CIPD Annual Conference 2021: Highlights from day two

People Management shares key moments from the second day of the event in Manchester and online, including a closing keynote from journalist and author Caitlin Moran

The second day of the CIPD conference was every bit as engaging as the first, kicking off with a keynote from David Lammy on the importance of equity in the workplace.

Here are some of the other highlights you might have missed. 

Companies become ‘stupider’ without equality, Caitlin Moran tells HR

Workplaces become a “stupider place” when they are unequal and when people feel they can’t speak up, said the journalist, author and broadcaster Caitlin Moran (pictured).

In the conference’s closing keynote interview with Katie Jacobs, senior stakeholder lead at the CIPD, she told delegates that equality at work was “not a luxury that we can allow ourselves once things get better, like when a business is up and running[...], it is a necessity”.

This meant creating an environment where people “feel they can talk honestly and be listened to,” she said, warning firms that failed to do this were “just losing ideas”.

Referencing the improvisation technique ‘yes, and’ where performers take a point and develop it to continue the story rather than ‘blocking’ their co-performers, she said she believes the technique needs to be used in the workplace, so instead of ‘blocking’ someone when they are confiding in them, people should use ‘yes, and’ in terms of keeping the conversation going and allowing them to speak.

The theory behind it is, according to Moran, that “if someone comes to you with a grievance or they're upset, you need to let them keep talking until they stop being emotional”. After they have been listened to, she said, they will then be able to process the solution that is being offered.

Moran added that it is also important to support people to speak up in the workplace, specifically women.

“You have to form an alliance, even with at least one other person in your workplace,” she advised, explaining that, if someone is spoken over or mistreated in the workplace, there is an “ally” beside them to speak up.

Young candidates want purpose – and flexible working

Young people “crave purpose and belonging” when it comes to applying for jobs, says Saeed Atcha MBE, former commissioner for young people and vulnerable groups and chief executive of Youth Leads UK.

During a panel on youth employment, he said that these priorities translate into a young person’s behaviour when looking at job adverts. “Young people want to work for organisations that have flexibility; that is pretty much a non-negotiable,” he explained, adding that they also look for a strong social purpose, support for volunteering and inclusivity.

Sandra Kerr OBE, race equality director at Business in the Community, told delegates that firms need to ensure candidates are interacting with “realistic role models” during career presentations. “It is about the workforce that you send into schools to represent your organisation,” she advised, suggesting that firms think about sending career people who represent the communities they are trying to recruit.

She also shared her top three tips for businesses to improve their recruitment processes. “Help with application, help with interviewing, and give [applicants] the chance to visit the site,” she said, and told delegates that by following these steps, candidates could “build confidence, get some feedback and be given experiences”.

Data is key to improving diversity

Gathering data is crucial for measuring progress on diversity and inclusion, said Emma Codd, global inclusion leader at Deloitte, who emphasised the importance of using data to gather information about retention and to make changes within organisations. “Don’t go out and ask people for their views if you’re going to completely ignore them,” she said.

​​Dialling in from the US, Nadia Younes, global head of employee experience, diversity and wellbeing at Zurich, added that I&D and HR professionals have been too focused on representation figures and have ignored other opportunities to measure diversity such as data on applications and shortlisted candidates which should also be valued as useful metrics.

And while the pandemic has brought a renewed focus on I&D objectives, companies tend to forget about the ‘inclusion’ aspect, said Katherine Gansallo, global diversity and inclusion director at the London Stock Exchange Group. “We’re really big on making sure that we are setting people up for success,” she said, adding that supporting and listening to employees once they are within an organisation is key.

#wemustdobetter on inclusion

Immediately following David Lammy MP's keynote speech at the start of day two of the conference, a panel of inclusion experts assembled to share their calls to action for HR to improve diversity within their own organisations, as well as the profession itself. Drawing comparisons with the subject of the closing keynote on day one by business sustainability expert Marga Hoek, Bernadette Thompson OBE, deputy director of inclusion, wellbeing and employee engagement at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (formerly the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government), highlighted how she believes inclusion and diversity (I&D) should be treated the same way as the climate crisis. HR should, she told delegates, be intentional, ambitious and set stretch goals. "There has to be a steady drumbeat," she said. "Diversity and inclusion must be as important as financial targets – keep it on the table and keep talking." Thompson has even coined a hashtag to sum up the current state of HR’s work in this area – #wemustdobetter.

Meanwhile, Harbhajan Brar, HRD at Imperial College, explained that businesses are still having the same conversations about I&D that they were decades ago, but that progress has been slow because organisations are merely paying lip service rather than actually addressing the issue. The HR profession, he said, needs to look at itself and see what more it can do to encourage better diversity, as well as using data better. "We are seeing change, but we need to use [data] to call organisations out," he explained. HR needs to also look harder for more diverse talent, he said. "Don't accept the talent isn't out there – you're just not looking hard enough," he said.

And Marcelle Moncrieffe-Johnson, chief people officer at South Bank University, highlighted that HR is often a "microcosm" of what the organisation's leaders want, but should be spearheading the change agenda. The profession, she told delegates, is in a "pivotal" role to make significant changes around overrepresentation and ensure all groups of the workforce can progress into senior roles.

There is a ‘collective responsibility’ to ensure flexible working works for all

The move to flexible working has created two separate work cultures, with some employees working from home and others sticking to an office-based routine, warned Amy Taylor, people director at PKF-Francis Clark. This divide, with home-based workers more often in more senior positions, has left younger trainees in the office without the ability to communicate with their colleagues, she said, adding that all employees had a “collective responsibility” to redefine what a working community means.

Drawing on his experience in government, Ravi Chand, director at Places for Growth and Beyond Whitehall, reminded delegates that not all roles had moved to remote working. Chand echoed other speakers as he called on managers to listen to the views of employees, saying that as people “vote with their feet” it is important to be flexible in their approach, rather than sticking to a fixed agenda.

Reward and benefits need to be tailored better

Manager training has been a priority for Biffa because the pandemic split its workforce into frontline and hybrid workers, said Katy Downes, the company’s head of reward. “We have had to look at our workplace benefits [for workers] in different environments and there is no ‘one size fits all’,” she said, adding that upskilling managers and supervisors in communications has been beneficial.

Lindsay Pulford, head of performance management at Standard Chartered Bank, added that the move to hybrid working – 84 per cent of the bank’s workforce are now on flexible working arrangements – has meant employees were now looking for more “in-the-moment thank you and recognition”.

There’s no ‘one size fits all approach’ to wellbeing

Employee wellbeing needs to be looked at both within and outside of the workplace in order to effectively support colleagues, said Aneela McKenna, diversity and inclusion specialist at the Scottish Parliament. “There is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to wellbeing,” she said, adding that employers need to listen to and recognise each individual employee’s circumstances. 

McKenna added that creating a culture of inclusion is central to achieving wellbeing at work, and employees “need to bring their authentic selves to work”.

Speaking at the same session, Tolu Oke, senior inclusion, diversity and equity partner at Amazon, said that struggling line managers would benefit from greater investment in their skills. “If [an employee] were in a tech role and didn’t know how to use specific software, would you sack that person on the spot, or would you put them on a course?” she asked.

This is even more important for ‘accidental’ line managers, who often take on extra responsibilities as they progress within a role, whom Oke said may need extra support and training in order to effectively deal with wellbeing challenges.

Leaders must come to work as their ‘full, human selves’

Learning through play is an important part of developing skills, said Laura Pettitt, who works in the learning and leadership development team at the Lego Group. “We’re seeing a significant increase in the number of adults who are building together,” she said, adding that it was important to give colleagues the opportunity to “get hands on and minds on with the skill we are looking to develop”.

At Lego, the Leadership Playground was a crucial aspect to the move online during Covid-19, and its success in attracting a more diverse audience meant that the company will continue to deliver programmes online.

Reinventing learning was also key for Tim Munden, chief learning officer at Unilever, especially after the challenges of the last 18 months. “We want leaders to show up as their full, human selves, rather than showing up as some kind of ideal,” he said.

Leaders also all too often fall into traps that hinder their company’s performance, such as delegating too many tasks, being too focused on efficiency, and multitasking to the point of exhaustion. But the pandemic has changed how training is offered: now, leaders must “embed learning into the flow of leadership and teamwork”.

Companies need to make recruitment accessible for people with disabilities

The pandemic has fuelled a greater interest in how disabled people can be supported at work, Jane Hatton, founder and CEO of Evenbreak, told delegates at the conference. But, with a disability pay gap of 19 per cent pay, UK businesses still have a lot of room for improvement.

For Hatton, disabled people can only be supported when leaders create and maintain a culture of learning in the workplace. Most discrimination happens when people are afraid to make mistakes, but disabled people are more likely to thrive when their colleagues admit to not knowing something.

The responsibility falls on companies to create an inclusive environment, Hatton said. “We are only disabled by the barriers we face”, she said.

Katie O’Connor, director of global regulatory affairs and disability workstream lead at Pfizer, said that companies needed to adapt their recruitment processes or risk losing out on talented candidates. One way that companies can do this is to work on improving the diversity of recruitment panels. “Making sure we are as diverse as the communities and patients we serve” is why she places great importance on revolutionising her organisation’s recruitment processes.