Speakers at the two-day conference covered a range of topics, all of which are crucial for people professionals. Here People Management team condenses some of the key talks from the event:
Every organisation is grappling with what’s right for them in terms of flexible working
“You can’t be everything to everybody, but being open and honest is [a good start],” Helen McNamara, director of organisation and people development at the University of Nottingham, said in the context of setting employee expectations.
She also shed more light on the tensions that come with companies trying to get their flexible work policies finely tuned to the needs of the business, and reiterated the importance of using data to make “informed decisions”.
McNamara explained data could help decipher how many days in the office would strike the perfect balance between productivity and work-life balance, and reminded HR of the importance of boundaries and communication. “Teams need to make it clear that certain meetings will require employees to attend in person,” she said, emphasising that “no organisation is alone in trying to figure out what works through a degree of internal dialogue about what hybrid means for them”.
She also shared her HR team’s practice of having innovation days where, just like during the pandemic, they discuss things that might surprise or challenge them.
The team has taken inspiration from the students they work alongside who, naturally, at the start of their employment journeys are questioning “what it is they want from work”.
Regarding this practice, the team follows the principle “what is the innovative thinking we could really apply among this group of people? Let's not be constrained by the conservative way we might be doing it now and just incrementally build on it. Let's throw it out the window and throw it around a bit.”
Finding balance is the art of HR
Speaking on a panel discussion, Vicky Wallis, chief people officer at Direct Line Group, said knowing what the right thing to do is not an easy balancing act, but that it tipped “quite rightly in favour of employees during Covid”. Sally Austin, chief people officer at Wincanton, emphasised that “finding that balance is the art of great HR”.
Ade Rawcliffe, group director of diversity and inclusion at ITV, added “that self-care is crucial for HR professionals because they have to do the right thing, but also sometimes separate themselves from the job”.
In response to the question of whether there was a secret formula for keeping employees with a company, the panellists emphasised the importance of role customisation and articulating organisational purpose.
Wallis argued that "one size does not fit all" and that, instead, “we must personalise our work for each employee while also paying attention to their input”.
Meanwhile, Austin said employees could be nomadic, and will frequently move for an additional £1 per hour. "We've created chances for people to work three or four hours a day," she said.
Rawcliffe also stressed the value of having a strong sense of purpose to retain employees, stating that her organisation has “emphasised its role in entertaining millions of people to generate excitement among staff members”.
Leaders would ‘love’ to have women on their board but data shows supply is not the issue
Data is fundamental to a diverse leadership strategy, said Ruth Sealy, professor of responsible leadership and director of impact at the University of Exeter Business School. Sealy recounted the number of times leaders said they would “love” to have a woman on the board, but, when she dug into data, it revealed that the issue was demand and not supply.
Sealy established this by looking at the “lifecycle data” – where talent comes from, their qualifications and whether that produces a restrictive [talent] pool. Using the legal sector as an example, Sealy said: “If you’re only taking your graduates from elite Russell Group universities, then you are already restricting your pool of talent.”
She advised companies to think about “award gaps” for educational and professional qualifications, which are prevalent in higher education roles, where “less than 1 per cent of professors are black”, she said.
However, she said it would be “wrong to assume certain groups of people would make better leaders simply because of their background”, especially because of stereotypes. “People are people and we all have different strengths, so I am very reticent to say: ‘Women are this and men are that.’”