Last year was one to remember for everyone, but particularly if you happened to be newly instated as the HRD of a national building society. This was the case for Jane Hanson, who took over as people director for Nationwide in September 2019, just a matter of months before the Covid crisis turned things upside down for businesses. “It was very dramatic at the time,” she recalls. “As everybody did, we just had to go into ‘rapid response’ mode and react to what was happening.”
Above all, the organisation’s priority, she says, was making sure its 18,000 staff felt safe, whether they were based in one of its 650 branches, six contact centres or its Swindon HQ. “No one knew the answers, but it was helpful to have clarity straight away that what we were doing was for our people, and to allow them to support our members,” Hanson says.
Although 13,000 of those employees are able – and continue – to work from home, its branches are an ‘essential’ service and have remained open throughout the pandemic to serve Nationwide’s millions of customers. As well as putting all the expected measures in place to keep branch staff safe, Hanson and her team also asked them directly what they felt would make their roles easier – which included “little things”, as she describes them, such as an allowance for provisions given most food outlets were closed. Those working in contact centres were also provided with free lunches and hot drinks. “It was just those small things to show we really cared,” says Hanson.
But as well as the small things, Nationwide also made some significantly larger promises to its staff during Covid. Vulnerable employees with health conditions were told by the CEO not to go into work if they didn’t feel safe doing so – and more than 2,000 people shielded at home for this reason during the first peak of the pandemic. The organisation also offered a ‘job promise’ to all its staff that their role would be secure until at least the end of 2020. “We wanted to offer some security as part of our people promises,” explains Hanson. “It didn’t mean that we wouldn’t go through change programmes or make roles redundant, but it did mean people had income security until at least the end of the year.”
With changes to business areas already having happened because of Covid, and more afoot in 2021, this has naturally led to new thinking about redeploying staff internally. Nationwide’s ‘flex force’ initiative has “supercharged”, as Hanson puts it, redeployment efforts and supports retraining employees to switch departments. “Previously there would have been more barriers – ‘it takes 10 weeks to train someone to do X’ and so on – but it’s brought those down,” she explains. “It’s helped people realise they can reskill more than they thought, and helped managers to think about redeployment differently.”
The organisation has also turned this new flexible mindset to recruitment, and how its people will work best post Covid – in turn boosting its already considerable efforts around inclusion and diversity. In 2020, it virtually onboarded and inducted 80 new starters on either apprenticeships, graduate schemes or work placements, who ordinarily would have been required to attend an in-person induction at Swindon. “That really opens up the perspective on where we can source our talent,” says Hanson. The firm also hired its most recent cohort of contact centre staff completely remotely, so recruits could be based anywhere in the UK and still be successful in their role – not just live close to an office. “We want to take on people with different backgrounds who can add a huge amount of value to the business but aren’t necessarily able to come into an office every day,” says Hanson. “It broadens horizons so much more.”
Although the organisation is by nature dispersed across the country, it’s proud of its strong culture, and Hanson’s mission is to ensure this becomes even more inclusive and reflects the diversity of the communities Nationwide serves around the UK. For example, more than 5,000 staff took part in a series of events to mark Black History Month in October, and the firm has implemented a sponsorship programme to develop underrepresented talent, as well as working on developing its staff diversity networks and giving them the opportunity to feed back to the board. Following comments from these networks, it has also purposefully taken a strong external stance against racism, which – according to Hanson – has in turn emboldened employees. “They felt we didn’t take a bold enough position, and that we didn’t challenge inappropriate behaviour enough,” Hanson says. “But the fact that we’ve listened and now take a stronger stance makes them feel confident in their own position internally.”
But as we begin to see a light at the end of the Covid tunnel, Nationwide’s biggest challenge, Hanson says, will be navigating the rest of the pandemic in a resilient manner, and avoiding the ‘pull’ back to old ways of working. “Our people and culture will play a really important role in helping sustain these new components,” she says. “But we’ve still got months of this ahead, so right now we need to equip people to get through.”