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Why Companies House turned to its workforce to help transform its culture

28 Jan 2021 By Eleanor Whitehouse

The government agency discovered the key to successful change was putting it in the hands of its employees

Having existed in its present format since 1844 with little in the way of significant upheaval, to the untrained eye, Companies House isn’t exactly at the forefront of organisational change. The government agency is chiefly responsible for incorporating limited companies in the UK, and around half of its 1,000-strong workforce have, in the words of director of people transformation Angela Lewis, very operational and process-based roles – staff that might typically be more difficult to see things like higher engagement and lower levels of sickness absence from. 

And yet since her promotion three years ago from head of HR and estates, Lewis has put people front and centre of the agency’s digital transformation process, exponentially increasing engagement across all levels of the workforce (90 per cent of staff now believe their role contributes to the wider organisation), reducing sickness absence (down from an average of 10.5 days per employee to just 6.49 in three years) and earning Companies House a shelf full of awards and accolades for its people work, not least the coveted Investors in People platinum accreditation.

At the start of this work in 2017, Lewis knew the first step of wider transformation was to get the organisation’s culture in shape. “If we didn’t first focus on the people, how they were feeling and how engaged they were, we were never going to succeed,” she says. Her team initially held a series of workshops where employees were invited to talk about what they loved about Companies House’s culture, and what they wanted to change, and of these were borne the agency’s core behaviours: adaptable, bold and curious. “These were things we weren’t visibly displaying as much as we needed to if we wanted to be truly transformational,” Lewis explains.

A culture change community was duly set up, at the time comprising around 60 staff keen to get involved, but which has now evolved to incorporate around half the agency. “That’s where we’re very different to other organisations,” says Lewis. “We’re all involved in driving the change, whereas in other places I’ve worked the people strand of transformation has been separate.” The work also saw the introduction of Companies House’s Ideas Hub, via which employees suggest ways to change how the agency does things – whether that’s directly related to their role, or within the wider organisation. More than 500 ideas have been suggested to date, with one in particular resulting in savings of more than £600,000. “If you listen to the people who know what they’re doing, and you give them the infrastructure and encouragement to be able to say ‘we could do this better’, then you see the results,” says Lewis. 

And when Covid hit, rather than putting the agency’s transformation plans on the backburner, the pandemic actually accelerated the ongoing change work, she says. Plans that were already afoot to become a hybrid organisation and introduce smarter ways of working were expedited, and 80 per cent of staff were set up to work remotely in just four weeks. “That was already part of our five-year strategy, but the speed at which it was put in place was unbelievable,” says Lewis. Somewhat ironically, she says, running meetings virtually has in fact broken down barriers and allowed staff to challenge things more: “We wanted to get to a point where people weren’t afraid to put their hand up because of hierarchy. As a civil service department, we’re living with the hierarchy of hundreds of years. People had to stop being so humble and start thinking they can achieve amazing things.”

Covid has also seen other areas of the organisation flourish – in particular its 27 (and counting) employee networks. They have, Lewis says, developed and matured during lockdown, with different groups of staff with shared interests or circumstances maintaining support for one another, as well as the addition of six more networks, including working families. This has in turn provided an extra layer of support that the organisation’s leadership team “couldn’t possibly have provided because we were responding to the crisis”, and helped to supplement what was being asked of line managers. 

And although Covid is far from over, and the wellbeing of her workforce tops her list of priorities going into 2021, Lewis is also looking ahead. With the cultural element already brought to life, the organisation will now be looking to enact the rest of its five-year strategy, although she’s keen to stress that the cultural aspect is by no means over: “You never get to an end point with culture change – you have to keep adapting to what’s coming.” 

But with a raft of awards under her belt, and Lewis’s sharing of the agency’s work fuelling both an increase in candidates clamouring to join and a queue of other organisations wanting to find out more and implement her thinking, it’s difficult to see any more room for improvement. For Lewis, personally at least, this is certainly not true: “I’ve worked in numerous HR roles, and every day I get a little jolt of joy from seeing how my colleagues are supporting each other. Working in an organisation with so much compassion and commitment to change is exactly where I want to be. I have to pinch myself.”

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