Zenith is the UK’s leading independent leasing, fleet management and vehicle outsourcing business. It employs approximately 1,000 white-collar workers (51% female, 49% male) and, as part of a more recent expansion, approximately 300 blue-collar workers (predominantly male) who repair and maintain vehicles across four workshops and at customer sites.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, just 11% of Zenith’s white-collar workers had the technology and working arrangements in place to enable them to work from home. COVID lockdowns forced a rapid transition. Ninety-eight per cent of employees were quickly enabled and supported to work fully from home.

It soon became clear that many colleagues enjoyed the greater flexibility, freedom and autonomy of homeworking. Absence rates dropped significantly and productivity metrics (like those from their call centre environment) demonstrated there was no adverse impact on productivity. In fact, the organisation grew more than they had in previous years.

Developing working patterns

As the threat of the pandemic eased, Zenith knew they needed to consider working patterns moving forward. They started by talking and listening to colleagues on the pros and cons of home and office working. A survey found 23% wanted full-time homeworking, 44% wanted three to four days a week at home, 30% wanted occasional homeworking, and only 3% didn’t want to work from home at all. Chief People Officer Stuart Price says, “It was a very strong message to the business that we had to listen to.”

A cross-functional programme on agile working was initiated to determine future work patterns that were right for their business and people. This had six work streams led by the relevant senior leaders to ensure operational teams were heavily involved in the design: leadership capability; technology and systems; facilities (the role of the office); policy and guidance; data and analytics; and engagement (how to get everyone on board).

Zenith concluded that their approach should:

  1. Be hybrid to reap the benefits of both office and homeworking. The office environment was seen to be particularly beneficial for collaboration, innovation, problem-solving, learning and growing talent – especially for individuals new to the organisation or at the start of their careers.
  2. Balance the needs of the customer, the team and the individual – Stuart highlights that flexibility works both ways: “Some colleagues might want the certainty of working from home three days a week. That’s a permanent, flexible working request, and while we might be able to do that, agile is a lot more fluid and should accommodate changes in work requirements from one day to the next as well as personal preferences.”
  3. Empower and trust colleagues. It was clear from the listening exercises that colleagues really valued the autonomy and freedom they had experienced during COVID-19 and Zenith wanted to retain this. Lizzie Gibson (Agile Policy Lead) says, “This meant retaining as much flexibility as possible so individuals and teams are able to make their own judgements.”

Zenith’s agile policy consequently focuses on the ethos and principles of agile working, rather than outlining specific rules. The policy highlights the benefits and disadvantages of both the office and home environment, provides guidance on how to manage agile working, and outlines practical support in place, including technology and equipment.

Each team determines how the agile policy can be applied within their business area to enable maximum flexibility to as many colleagues as possible while delivering on service and performance goals. Teams also manage when work is done, with freedom and flexibility of hours partly determined by the nature of the role (such as customer help desks that need to be covered for a particular set of hours).

Zenith’s vehicle maintenance and repair workers are restricted in the location of their work due to the nature of their roles, but Zenith does offer flexibility of hours where possible to these colleagues (including part-time, reduced hours, shift swaps and compressed hours).

Leadership

Before launching the agile policy, Zenith developed and rolled out a leadership excellence programme for all its 200 leaders focusing on how to manage a hybrid team by working through real-life scenarios. It recognised that the flexibility – and ambiguity – of its ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ approach required a cultural shift for people used to prescriptive policies that set out what they could and couldn’t do.

“Training is essential because these changes aren’t easy,” asserts Stuart. “We want to support leaders and managers to make the right decision and trust them to do it. Our middle and senior leaders will make this a success because it’s a culture change rather than a process.”

Investing in technology

Zenith invested over half a million pounds in new technology. Stuart says, “We found that meetings worked well if everyone was in the office or if everyone was online, but if it was a mix you felt like the poor relation if you were at home. Installing big screens and microphones has made a big difference.”

Technology also enables teams to connect and collaborate regardless of their location. Call centre colleagues, for example, use Teams throughout their working day for visual access to everyone’s activities. Head of Customer Service Tim Kaplowitch says, “This helps workflow and distribution, but, on a busy day, it also helps people feel like they’re all in it together. It also reduces potential feelings of isolation.”

Regular communications and contact

Regular communications throughout the policy development process helped give colleagues certainty and retain talent. Each week colleagues were updated with what was happening and what it meant. Leadership drop-in sessions were conducted to help people with the change in culture.

Ongoing communications within teams are also seen as key to enabling hybrid success. Tim gives an example of a colleague who very successfully manages a hybrid team while working full-time from home. “Every morning they have a meeting, go through who’s doing what, their stats, but also fun activities. Performance is high and this team consistently achieves three stars in the Best Companies Survey.”

Social activities, organised by teams and the wider organisation, have always been part of Zenith’s culture. Some of these have moved online (like team quizzes) to maximise inclusion, and opportunities to meet face-to-face are now communicated with more notice so that colleagues who are used to working more flexibly or from home can plan appropriately.

Ongoing support 

Ongoing support is part of the process to embed agile working into the culture. This has included bringing leaders together to share their experiences and learn from each other. Tim says, “I always thought some processes, such as reviews, were best done face-to-face, but I have seen others doing these really successfully online, so now I just request that people put their cameras on.”

Feedback and listening groups also help identify issues so that additional guidance, training or other solutions can be put in place. Stuart says, “It can be easy to have a knee-jerk reaction and bring people back to the office when there is a performance issue. We need to keep revisiting how to implement this effectively and keep it at the forefront of people’s minds: What are the lessons learned? What are some of the traps you can fall into? How do you keep the spirit alive within your business area?”

Additional support has also been put in place for new recruits. This has included making sure that all processes are clear and accessible, and also ensuring that they have someone available to turn to for help. For particularly busy teams, where it has been difficult to bring people up to speed while meeting performance requirements, bringing in additional experienced colleagues has been part of the solution.

Organisational benefits

Since introducing agile working, turnover has reduced by 2% compared with pre-pandemic levels, despite a surge in the employment market. Absence levels have reduced significantly and engagement scores have increased.

“Colleagues overwhelmingly say it is the most valued benefit we offer, and in a tough labour market that is key,” says Stuart. “Advertising jobs with the option to work in an agile hybrid way has also helped attract and retain more women and other underrepresented groups, including people with neurodiverse conditions who may struggle with working full-time in an office environment. This year 75% of our senior appointments were female.”

Zenith’s advice for successful hybrid working

  • You don’t need to overengineer your approach – flexibility is key.
  • Train leaders in scenarios, not policy – help them to avoid a ‘one size fits all’ approach and support them to get the balance right.
  • Give people a positive reason to come into the office – things like inclusion month, speakers, team collaboration, social, networking, long-term thinking, problem-solving, etc. Make people feel their presence is valued/worthwhile.
  • Manage the exceptions – if people are underperforming, don’t bring them back to the office as a punishment. Help them understand their responsibilities, be clear on expectations, and share the data on how performance and productivity is assessed and reviewed.
  • Keep lines of communication open for people who have to exercise their judgement to make agile work for very diverse teams. Keep revisiting and reviewing to ensure that effective implementation is at the forefront of people’s minds.

Acknowledgements

  • Stuart Price, Chief People Officer, Zenith Automotive Holdings Ltd
  • Lizzie Gibson, Agile Policy Lead, Zenith Automotive Holdings Ltd
  • Tim Kaplowitch, Head of Customer Service, Zenith Automotive Holdings Ltd

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