Pearson plc is the world’s leading learning company serving customers in nearly 200 countries with digital content, assessments, qualifications, and data. 

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of Pearson’s employees were office-based, although about 20% had remote working contracts. Some teams were geographically dispersed and Pearson anticipated increased recruitment of overseas teams to access talent. To support these employees and to share learning and best practice, Pearson created a Remote Working Manifesto by crowdsourcing on their intranet, seeking employees’ advice and tips on how to manage remote teams. 

The manifesto sets out:

  • The need to be communicative and transparent in agreeing working patterns and contact preferences within teams.
  • How to get the best out of the technology available. 
  • How to manage performance based on trust and outputs.
  • How to understand and accommodate individual styles and preferences to get the best out of everyone. 

The guidelines in the manifesto aided the sudden shift to remote working for all employees during the COVID-19 pandemic. It was soon clear that productivity was not adversely affected - in fact, in many areas efficiency increased - and that the majority of employees would resist a full-time return to the office. The organisation chose to fully embrace flexible working to future proof their business.

Formalising commitment to hybrid working

Pearson quickly developed a Global Remote Working Policy to formalise the organisation’s commitment to hybrid working. This gives line managers responsibility for ensuring team members have as much freedom and flexibility as possible to meet goals and business requirements. HR teams played a pivotal role in leading and supporting line managers with direction and tailored advice. Their intranet was also a useful forum for sharing information and enabling questions and discussion globally.

As part of the roll out of the policy, employees were encouraged to consider with their line manager where and when work is best done, based on their role requirements and personal preferences. To encourage due consideration, assist with organisational planning and aid transparency between colleagues, employees record on the HR system the percentage of time they intend to spend in the office and the percentage elsewhere. 

Approximately 60% of the workforce now work on a hybrid basis and 20% have remote contracts. The remaining 20% are office based due to the nature of their roles (such as delivering assessments). Pearson attempts to offer as much flexibility as possible to its office-based employees through offering flexible start times, job shares and part-time working options. It has a particularly strong emphasis on supporting people with parental or care responsibilities through adapting the hours they work to meet their needs and offers paid time off for caring responsibilities through its Carers’ Policy.   

Building community

Building community through promoting collaboration and engagement has been a key focus throughout the move to hybrid working. 

Creating destination workplaces 

Pearson took the opportunity to refurbish its premises, especially its headquarters in London, during the lockdowns, moving away from desk-based offices and creating different types of collaborative working spaces as well as an excellent café to encourage interaction. 

Kevin Lyons, Senior HR Manager, reports, “Our London office is in a great location, has wonderful views and its transformation has been a great success. We’ve found this makes a real difference to attract people in to the office and are working to establish the same level of attraction in our other offices. We don’t want to drag people into the office just to sit and do emails but we do want to encourage and facilitate purposeful interaction.”

Investing in technology and technological support 

With employees across the globe, Pearson was already well set up with communication technologies, including Teams and video conference facilities. It also had an established intranet/internal social network, well used by individuals and employee groups to communicate, collaborate and feedback on a range of topics and change initiatives, as well as to access resources and information. 

With the move to hybrid, Pearson not only invested further in equipment and software but also in an excellent technical support team, on hand at all times to assist and advise employees. 

Kevin says, “We’re finding that with the right technology and skills in place pretty much everything can be done virtually. We have tech features that can be used in online meetings and are getting better at ensuring that in mixed meetings everyone is included regardless of whether they are physically or virtually present. We also have processes for conducting on-boarding and induction virtually, although we may encourage people to come in and meet their manager and team early on in their employment. Ultimately we allow people to take responsibility and use their initiative to operate in a way that works best for their team.’ 

Establishing effective communication forums

Hayley White’s team (General Qualifications assessment division) of 200 people were all based in their London office before the pandemic. She says, “When everyone is together it’s easier get to know people, make introductions, get a sense of how people are and how they are coping with their workload.”

Keen to maintain and build relationships and engagement Hayley has focused strongly on building communications, including through:

  • Regular ‘all hands’ meetings to share information and celebrate successes.
  • Face-to-face divisional days twice a year, where as many of the 200 strong team are together as possible. They now also have hybrid team members based in Manila who get together face-to-face in the office there and join the UK team virtually. 
  • ‘Our lived experience’ - a monthly series that consists of a ‘fireside chat’ between two people about something important in their lives (such as Ramadan, neurodiversity). Broadcast online with time for audience questions, attendance is optional. So far attendance figures and collected feedback has been extremely positive. 
  • A programme for people with high potential – they network, have regular group meetings, monthly learning lunches with VPs from around the business and undertake challenges together, such as sponsoring a charity initiative and getting a whole division involved. 

Hayley emphasises, “There isn’t one answer for everyone. Some people like a face-to-face gathering, others don’t. Some people participate well in virtual group meetings, others find it easier in one-to-one meetings. We make the options varied and that allows people to find the level of engagement that works for them.”

Increased support for wellbeing

With the move to more remote working and the consequent increase in screen time, Pearson recognised a greater need to ensure effective support for wellbeing and mental health. Hayley says, “You need to put in some discipline, support and training around wellbeing because it’s too important to assume it will happen organically.”

In addition to its Employee Assistance Programme and a range of online resources, initiatives include:

  • Strong messaging from senior leaders that working long hours is not productive, the value of working ‘smarter not harder’ and the need to take breaks and holidays. Performance management systems that focus on quality and outcomes reinforce this messaging.
  • ‘Learning at work’ weeks, wellbeing weeks and global mindfulness programmes that focus on practical things to support wellbeing and identify threats.
  • Training of additional mental health first aiders – this group also collaborates on how to have good connections with people and how to reach out to colleagues where there are concerns. They have open door sessions and present to division heads monthly and the senior management team on a quarterly basis.
  • Safe spaces for domestic abuse survivors.

Outcomes

Employee feedback shows a high demand for flexible working and Pearson has noted improvements in engagement and retention as well as in the calibre of new recruits as they have greater geographical reach. 

Efficiency has also increased as the flexibility enables people to work when and where they can be most productive. Hayley says, “It’s forced us to think of different ways of working, how people best perform and blossom in different ways and how we can enable that.”

Kevin adds, “We’re finding that many of the preconceptions around hybrid working do not hold up in our organisation. For example, we haven’t found that younger people necessarily prefer to be in the office (quite the opposite for some who are neurodivergent) or that certain tasks or activities, such as on-boarding, can’t be done well virtually, if the right technology and skills are in place. It just requires a change in thinking.”

Moving forward

Moving forward Pearson is continuing to review its approach through monitoring engagement with different communication channels and forums and gathering internal feedback. It also looks externally, networking and reviewing evidence from other organisations, as part of its efforts to improve. 

HR continues to play a key role in guiding and advising managers on how best to embrace flexibility of working, encourage collaboration and support employee wellbeing. 

Pearson’s advice for successful hybrid working

  • Be proactive. Give people flexibility and accept that most will chose to spend a lot of time working virtually. Embrace it. 
  • Don’t force people into the office but highlight the value of purposeful collaboration and create attractive workplaces that facilitate this. 
  • Trust your team. Let them shape how they want to work and what works best for them, with the business needs at the heart of that. 
  • Don’t make assumptions about what does and doesn’t work virtually based on how things have been done in the past. Technological solutions are often available.

Acknowledgements

  • Kevin Lyons, Senior HR Manager, Pearson plc
  • Hayley White, Senior leader for General Qualifications assessment division, Pearson plc

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