are quite formal. They have become quite, sort of, transactional. Where we are in this meeting to achieve this result. You could miss big things.
Vox Pop 6: We have a check-in once a week, usually on a Monday; how did the weekend go, what have you got on this week, when are you intending to come in, are people feeling overloaded, is something personally going on in their life.
Vox Pop 7: I don’t think there’s any problem with remote working. If people look after each other and respect each other, you can introduce almost any initiative and it ought to be fine if the values and culture of the organisation are strong enough.
Vox Pop 8: If you put yourself in the bosses shoes, a lot of them will panic about a lack of control. If they can see people, if they suddenly need to get them, they can walk over to their desk. Big companies are very keen to talk about trust and have it as a value and so on but I think it proves that in practice, trust is very hard to maintain when you can’t see someone.
NC: Well, lots to pick up on there. There’s that trust issue, two tribes that exist in many companies and the difficulty of those back-to-back online meetings maybe for picking up on stressed or unhappy workers at home. We’ll consider these kinds of questions and many more with the senior HR manager of the world’s learning company, Pearson. His focus, he says, is especially on diversity, inclusion and the impact of technology. It’s Kevin Lyons.
Kevin Lyons: Lovely to be here.
NC: From the home team, CIPD senior policy advisor: resourcing and inclusion, with more than 20 years’ experience considering the people aspects of organisations and performance, it’s Claire McCartney.
Caire McCartney: Hi, everyone.
NC: And another influential HR practitioner with past senior roles including spells at Metro Bank and Lloyds Banking Group, she’s chief people officer at the largest UK insurer, Aviva PLC. Welcome Dani Harmer, hello.
Danielle Harmer: Lovely to be here.
NC: So, Danielle, let’s start with you. What interests me, I mean, some of those issues raised there. Why are comings rowing back from all home working including yours? Is it that senior managers maybe just don’t quite trust people as we heard?
DH: Well, let’s face it, this is only an issue for companies that are, you know, office-based workers. So, those in hospitality and travel and, you know, retail, they’re in a totally different space. So, I think we just need to be thoughtful about that. Every organisation that was home based has had to row back from it, well, has chosen to row back from it because you no longer have to force people to be at home. I think organisations that get it right, you know, obviously I’m going to think that we’re doing a reasonably good job of it are the ones that say look, or try and understand and start to use the data, although it’s still pretty early in terms of the data that we all have, to say what is it that being together brings as a benefit, when should you do it, what’s the impact on performance for the organisation and productivity and, actually, engagement and wellbeing of people being together or being apart.
NC: And do you actually know that from your own organisation; how things were before and after?
DH: You know, time is rather helpful to start to get data and there are a few data points that I think are really interesting. One of the biggest predictors of whether or not a colleague will choose to spend time in the office is whether their leader does. So, intuitively, we’d all know, right, leaders are role models in this space. So, that’s the first one. The second one that I think is really interesting is that when we start with engagement coming through and correlate that with office attendance, whilst lots of our people were very lucky, we have good levels of engagement but for the people who are not in the office very much, they are much more likely to be disengaged and, actually, they’re much more likely to be so disengaged that they won’t even engage with the survey. So, you sort of find completion rates are much lower and when they do complete it, their engagement levels are much lower. Then, finally, I think this is a really interesting trend that we are just starting to see. When we correlated mental health, mental wellbeing with office attendance, we saw that as we’ve made a, sort of, gradual climb back up to better levels of office attendance but still giving people much more flexibility probably than they had through the pandemic, mental wellbeing has improved. So, absences in relation to mental health challenges have reduced and, you know, it’s this incredible correlation between the two and it’s almost counter intuitive to what I would have expected because you kind of think well, people might just take a duvet day if they’re not feeling great but actually people coming in now are feeling better for being in.
NC: Right, and just before I go to the others, can I ask you quickly, do you mandate any particular days for your people to be in altogether or the managers decide which are the office days?
DH: We’ve asked leaders to co-ordinate it with their teams because as we heard on of the, sort of, the vox pops before we started, the benefit of it is being in with the people you work with. So, we are asking leaders to work with their teams and co-ordinate it in a way that makes sense and think about the activities that they want people to be there together for.
NC: You see, Claire McCartney, bosses mandating the office days, I suspect some people may not like that because it kind of removes that essential freedom, the flexibility that they enjoyed during the Covid times. Can you really take that away without making your workforce unhappy or even people leaving?
CM: You know, I think that it is challenging and I think particularly mandating specific days can be a bit of a blunt tool because, actually, what it’s doing is reducing employee choice and autonomy and we know that they are key drivers of wellbeing, engagement and motivation but, you know, there is definitely no one-size-fits-all and we are all working across different sectors, professions and, actually, what we need to do is work out what works best for our business, our roles but also for our employees as well. You know, despite hearing headlines in the media of everyone back in the office, that isn’t necessarily the picture that we’re seeing at the CIPD. So, around 80% of organisations have a hybrid policy in place, they’re experimenting, they’re learning. Some do want people in for a minimum amount of time, others don’t.
NC: Even Zoom, I saw. How ironic is that.
CM: Yeah, I mean interesting. So, you know, Zoom are, kind of, learning from their own situation and seeing, actually, that there’s a different way that works for them but there isn’t a one-size-fits-all and I really encourage organisations to, kind of, review their own approaches and see what works best for them and their employees as well.
NC: Absolutely. Well, we’ve heard from Dani that they’ve brought a lot of people back and that’s working for them. By contrast, Kevin Lyons at Pearson, you were and remain pretty liberal, letting people choose where they work but I do see you’ve kind of gussied up your central London office to make it more attractive. So, just, sort of, talk about the mix that you have. I mean, what are the ground rules?
KL: Well, the ground rules are that the employee decides, with the approval of their manager, what their working pattern is. That’s put into the HR system, that gives a framework that everyone can work to and we don’t mandate that people come into the office, we don’t say you have to come in on a particular day of the week. we do like people to come in to the office because there are, as Dani was saying, there are advantages with face-to-face collaboration, meeting people etcetera. Equally, I think it’s all about flexibly, Nigel. I think it’s about allowing employees the flexibility. I think it’s a phoney concept to say that work and life are separate. I think they are enmeshed and we have to find the best way to allow employees to dovetail work with their life. I’m thinking particularly about parents who need flexibility and this definitely impinges on equality for women because women are invariably the primary project managers and, at home, and the primary caregivers. They need flexibility in order to progress their careers. So, organisations can do that within a context of trying to encourage people back into the office but I think we have to be very careful about mandating days.
NC: Before we go any further, can I just put that back to Dani because your organisation is alert, you create learning tools. I wonder, Dani, whether the kind of work you do where you’re having maybe difficult conversations with customers and all that, do you think it’s more difficult in an organisation like yours to give people the freedoms which we’ve just been hearing about?
DH: I mean, i think Kevin is right. You can give people the freedom and I think there’s a, sort of, philosophical decision that organisations need to make about where they stand on this. I mean, ultimately, you know, I personally love every single one of our 22,000 people but the start point of my relationship with them, Aviva’s relationship with them, is an employment one and I think we just need to work out, kind of, where to draw the line on that. I totally echo Kevin’s point about, you know, my least favourite phrase in the world is work-life balance. We all live a life and work is part of that for many of us. So, I think to, kind of, put them on two sides of a line is not right. I mean, on the gender point, it’s a really interesting one and this is why flexible working or hybrid working can be quite a contentious, sort of, issue because we all have a view but the data is still, kind of, pretty early in coming through to demonstrate which approach is right. So, I worry on the gender point that, actually, if we give more flexibility particularly to women and they’re, therefore, in the office less, that, actually, we might slowdown their careers and I don’t know which is right. I don’t know if Kevin’s hypothesis is right or my hypothesis right. We are definitely tracking the data [laughter].
NC: Well, let’s ask Claire McCartney because she, kind of, sees this across the piece. What kind of light can you share, is there any research on this, can we form any conclusions about what we’re doing with people?
CM: Yeah. I think it’s a really important discussion. So, thank you to both of you. We have been part of the hybrid working commission that recently launched a report. It showed that hybrid working had enabled more women to work fulltime and also had given much greater opportunity for people with disabilities and long-term health conditions. So, on one side, it’s great in terms of getting people into work, sustaining it but I totally recognise what Dani is saying as well in terms of some of the inclusion challenges. We have got an issue there and we need to make sure that our managers are really great at managing people inclusively regardless of their work pattern and where they work because there are studies out there, a Deloitte study focusing on a global sample of women which shows that more women feel that they are left out of, you know, certain key conversations when they’re working in a hybrid world. So, I think it’s a balancing point, there are some real benefits in terms of access and participation but, actually, from a cultural perspective and from a line manager perspective, we need to get it right otherwise there will be some negative consequences.
NC: Kevin, what do you have to say about that trust issue that one of our managers mentioned in the vox pops at the beginning that however much you want to trust people, if you can’t see them, do we still have lots of unreconstructed bosses who just can’t seem to distinguish between times when it’s brilliant to get people together and times when, actually, they can get on with things on their own?
KL: I think there are different leaders who have different views and they are maybe on a journey, as well.
NC: Have you had to educate leaders on that journey ever?
KL: Yeah. I had a conversation with a leader who said, you know, I want everybody back in the office and I said you’re going to have to offer more flexibility. So, implemented the decision and came back to me two weeks later and said, I’ve had ten resignations in two weeks, you were right. So, we pivoted and I think you have to do that but sensibly. You set goals and outcomes. You set parameters, you set out what the employees have to achieve and then there has to be a level of performance management but you have to trust in flexibility. I think flexibility of working is what it’s about. We also have to think about the march of technology, the march of technology. We wouldn’t have been able to do all the working that we did during the pandemic without technology and every single day, the platforms are getting better and new tech is coming along. You can tell I am very keen on tech. So, generative AI is the next thing. So, people can work anywhere now, they don’t have to come into an office. So, I don’t see it as home and office, I see it as flexibility of working and also the organisations encouraging employees to come into the office for the reasons that we’ve talked about; face-to-face collaboration, the inclusion, the being with others but also there might be other reasons that you can entice people into offices and what I call destination offices. So, you quite rightly said, Nigel, you’ve refurbed your premises at Strand. Yes, we did. During Covid, we completely refurbished our head office and it’s now a collaborative workspace with a swanky café, great views of London. It’s in a brilliant location. People come in for that, as well, as well as the fact that they can work there. It’s a shift in mindset. Different organisations have different challenges and we have people who work in test centres that have to be in a test centre, they have to be in a location. We have other employees where we can have much more flexibility to be able to where they work but, again, you can integrate flexibility; start times, their shift patterns, you can do everything that you can around flexibility and so I think, you know, that the genie is out of the bottle now on flexibility.
NC: But what have we lost, Dani, if this just all continues? I mean, we want to talk a bit also here about the kind of cultures that created our organisations. Have you had any thoughts about this? Does it matter if we lament a loss of organisation or culture if we’ve created a new one or are there things that people learn by osmosis from each other that just can’t be replaced by the style of working that Kevin’s, clearly, pretty well getting used to?
DH: There’s something about, you know, when I said the engagement data for people who aren’t in now. We all know that it might be people who are just not engaged and choosing not to come in or that not being in drives higher levels of disengagement and when people say to me I’m just as productive in the office as I am at home, my point isn’t, you know, the employment relationship is not just about productivity. I want people who are set up to win, are learning from the people around them and growing and developing their careers in a way that work for them and for Aviva. You know, it’s a, sort of, mutually beneficial relationship and that, sort of, stuff makes people sticky. Now, I think If you impose a lack of flexibility to the extent that Kevin describes, you know, one of his leader’s did, that’s not smart in an environment and in a market where, you know, the labour market is pretty tight and people have choice but I think being, as an organisation, being clear about why you want people to come in, what the benefits are. You know, in our investment management business, the way people learn, we have small, kind of, you know, player-coach teams. The way people learn is just sitting around, they don’t, please note they do not sit around all day but [laughter] as they are working, they are hearing stuff and just picking up stuff by osmosis, as you say Nigel. Then, you know, in our customer facing teams, for example, because of the products that we support customers with, we are quite often talking to customers who are very ill, who have suffered a bereavement and while the teams are very supportive of each other, if you come off one of those calls at your kitchen table and you’re on your own and you’ve just spoken to somebody who’s, you know, just found out they’ve got terminal cancer or their husband has died and they need to make a claim, I think, you know, when I talk to the teams, having that team around them is really, really important. The, sort of, you know, the support network and I know you can do it virtually but I think it’s so much more face-to-face.
NC: Claire McCartney, we’ve heard a lot of points from Kevin and Dani. What particularly strikes you?
CM: What strikes me is that there is, through our findings, there is a challenge from organisations’ perspective around the weakening of organisational culture and also not being as connected to the organisation’s purpose. There are lots of benefits but those two, I think, are areas that we need to start to address but rather than maybe having this constant conversation about focusing on number of days in the office, just as, I think, Dani and Kevin have been saying, we need to just say well, how do we make face-to-face time more meaningful, how often should we work together and for what purpose, how can we make the organisational come to life for our people both when they’re working remotely but also when they’re in the physical workspace. How can we get them inspired by our purpose and our mission through in-person events and also virtual opportunities. So, I feel like that is the focus that will help us in terms of addressing some of the challenges around culture and also connection to purpose.
NC: I think it would be fair to say that people managers are more comfortable with those kind of conversations than line managers and bosses who might regard that as all rather unimportant and that’s why they focus on how many days you’re going to come in.
CM: Yeah. Absolutely but I think it’s that lack of connection in terms of purpose and culture which can actually really impact upon people’s motivation and that can really impact upon performance in role as well. So, I think we really need to address those sorts of issues.
NC: And while we’re with you, Claire, I just want to ask you about how the, kind of, everyday aspects of a working life carry on under these new, kind of, hybrid circumstances, for example, how you get career progression when people aren’t being seen every day and also, you know, how you get over to the performance management side? We heard one of the vox pops there, somebody said it is more difficult when you just want to talk to people about aims and objectives, the softer stuff, if you like, that doesn’t relate to a specific task.
CM: Yeah, and I think, you know, that’s where people managers come in and where we need to be properly supporting them because, actually, it is more challenging, isn’t it, you know, particularly if they haven’t previously been used to working in this way. And don’t forget loads of global companies work in this way and they’re really successful and streamlined at it but how can we support our line managers to make sure that they’re having those regular one-to-one conversations with people where, you know, they’re talking about work and responsibilities but they’re also talking about any challenges they might be having in their personal lives, wellbeing issues but also regular career conversations and I think if those regular conversations are in place, it doesn’t necessarily matter whether they’re remote or in person if that, kind of, trust and regular conversation is taking place but it needs to be taking place in order to, kind of, move all of these points forward. And people managers really need to be aware of things like proximity bias. So, I’m not going to give all the opportunities to someone if they’re in the physical workspace with me. I’m going to think really carefully and fairly about opportunities, as well. So, I think there’s a lot we can do to support our people managers. They often have a lot on their shoulders, as well. So, I think we need to, you know, realise that and really support them where we can.
NC: So, let’s try and make this practical. Kevin and Dani, can I ask each of you then how you go about replacing some of the lost conversations, if you like? We just heard from Claire how it’s important not to just talk about the number of days in but how people relate to each other, how work gets done. Have you found any ways of creating a, kind of, new way of working that will accommodate the flexibility that we need?
DH: We’ve spent a lot of time supporting our leaders to think about this. So, I think there’s just a general point here, which Claire alluded to, which is the job of a leader is becoming more and more complicated. It’s not just about, you know, here are the work goals, get me the outputs. It’s about people have choice about where they work, they’ve understood that they’re, you know, the whole of them should be considered in the workplace. For years we’ve known that being able to answer positively to the question my boss or someone at work cares about me has a massive impact on level of engagement and how people feel about the organisation. I think, you know, the approach we’ve taken in Aviva is we give leaders a framework, we give them skills, we give them, you know, practical tips on how to manage flexibility in the wider sense, including working location, and then we allow them to make the decisions locally. So, give leaders a framework because, in my experience, most people want to know, kind of, what are the rules, how do things work round here but don’t hold people too tight and then make sure that you’ve got masses of practical support on how do I have a conversation with my team about how we manage days in the office, what do I do if somebody says they really don’t want to come in and, you know, we do, sort of, lead live streams on this topic as well and those are the sorts of questions we get. So, when someone says what do I do if someone in my team doesn’t want to come in, I say well, you probably need to have a conversation with them because you should probably be quite worried about them because they’re probably either disengaged or there is something else going on, you know, but try not to get into that, sort of, entrenched well, you have to come in because the organisation says, you know, that as leaders we’re asking you to own this and when I was listening earlier to a point Claire was making, I was thinking especially in probably bigger organisations, the nuance of a message can very easily get lost because what can start as look, we think around 50% of time in the office is probably right because of all these reasons, suddenly you speak to, you know, people who are talking to customers on the frontline and they say I’ve been told I have to be in two and a half days every week which means three days one week and two the next and you just go, where’s all the nuance and the intent gone. So, I think as organisations, you’ve got to remember to come back to the why of what you’re talking to people about rather than just focusing on a number.
NC: I mean, it almost seems, Kevin, as if Dani and her team have, kind of, worked out all the, kind of, stuff that doesn’t happen spontaneously and they’ve built things into their system and I’m wondering, in your organisation, where people are unashamedly getting on with things in accordance with whatever their bosses have set out for them, whether the conversations that ought to go on, the face-to-face, the spontaneous stuff, is going to happen spontaneously at all?
KL: Well, I think conversations can take place and they can take place virtually and they can take place in person but a lot of parallels with what Dani was saying. Our approach has been to make sure that there is the framework, that there is resources, content, support for leaders. We rolled out a remote working policy. I think HR professionals have done absolutely brilliantly since the pandemic to pivot the way that organisations work. We’ve taken the lead in that. We can take immense pride in that in the HR profession, generally. Yet another area where we are leading in what organisations do but also leaders, when they get it, they start to be quite imaginative and start to think about how can we encourage employees to come into the office, for example. So, do we have scrum events in the office, do we have all hands events, do we offer a free breakfast, do we try to think about those days where we have less occupancy in the office. I think a recent stat’ that I saw, saw the percentage of UK employees that work in an office on a Friday is just 13%. So, what can we do to maybe encourage more occupancy on those days. I think there’s been some important, I want to come back, actually, to something that Dani was saying about engagement and I think it’s really good in an organisation to look at the insights provided by the engagement data. What we have seen is we are very encouraged by the way our engagement scores have increased by a sizeable mean and we are getting good answers to certain key questions and good response levels, productivity seems to be up, So, we are confident at the moment that the way that we are working is moving in the right direction. I am still concerned about what I’m seeing about the playout of the mandated return to the office. I was concerned by the recent Pebble study that said of the 2,000 parents they surveyed, half of them said that they would have to leave the workplace because of the increasing nature of childcare costs. If you’d said to me before the pandemic, what are the two major rocks in the road to what I call true female equality, it would be the lack of flexible working and the lack of affordable childcare. So, there are still dangers that could come back to haunt us.
NC: Okay. I want to try and draw a few conclusions, leave people with some positive tips, perhaps. I’ll come to Claire at the end because she, kind of, pulls all of this together at the CIPD but Dani, some quick wins maybe, things people can do perhaps who aren’t as far along the path as you?
DH: I think decide what your organisation wants to do and why, what the purposes of offices are. Get some data, talk to your leaders about what works because they will know what works but just understand that in the absence of data, the reason this is one of the trickiest issues we’ve ever dealt with is because every single individual has a view on hybrid working and that view is informed by their personal choice and what you have to do is try and get that off the table to start to have sensible, commercial but people-focused conversations.
NC: Kevin Lyons?
KL: I think to build on what Dani has said, I think organisations need to embrace flexibility and embrace technology, make the mindset shift and work can be really exciting and productive and employees can have what they really want which is meaning, purpose and wellbeing at work within a flexible format.
NC: Okay, and Claire McCartney, we’re talking here all the time about ways to foster or rebuild a positive organisational culture, to bring people together whether they are working onsite, offsite or a mixture of the two. Again, any tips for us to finish?
CM: Yeah. I think the crucial role of people managers. So, getting our people managers up to speed, to be able to, you know, really manage teams successfully, to think about ways of collaborating, connecting to the organisational purpose but I think, you know, overall, it’s about normalising flexible working for all. It shouldn’t be for certain groups and if it is, we start to get a bit of a stigma associated with it. So, actually, what we need is flexible working across the board, not just hybrid. We’re here to talk about hybrid but as Dani started off, we need to think about those people in frontline roles and non-office workers as well. It’s incredibly important. So, let’s get that conversation going and progress it further.
NC: Thank you so much to Claire McCartney, to Dani Harmer from Aviva and Kevin Lyons from Pearson for making this such a thoughtful and practical discussion, symbolic maybe for this 200th edition. You can just see how much our working lives have changed since our first podcast. We’d love some of your feedback about this edition. Your thoughts, for example, on how we balance where people work now and, indeed, how or whether business culture matters in people management and you can do this via the CIPD podcast page or LinkedIn. This seems a good time for me to thank the unheard but always creative and supportive CIPD duo of Derek Tong and Christian Adams who make this podcast happen every month and the top technical team at Listen but, for now, from me Nigel Cassidy, for the 200th time, it’s goodbye.
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