Festival of Work 2020: highlights from days two and three

12 Jun 2020 By PM Editorial

People Management rounds up what we learned on the second and third days of the CIPD’s online conference

Covid has put mental health higher up the agenda

Speaking about managing mental health and overcoming struggles with returning to the office after the coronavirus pandemic, Emma Mamo, head of workplace wellbeing at mental health charity Mind, described the pandemic as a “real rollercoaster” for mental health.

“Mind did a survey which received 20,000 respondents, of which 34 per cent said their mental health is poor and 60 per cent said it had got worse in the last two weeks,” said Mamo. “On easing out of lockdown and returning to work, employers should be mindful that we have all been in the same storm, but not the same boat,” adding that returning to work is not going to be a “simple reversal”.

“Staff wellbeing needs to come first and foremost,” she added.

And Dr Will Ponsonby, president of the Society of Occupational Medicine (SOM) pointed out that many things will have to be reassessed as part of the return to work: “Employers will need to review their sickness and absence policies in terms of Covid-19 and will also need to reassess the workforce,” said Ponsonby. 

He suggested that while adjustments could be made for those with preexisting conditions to return safely, extremely vulnerable employees may not be able to return for some time. “That’s when employers may need occupational health advice to help HR and management decide what group they fall into and keep employees safe.”

To improve wellbeing after coronavirus, we need better data

Employers will need to carefully consider how they gather data on staff, as well as how managers are trained to improve employee wellbeing, as we transition to a post-coronavirus world, a panel of experts told delegates. Professor Dame Carol Black, chair of the British Library and Centre for Ageing Better, said many companies do not carry out detailed enough research to gauge the wellbeing of staff – saying “the more granular your data, the more you will know what is affecting workers”.

“If you don’t have granular enough data, you don’t know how many people in your workforce have financial problems that are affecting their wellbeing,” Black explained. “Once you have granularity, you can use your resources to put in targeted interventions to help staff.”

But she warned no amount of data would help if line managers are not competently trained to understand colleagues' behaviour and what could negatively impact their wellbeing. This sentiment was mirrored by Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD and professor of organisational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School, who said: “Any moves towards more long-term home working means EQ [emotional intelligence] becomes even more important for managers, and it will be even more critical to have people-focused line managers.”

In businesses’ recovery from the pandemic, being human will be king

The second closing keynote of CIPD’s Festival of Work had Sir Ian Cheshire, chairman at Barclays; Natasha Adams, chief people officer at Tesco; and Valerie Todd CBE, HR director at Siemens join CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese to share key lessons from the crisis.

Adams said of Tesco’s experience that remote working and virtual communication has seen more human leadership. “Being virtual has meant hierarchy and bureaucracy has fallen down and it’s a huge leveller and engagement point,” said Adams, adding the organisation is determined to not “snap back” to its pre-Covid people strategy, and will instead “deliberately step forward”.

On the concept of snapping back to old ways of doing things before the crisis, Cheese said: “I firmly believe we won't have a snap back to how things were, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.” He added leadership should show it “has listened to the experience people have been through and will build on it”. Cheshire added that leaders shouldn’t “underestimate how bruised workers are”.

In a similar vein, Todd said that Siemen’s was “recognising the pressure people are under,” but added that an upside of the pandemic was that people are “coming forward with great learnings and new ways of working.”

Flexible working shouldn’t just be a policy on a piece of paper

A panel comprising Camilla Bellamy, deputy director of HR at Public Health England (PHE), Alice Ter Haar former people strategy and development at Deliveroo and Francisca Burtenshaw, senior director of HR for western Europe and the Nordic region at PRA Health Sciences, kicked off the last day with a discussion on flexible working.

Bellamy said PHE dealt with the “myths” around flexi-working and broke down barriers with employee feedback. “We did targeted surveys on flexible working and had high levels of response that showed it was important to staff,” she said. “We were able to understand the barriers for both managers and employees and made an action plan.”

Burtenshaw said that her organisation didn’t want working from home to be “just a policy”, and instead focused on communication and staying connected. “Flexibility and empathy was important for our leaders because they had to be human,” said Burtenshaw. She added that flexible working was not about “being chained to the desk” but about output.

Ter Haar added: “For flexible working to work, it has to go both ways – a reasonable employer is happy to accommodate a reasonable employee. We cannot take the piss [with flexible working]: responsibility is crucial.”

Technology brings both opportunities and risks for job quality

Panellists speaking during a session on day three agreed tech brings both opportunities but also wellbeing risks. “Technology does one of two things: it either takes away all the minutiae and allows our true value to be optimised… [But] then we have other technologies which can be negative and monitor and deskill us,” said Paul Rae, CEO of Jigsaw Cloud. The answer, said Anne Pearce, vice president of HR at Shell, was for HR professionals to become much more tech savvy: “I think tech is bringing wonderful opportunities for us to streamline and enhance and create new jobs. But [we] need to recognise there are some downsides. [HR needs] to be better educated to be able to speak with IT on a level playing field… so it’s a true partnership and we can be involved in [tech’s] co-creation.”

Jo-Ann Moran, diversity and inclusion, engagement and comms lead at the Civil Service, said technology had brought many advantages for disabled workers. She added that organisations’ discovery of the extent to which they could use technology to allow people to work from home successfully during lockdown could also be hugely beneficial: “I suffer from extreme chronic fatigue and communication fatigue, so I’m now really empowered and have so much more energy,” she said, adding she was hopeful all workers would have the chance to shape their own contracts to work more flexibly post crisis.

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