Long reads

Who's scooped the Oscars of HR?

14 Oct 2021 By PM Editorial

Back in person for 2021 with a glittering London ceremony, we reveal the winners of this year’s coveted CIPD People Management Awards

Best flexible working initiative: The Sovini Group

Company culture is not confined to four walls and Sovini Group’s winning of the flexible working initiative has proven that to be true. Pre-pandemic, its Bootle head office was the hub of its company culture, where its 830-strong workforce would collaborate as a family. But when the pandemic dispersed them, its strong sense of culture and belonging hung in the balance. 

“When people visited our office, they would say there was a family feeling about it,” says Steven Scott, head of HR. “The pandemic threatened to take the culture away, but it wasn’t the office that held it together; that’s just a building. It was the people who were in it.” 

He adds that if you really believe in your company culture, as Sovini employees do, then you can recreate it elsewhere and in different ways. “It wasn’t about surviving the pandemic,” he says, “it was about using it to make positive changes.” 

When the pandemic hit, the company launched its Change For Good programme, which focused on connecting employees virtually through apps and various engagement groups, and put communication at the centre of everything. But one of the biggest challenges of the initiative, according to Chloe Ellison, head of organisational development, was training senior leadership to cope with the shift to virtual working.

“The [biggest challenge was the] shift in the mentality of our managers who were used to working in a face-to-face environment,” says Ellison. “They needed to have a different set of skills to be able to manage that in a virtual environment and to be able to engage with staff.” So it created a bespoke management workshop to equip leaders with the skills to thrive virtually, embrace change and trust their teams, which was delivered to over 140 managers across the group. 

The initiative saw benefits across the organisation, such as staff engagement on the internal app, which was at 53 per cent pre-pandemic and is now at 85 per cent. Employee sickness absence levels also improved, decreasing from 1.69 to 1.37 per cent, and turnover rates improved from 18.8 per cent to 13.2 per cent. The firm also recruited more than 200 new employees during the pandemic.

When asked what advice he would give other organisations considering implementing a flexible working initiative, Scott says “knowing what you want to achieve and why you’re doing it” is the first step. “For us, the main reason was performance, because we believed we could be better for this change. We are a business and we want to achieve our corporate goals, so you need to have a clear vision and commit to it.” He adds that if you don’t commit from the outset “you will always look back and reminisce on the past and how great things used to be, but you have to look to the future and the improvements”. 

Best apprenticeship scheme: Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust (LTHT)

Sadly for the winning team at LTHT, Covid restrictions at the trust meant not only were they unable to attend the awards ceremony, but they weren’t even allowed to watch the online ceremony in the same room as each other. “But we set up a Teams meeting and followed it on Twitter, and got excited together” explains Robyn Swain, head of people development. “People joined in their slippers – not quite dresses and tuxedos, but definitely the right thing for our organisation.”

Back in 2017, the trust had commissioned the ‘Get In, Get On, Go Further’ programme after a focus on hiring pre-trained staff failed to fill sufficient vacancies. The aim was to increase the number of apprentices at the trust; increase levy spend; retain apprentices through better support; and build career pathways to fill key gaps in the workforce.

With apprenticeships previously avoided by many managers looking to recruit because of a lack of understanding, a key aspect was internal communications to bring about a culture shift, so managers understood that apprenticeships were a valuable option. 

Getting buy-in, explains Swain, has been critical to the success of the programme. “Once you’ve set the culture and apprenticeships are part of the organisation’s DNA, increasing the number of programmes still takes work, but it’s part of what we do,” she says. “Walk out onto the wards and you’ll see apprentices in every team in every part of our organisation.”

Of the reason behind the effort the HR team and managers across the trust put into the scheme, Jenny Lewis, director of HR and OD, is clear. “You’ve also got to have the desire and the ‘why’,” she explains. “You’ve got to have a deep-seated ambition that personal development for everyone is crucial.”

Despite the pandemic, apprenticeships were only paused for five weeks, with learners often saying that their studies were keeping them going through the crisis, recalls Swain. “I’m really proud of our organisation for saying, ‘no, this is still important’.”

“It was also nourishing to be doing something that was growing at a time when most of the day was, quite frankly, horrendous,” adds Lewis.

And the impact of the trust’s efforts has been astonishing. It has seen a more than six-fold increase in the number of apprenticeship starts since 2018, up to more than 900 from 140, and the trust’s levy spending increased from £846k in 2018 to more than £2.5m in 2020. 

“There were tears,” says Swain of the moment the team’s win was revealed. “To be objectively recognised as excellent is such a boost for everyone that has supported a learner through such tough times. As much as awards aren’t our main motivation, I can’t emphasise how much it matters.”

People team of the year – public sector: Cayman Islands Government

The Cayman Islands civil service was already three years into a five-year plan to become a world-class organisation when 2020 hit. In January of that year, the Caribbean island – a self-governing British Overseas Territory – was hit by a 7.7 magnitude earthquake and the threat of a tsunami. While the earthquake left the country shaken, but largely unharmed, it was a sign of the year to come.

“Coronavirus wasn’t the start of the journey for us in the HR team here,” says Graeme Jackson, director of workforce development for the Cayman Islands civil service. “We started quite a bit before the Covid crisis hit in terms of trying to prepare the civil service for a new way forward, a new way of thinking, getting out of the old-fashioned bureaucratic view of what governments were.” The HR team was also chair of the government’s business continuity panel, so when crisis struck, “our focus was already there,” says Jackson.

The first mission was to bring home citizens from abroad in a controlled way to prevent the virus from being spread through the local population, in which the HR team took a leading role. This involved taking over the management of local hotels and coordinating 250 inbound flights over a three-week period. While there were still no cases of the virus on the island, the team also worked to create a field hospital as part of the country’s diligent contingency planning. “We don’t have the luxury here of being able to call in the next village or the next town. That next town to us would be Miami, followed by London, so we really had to be self-reliant,” explains Jackson.

At the heart of this was making the most of the talent that the civil service had available. “It was never the people we expected. Even within our own team, we didn’t know some of the skills that we had,” says Jackson. This included individuals who, in previous careers, had experience working in hospitality or setting up field hospitals. “I reached out to the organisation [asking] if there was anybody with experience of building a hospital very quickly, at short notice and with no equipment, not expecting any response. But actually, I got two or three people,” he says.

Now Jackson and his team are working to make sure everything they have learned over the last 18 months is embedded in their day-to-day roles. “We know we can accelerate decision making and make good solid decisions,” he says. “So how do we make that part of our everyday practice?”

The other focus? “Trying to capture some of the stories so we don’t lose them, and we can embed them in training going forward,” he says.

Best L&D initiative – private sector: Boots UK

With outlets on most UK high streets, as well as a thriving online operation, Boots is arguably the most well-known wellbeing, beauty and pharmacy retailer in the country. Customer care has always been important, but it didn’t always have a clear focus, according to James Griffin, the company’s senior L&D manager. 

The company had slipped from 12th to 99th place in the Institute of Customer Service’s rankings over the space of four years which, coupled with a decline in high street sales, caused it to refocus. The team collected and analysed customer insight data before zeroing in on three customer needs: friendly, helpful and available staff. “They were the three killer insights – we then agreed we needed to create some training behind it,” Griffin says. 

And so the ‘HUG’ scheme was born – an acronym for a customer experience model where staff follow three steps to a “brilliant” customer experience. 

The L&D team first worked with staff to define how each of the elements could translate into their daily work and customer interactions, before designing a training programme comprising theory and practical exercises to bring it to life. A pilot in the company’s Stirling branch in July 2018 saw customer experience measures quickly improve, followed by an equally successful broader pilot in 18 stores the following month, before it was rolled out at the business’s stores conference.

“The launch in one store had an immediate impact, not only on the team, but also on customers,” says Griffin. “It blew us all away and, within a couple of weeks, it was really noticeable, which we weren’t expecting.”

Since HUG’s inception three years ago, it has driven a 13 percentage point increase in Boots’ overall satisfaction and net promoter score. Customer complaints have decreased, compliments increased and customer loyalty card data also shows that the company’s most satisfied customers return more often. “The simplicity of what we’ve done has been key to its success,” Griffin explains.

Following the first version, subsequent iterations of the initiative have also been developed over the last three years, including HUG for beauty, pharmacy, Christmas and the response to Covid. 

“It’s been really transformational and not just a training programme,” Griffin says. He also describes how the model has “built momentum” around company culture with ‘HUG’ appearing on staff notice boards and as part of internal company awards.

Best inclusion and diversity initiative: Police Now

The killing of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement last year brought to the fore the need for police forces to be representative of their communities on a global scale.

But Police Now, a charity that supports police officer recruitment across England and Wales, started the process to attract a more diverse workforce more than two years ago.

“We took a step back from everything we were doing and spoke to people on the programme, those that had graduated from it, and even those considering policing, to really understand what was valuable to 
them and the different barriers they faced,” explains Clare Power, 
director of recruitment and marketing.

When putting together the 
campaign, Power says the marketing team hosted numerous focus groups and workshops to really find out and understand what different ethnic minority groups’ thoughts were on policing careers, their perception of 
the police force and the reasons behind the various barriers people faced.

“We told people not to be polite 
with us, but to be really honest and open. We had a lot of things come up, including the Stephen Lawrence case and the reasons why some do not trust the police,” adds Power.

The team at Police Now used what they learned from the focus groups to not only devise a strategy aimed at removing bias from the recruitment process, but create what the judges described as a “bold” recruitment campaign: 
Be the Change.

The campaign used real-life experiences of people to address the realities preventing under-represented groups from joining the police, as well 
as from those in the force. 

“We’re absolutely delighted,” Power says of winning the award. “We’re so proud of what we’ve achieved, in such a short period of time and it means so much when it’s from such a respected judging panel.

“We were so happy just to be shortlisted, so to be selected 
as the winner from such a distinguished crowd of organisations just means so much, especially because it has been a hard journey.”

So what’s next? For Power and her team, it will be supporting those who have been recruited to progress up the career ladder, particularly those from under-represented backgrounds, while also continuing to evolve and refine the charity’s inclusion and diversity initiatives.

Police Now launched its Frontline Leadership programme at the end of September, which is part of its wider, long-term inclusion and diversity strategy, the aim of which is to make the workforce representative across all ranks.

“We want to bring people into something where they can make a real change through frontline policing,” Power adds.

“We want to support these people throughout their journey in policing; they are our future leaders. And that’s why our work doesn’t stop – it’s important we continue to evolve.”

The 2021 CIPD People Management Awards winners

Best apprenticeship scheme

Sponsored by Investors in People

Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust

Best change management initiative

The Co-op

Highly commended: Citizens Advice Gateshead

Best community initiative

The Indigo Childcare Group

Highly commended: NHS Blood and Transplant

Best digital/technology initiative

Sponsored by Personio
Shared Services Connected Ltd

Highly commended: NHS Scotland Workforce Policies

Best employee experience initiative

Sponsored by Civica

Severn Trent

Best flexible working initiative

Sponsored by Softworks

The Sovini Group

Highly commended: Financial Services Compensation Scheme

Best health and wellbeing initiative – private sector 

Northumbrian Water

Highly commended: Seetec

Best health and wellbeing initiative – public sector 

The City of Edinburgh Council

Best HR/L&D consultancy


Highly commended: Let’s Talk Talent

Best HR/L&D supplier


Highly commended: 
McCrudden Training

Best inclusion and diversity initiative

Sponsored by Western Power Distribution

Police Now

Highly commended: News UK

Best L&D Initiative – private sector

Boots UK

Highly commended: CDE Global

Best L&D initiative – public/third sector

Police Now

Highly commended: Department of Health and Social Care

Best organisational development initiative 

Sponsored by Imperial College Business School

Karbon Homes

Highly commended: NHS Employers & NHS England and Improvement

Best people analytics initiative

People Matter

Highly commended: SUEZ Recycling and Recovery UK

Best resourcing initiative

Sunrise Senior Living UK and Gracewell Healthcare

Highly commended: NHS England and NHS Improvement

Best reward or recognition initiative

Essex County Council

Best SME people management initiative

Shoreham Port

Best talent management initiative

Network Rail

Highly commended: Sky

People team of the year – private sector

Sponsored by MHR

The Co-op

Highly commended: Abcam

People team of the year – public sector

Sponsored by MHR

Cayman Islands Government

Michael Kelly outstanding student award – advanced level 

Ryan Hollingshead, HR manager at Tiffin Sandwiches 

Michael Kelly outstanding student award – foundation/intermediate level 

Khaji Kushumbayev, HR generalist at Eradah Capital 

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