Why Virgin Money gave its staff the freedom to work anywhere

The bank introduced locationless working as part of a more flexible post-Covid culture

Credit: Andrew Ferraro

A third of the way up central London’s 45-storey Leadenhall Building, affectionately known as the Cheesegrater, sits Virgin Money’s London HQ. Bedecked in contemporary, on-brand red decor and luxurious furniture, on the sunny day in mid-March when People Management visits, aside from a board meeting taking place down the corridor, it’s noticeably empty. The office is, explains group chief people and communications officer Syreeta Brown, on the company’s list to be remodelled as part of its post-Covid ‘A Life More Virgin’ package, formally announced in November, under which staff can choose where they work, and the firm will maintain key hubs for staff to work in collaboratively, rather than forcing them back to a traditional ‘office’.

It’s a path, says Brown, who joined the bank in November 2021, that it was on before the pandemic, yet this clearly added impetus to its plans. Having surveyed all Virgin Money staff (as well as more than 3,000 members of the public) about what they wanted from working flexibly, it found 73 per cent of employees said more flexibility would improve their general happiness, and 62 per cent said it would improve their mental health. But people also said they wanted choice in what that flexibility looks like, explains Brown. “Some flexibility is prescriptive in itself, so we’ve tried to think systemically about how we create a proposition that’s flexible in itself and shows we trust people to make the right choices, while still meeting our regulatory and risk obligations.”

Aiming for ‘A Life More Virgin’ to be completely in place by summer 2022, all staff will be provided with the tech they need to work flexibly, and it will be down to individual teams themselves to decide how and where they would prefer to do their jobs. Even branch staff whose location is fixed will be afforded more choice over their hours. And key indicators are already moving in the bank’s favour showing the changes are being welcomed. But it’s also involved a lot of comms work to ensure people feel empowered, including online guidance and improved training for line managers, says Brown. “We’ve given people freedom to decide, but lots of people aren’t used to this level of freedom,” she points out.

And this move towards permanent flexibility has also been looked at under an organisational design lens, encompassing the rest of the bank’s people offering. “We’ve looked at every aspect of the employee lifecycle to say what needs to change to deliver this philosophy,” explains Brown. For example, the bank’s reward offering has been drastically improved; A Life More Virgin also offers new benefits including five extra ‘wellbeing days’ per year, as well as gender-neutral parental leave. Looking at the organisation’s offering holistically is key, Brown says, to making sure it’s sustainable in the longer term. “If you don’t embed these things systemically, they can just become gimmicks,” she says.

The changes brought about by the introduction of A Life More Virgin also put inclusivity centre stage, explains Brown. “In today’s world, diversity and inclusion has become a programmatic, sideways initiative that organisations have to do,” she says. “A Life More Virgin really pulls inclusion into the centre of our strategy.” With ambitious targets in place (between 45-55 per cent gender diversity at senior level and 10 per cent ethnic diversity across the group by 2025), the move to a more locationless working model has also removed some of the barriers the bank has experienced in accessing talent. In the past five months, Brown says, the number of applications for its vacancies has doubled, with hiring managers reporting a greater diversity of candidates. When location is removed, she says, the reasons people give for why they can’t improve diversity also start to be removed. “Which is a cornerstone of having a truly inclusive strategy,” she adds. “It has to be systemic. Too often inclusion strategies just focus on symptoms.”

As part of A Life More Virgin, Brown has also made a conscious effort to do away with a large number of people policies, only maintaining mandatory ones such as regulatory and health and safety. “We’ve tried to eliminate a lot of the prescription around how a policy should be practised between a manager and a colleague,” she explains. “I’ve turned it over to colleagues to say ‘do the right thing’, and it’s been proven that when you do that, you get people doing the right thing. Nobody comes to work to deliberately circumvent the rules.” And it’s a tactic she thinks other organisations will also start following: “You have to have guard rails, but also appreciate the environment and employee market is now determining what happens; we don’t determine what happens anymore.”

For Brown, the months and years to come will see the bank working to truly embed A Life More Virgin as a long-term culture change, not just a ‘Covid’ project, and iterate as required in order to build on its already “phenomenal” improvements to employee engagement and reward ratings and achieve its ambition of being the UK’s leading digital bank. And she’s realistic about the potential for more future changes: “Nobody’s got the answers on flexible working; the world is still changing and organisations need to be open to doing that as well.”