CIPD Annual Conference 2020: highlights from day one

Compassion, inclusion and Couch to 5K – People Management rounds up the first day of the virtual event

Following an insightful keynote conversation with journalist and bestselling author Reni Eddo-Lodge on addressing racism in the workplace, delegates at the CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition heard experts and thought leaders discuss a range of issues affecting the profession. People Management rounds up some of the key lessons from the day below.

Look out for day two highlights coming soon, and don’t forget to follow @peoplemgt on Twitter for the latest updates.

Compassion is vital to leadership during the pandemic

The coronavirus crisis has had a unifying effect on humanity, said Mo Gawdat (pictured), former chief business officer at Google X and now happiness evangelist, and puts everyone under the same threat and in the same circumstances. “This is the ultimate moment when empathy is the easiest thing to do, and the easiest thing to find,” he said, adding that when he felt negative or lonely, he asked himself “who else is lonely? And I reach out to them”.

Gawdat explained that empathy is when we feel the hardship of others, and compassion is attempting to make a difference – and that both are important for leaders to practise. He highlighted that leaders and HR professionals needed to harness the power of compassion during the current crisis: “[Using] the power of compassion is what we as leaders and people management professionals need to do. Listen, reach out and connect. Make the time that we have been at our best for reaching out and showing empathy with our teams.”

Employers are ‘stepping into the social lives’ of their employees

The coronavirus crisis and subsequent lockdown has led employers to become part of their workforces’ social lives like never before, said Matt Elliott, chief people officer at the Bank Of Ireland. “For the first time in my career we’re stepping into the social lives of colleagues in a knowing way,” he said.

Elliott added that although the bank offered a wellbeing package throughout lockdown, he noticed employees were benefitting less from the specific content provided than the way the programme connected people. The bank is currently running a Couch to 5K event over the course of several months, which has more than 2,500 colleagues, as well as their friends and families, involved.

“Many are not in [the event] because they need the physical exercise… The big thing coming through is the connection and the sense of community that comes from being involved in the same thing at the same time that isn’t just your day job or isn’t just what you’re doing with your team day in, day out.”

The bank is also ending the year with a number of virtual social events, said Elliott, “unashamedly because our colleagues are missing that in their regular lives, so why wouldn’t we try and fill at least some of that space?”

Organisations need to focus on wellbeing, not just the ‘bottom line’

In a session discussing how employers should be looking after their workforces during unprecedented times like global pandemics, Paul Farmer, chief executive of mental health charity Mind, offered “maximum credit” to those organisations trying to improve their employees’ health. “Congratulations to any employer that has identified the importance of wellbeing,” he said.

In a warning to those companies whose staff are still predominantly working from home, he also highlighted the risk of ‘e-presenteeism’ and said firms needed to support people “whose kitchen is also their office”. Moving forward, Farmer said businesses should be putting employee wellbeing at the “heart” of their thinking about the future, “rather than just the financial bottom line”.

Cheryl Samuels, deputy director of workforce transformation at NHS England, also explained how her organisation, as the UK’s largest employer, had been working hard to support the thousands of NHS workers who have been critical to the UK’s response to Covid and were “the most stressed and stretched they’ve ever been”.

Having learned from previous incidents, including the 7/7 and London Bridge terror attacks, that employees find it harder to seek out and access information when they’re busy or stressed, Samuels explained, NHS England set up a microsite dedicated to NHS worker wellbeing to make it easy for them to find support, which half a million people have accessed so far. It is also offering staff free access to several mental health apps. “Resilience resides in teams working together, so we need leaders to be able to be caring and compassionate,” Samuels added.

Diversity is the reality of the world we live in, but inclusion is a choice

Measuring and leveraging workforce data can help organisations shape their approach to inclusion and anti-racism, said Raafi Karim-Alidina, co-author of Building an Inclusive Organization. Karim-Alidina explained that once you have a clear approach you can start using data to “set targets that are achievable, which might be stretch targets but are based in data”.

“Measuring diversity is just the beginning,” he added. “You also need to think about how we measure inclusion and we have found a number of different aspects to measuring inclusion that are critical.

“Diversity is a reality of the world we live in now and you need to measure that, but inclusion is a choice and we need to measure how we are making these choices and for whom because that's what is going to drive inclusion in our organisations long term.”

Using lived experiences helps stamp out unconscious bias

Being the head of an international company does not make someone immune to the negative effects of unconscious bias, said Frank Douglas, director at Caerus Executives. “I can be a CEO but I am still black first,” he said, retelling an incident where, as a black man, he was ignored by a doctor at his GP. “Unconscious bias is sometimes like a stab in the back and sometimes it's just microaggressions that you deal with day in, day out.” 

Speaking on the same panel, Sandra Kerr, race equality director at Business in the Community, suggested businesses use “the power of stories and data” over unconscious bias training to tackle the issues and give people a different perspective. Kerr said she had witnessed incidents of unconscious bias play out on many interview panels, where “the [interview] criteria are clear, and the black candidate is more experienced, but then [when it comes to making a decision] suddenly things are discussed that aren’t on the criteria like ‘their communication isn’t clear’ because they have an accent”.

And David Johnston, head of equality, diversity and inclusion at Police Service of Northern Ireland, added that people are drawn to others who are familiar, and that, in a business context, underrepresented groups may not have the same support networks. “Who do they turn to, assuming there aren’t too many people who look like them, and how does that play out in business?” he asked.

HR should be ‘embedded in the lives of workers’

The coronavirus crisis presents an opportune time for HR to revisit what the people profession is about and to get to know the individuals within their organisation, Farrah Storr, editor in chief of Elle, told conference delegates. She called on people professionals to use this time to question how well they know their company and the individuals within it. “HR should be embedded in the lives of their workers. Now is the time to seize the opportunity,” she said. “If you’re not doing constant, [practical], anonymous questionnaires or doing temperature gauge of what is the moral compass of your company, I think you should be.” 

Also speaking at the session, Peter Cheese, chief executive of the CIPD, called on HR professionals to see the pandemic as an opportunity to change things within their organisation. HR should be looking at how the business can “build back better” after the pandemic. “It’s very much on these core principles around what a responsible business looks like,” Cheese said. “All these ideas of putting people at the heart of the business agenda is a very good place to start.

“You can do some things in policy and rules, but a lot of it is about understanding behaviour and culture. You can’t define a corporate culture through rules. Indeed, you can get to the complete opposite of what you want because you constrain people so much with rules that they actually lose their sense of personal accountability.”