Set within one of the largest office developments in the City of London, Accenture’s offices on London’s Fenchurch Street are as corporate as you would expect from a professional services organisation. Yet behind the sea of glass and wide-open atrium, Accenture is moving away from the traditional big-business way of working to focus on the individual, embracing an approach that chief leadership and human resources officer Ellyn Shook refers to as “hyper-personalisation”.

In the past, says Sam Clark, MD for UK and Ireland HR, recruiting and retaining staff was a vanilla, uncustomised affair. But with a multi-generational workforce, many of whom are millennials, the company felt it was vital to connect on a more personal level with their global workforce.

“The world has shifted enormously and one of the biggest challenges is to make the experience of work a human one,” Clark says. “More and more it’s about how do you [as an individual] feel about work, how do you feel about the processes that support your talent or your career.”

A new paradigm for performance management

Accenture’s new approach reflects the trend of a growing number of organisations — notably GE, which originally popularised the concept of forced ranking — have announced significant changes to their performance management processes. Known as Performance Achievement, this will see an end to a backwards-looking focus on annual performance and ratings linked to pay in favour of a more future-orientated “coaching culture”, focusing on individual and team strengths, skills and career development.

Managers will be encouraged to give ongoing feedback to their direct reports and have more “courageous conversations” to help them manage their careers and identify their development areas. Accenture’s career counsellors — assigned to new starters — will also be expected to have more regular conversations with staff.

“Performance management felt like a process that was being done to people in the past,” says Clark. “We have been less than satisfied that it is motivating our staff for some time and it’s been taking up a significant amount of man hours that would be better spent talking about people’s careers and potential.”

Last year the company ran several successful pilots with 16,000 employees across various areas globally, including HR, who have now fully transitioned to the new system. The first stages of the system were brought in more widely in January. Over the course of the year, staff will be introduced to different aspects of the new arrangement culminating with salary changes — a more iterative process than is traditionally associated with change management.

“In the past in HR we have always wanted to have everything signed off [at the outset]. What we’re doing now is sharing the vision but introducing tools and approaches during the course of the performance year. It’s a fairly sizeable change but we are doing it in an agile way,” Clark explains.

She says one of the most useful aspects of the new HR strategy is that, by removing performance ratings, the conversation about staff has changed from a peer group comparison to a more productive discussion about talent: “It’s a bit more like what you would do in succession planning when you are thinking about the person, their skills and competencies, and their next role.”

What won’t change is the pot of money that’s available for pay rises but, says Clark, this is not forced ranking by another name: “The difference now is as leaders we have to settle on individual reward decisions that we can justify. It means you end up having much more honest conversations with employees about their future and why you have made a particular decision about their reward. It makes people more accountable and, as a management team, we feel more invested in the outcome.”

Balance in a digital working world

Performance management is not the only area where Accenture is focusing more on the individual. In a constantly connected world, human beings need to switch off, says Clark, so there is an increasing emphasis on helping staff to get “balance” back into their lives.

The global HR team and some other test groups in North America have piloted an initiative set up by Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post, author of Thrive and an advocate of wellbeing in the workplace. Over several weeks, individuals took part in virtual sessions focused on areas such as sleep, mindfulness and balance.

During the festive period the HR team were also encouraged to make it clear they were on holiday and, says Clark, when Shook is on leave she makes a point of only taking a flip phone so she can’t monitor her emails. “When we came back after Christmas there was nothing in your inbox apart from junk mail. It was a joy,” she says. “In a digital world you have to reclaim your time and, as an employer, you have got to help people understand where their own guiderails are.”

Company rating site Glassdoor gives Accenture an above-average rating of 3.6 out of 5 and reports that 80 per cent of those giving feedback would recommend it to a friend. But it does not score so highly when it comes to working hours. “We never pretend when we recruit people that this is a nine-to-five business,” says Clark. “We always talk about high performance — and high performance means you have to deliver to the client. But we have taken strides to reduce the amount of hours that people work and to get them to sensibly scope and manage projects. There will still be occasions where people have to work long hours but, what we are striving for is a better appreciation of the value of working more sensible hours.”

Flexibility, support, acceptance

When it comes to flexibility, Accenture can claim to be doing much better. Working from home is not unusual — most executive assistants work two days a week remotely — and there is a greater understanding that staff with young families may need to do the school run. “I’m not interested in whether they are in at nine so long as their output is what I want it to be,” says Clark. “You get much more loyalty out of people if you are supportive of them.”

In the UK, the company is ahead of the game when it comes to shared parental leave. Keen to not just pay lip service to the new legislation that came into effect in April 2015, it introduced a policy of 32 weeks of paid shared leave that it believes gives parents a realistic choice. Already more men are taking up the opportunity. At the last count, 33 members of staff had or were about to take shared parental leave, and the majority are men, including a senior MD.

“We want to make the experience of returning to work a shared experience, not just a woman’s experience,” says Clark. “If you get men involved from the get-go the chances are they are going to stay more involved [in child rearing] than perhaps has been the case, which means you start to see more equality of experience for men and women in the workplace. It’s a culture shift but it won’t happen overnight.”

One culture shift that is happening more quickly is the acceptance of individual difference. Accenture’s UK Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender network, for instance, has 200 members and another 1,800 staff are part of the LGBT Allies network, while the company has been named a Star Performer by LGBT charity Stonewall.

“People increasingly feel that they would like to bring all of themselves to work, or at least reveal as much about themselves as they are comfortable with, and not have the added pressure of editing parts of their lives,” says Clark. “We are trying to create a little safe haven, a culture that is conducive to people feeling they can be open and that they are going to be given an equal chance.”

“When you have more responsibility, the more responsibility you have to promote an environment that embraces diversity and inclusivity,” says Clark. “It’s the choice of words, the banter you encourage, the fact that you might have an alcohol-free element in after-work entertaining, or have big meetings on a Wednesday because that’s when more of your part-timers are likely to be there.”

It’s all, she concludes, part of the drive towards hyper-personalisation, and the conviction that treating people as individuals can be inspirational. How a big company like Accenture adapts to a multi-generational, flexible, diverse and increasingly connected workforce will be integral to its future success. Clark is adamant that “vanilla processes delivered in a particular way” no longer suffice for the best businesses. “That’s a great opportunity for organisations like us. You stay still at your peril.”

By Claire Warren, Editor, Work. magazine

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