CIPD Annual Conference 2021: Highlights from day one

From retaining talent to avoiding killing the hybrid dream, People Management runs down some of the key takeaways from the first day of the hybrid event

This year’s CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition – which for the first time is running as a hybrid event both online and in person in Manchester – kicked off with an exploration of the future of work after coronavirus.

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

Trust is critical when choosing working patterns

The word that managers should use when discussing how firms organise remote and hybrid working is ‘trust’, according to Rob Worrall, head of people at BDO.

“You need to have open, adult-to-adult conversations where you are engaging with people, in a way that they feel trusted,” he explained during a panel session on how much choice and flexibility should be given under a hybrid working model. “Employees feel that they are part of the decision and that, I think, is absolutely fundamental for us as we continue to move forward.”

Meanwhile, Sarah Blake, HR director at TalkTalk, explained how her workforce had an “allergic reaction” to her team’s plan to prescribe that employees attend the office two to three days a week. “It's for the people leaders to establish with their teams what works for them,” she said, explaining that while some teams may need more in-office collaboration, others will need less.

Either way, she told delegates: “We expect our line managers to work with their teams and establish what is the right working pattern […] and our people leaders need to have the ability to do that”.

Adopt a ‘zero-base’ approach to who attends the office

Employers should start on an assumption that all employees can work from home and build exceptions from there, said Andrew Mawson, founder and managing director of Advanced Workplace Associates. “The whole thing has turned on its head. We are now looking at a default position where people are working away, but actually come and use a physical space when they are in need of the things that a physical space can give you,” he said.

“Our thesis is you should start with a zero-base approach,” Mawson told delegates. “You’re going to see some areas where a little bit more connectivity might be useful, but working from a zero-base you can start to say ‘for each team, how many of these reasons for being in the office exist?’.”

Speaking in the same session, Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, cautioned employers against trying to bring the tools of remote working back into the office – warning that employees don’t want to commute to their place of work just to sit on Zoom calls. “I’m not convinced that taking these new ways of working into old structures is going to work,” she said.

When thinking about how to reshape the office for the future, Dale also urged employers to consider where staff are working when they’re remote. “One of the things we also have to do is not just think about ‘how do we redesign the office?’ but bigger than that, more holistically than that, how do we ensure that people can be effective wherever they work?” she said.

HR isn't focusing enough on retaining talent

Having stepped into the breach at the last minute after an eleventh-hour line-up change, Louise Shaw, director of resourcing transformation at Omni, offered some stellar advice to HR professionals currently suffering at the hands of the supposed 'great resignation' and talent shortages in certain sectors in a session about solving the ‘talent paradox’. One of the biggest problems, she explained, is that businesses are not focusing enough on retaining their staff; recent research that she cited found only a small chunk of employers surveyed were specifically focusing on retention initiatives. Additionally, although the current rhetoric around flexible and hybrid working does not apply to a large number of organisations whose staff cannot work from home, there is still a lot that those organisations can be doing to improve flexibility for their staff and therefore increase retention, such as part-time or condensed hours.

Businesses should also make sure their inclusion and diversity (I&D) efforts are up to scratch, explained Shaw. She highlighted the misconception that I&D is "just a recruitment issue", when actually the company culture is just as – if not more – important. "If the culture isn't right, you can attract diverse talent, but they'll just end up leaving," she said. The end-to-end recruitment process, Shaw also suggested, should be audited "with a diversity lens". "Talk to people within the organisation who will think about things from different perspectives," she told delegates. 

Don’t kill the hybrid dream before it’s made

Firms have a “once in a generation opportunity” to responsibly apply hybrid work processes following the pandemic, said Diane Lightfoot, CEO of Business Disability Forum. But, she said, employees can’t be expected to carry office equipment or gear for adjustments back and forth from home to the workplace. “If we're expecting people to work in a hybrid way, then we need to make sure that they have the kit, the adjustments, the support everywhere,” she explained.

Lightfoot added: “Senior leaders set the tone and we need to practise what we preach”. If a company wants people to be at home three days a week, senior leaders need to do the same “regardless of how tempting it might be to go back to the office”.

And Neil Usher, chief workplace and change strategist at GoSpace, warned employers setting up hybrid working not to overload themselves with policy and regulation. He suggested firms that are in the experimental phase of introducing hybrid working keep things “as light as possible”, saying that too much policy can “kill a dream” as fast as it is made.

Covid has been ‘brilliant’ for developing welfare policies

The past 18 months have provided HR professionals with a “brilliant opportunity to play a key role” in developing welfare policies and equipping leaders and managers with the skills to really support their staff, Matt Elliott, chief people officer at the Bank of Ireland told delegates. In particular, he highlighted that the bank has trained managers and customer-facing staff in suicide prevention and part of that is also addressing the “stigma” around it.

And Bola Ogundeji, deputy director of workforce and OD at Moorfields Eye Hospital NHS Foundation Trust, who joined the session virtually, spoke to delegates about the importance of training staff so they can better support other colleagues. Covid has been disproportionately affecting people from ethinic minority backgrounds, and 43 per cent of the trust’s workforce are from a diverse background. “[So] we had to critically think how we preserve the health and wellbeing of the staff,” said Ogundeji.

To do this, the trust introduced a “compassionate leadership” initiative to help managers support their teams, and set up common rooms for frontline staff to “decompress, especially if they were feeling overwhelmed”, Ogundeji explained. She added that moving forward, it will be “important for us to continue to upskill managers [and…] develop their ability to understand and connect [with people] emotionally”.