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The Return To Work Challenge- An Interview With Our CPO

Kelly White, Chief People Officer


What have been the biggest three challenges when looking at Natilik’s ‘Return to the office strategy’ in this turbulent time?

Our people adapted to agile working amazingly, with the majority of them doing so already. We all had the tech in place and our internal adoption is strong. The day we said we were closing the office and switched over, it just worked. We did a people survey during lockdown to help us understand our peoples home office set-ups and needs, which helped us shape our return to office strategy and allowed us to make sure people had the right homeworking set-up. We subsequently introduced a homeworking furniture allowance as one of the outcomes from the survey as some people lacked suitable office chairs or desks.


Our biggest challenge was making sure we adapted the office to be as safe as possible, as people and visitor safety is paramount to Natilik. We had never had to think about social distancing and one-way systems, so it was a challenge getting the office ready simply because we didn’t want to get it wrong. We were obsessive about getting the comms right for our people. I think there has been a lot of confusion around what you can and can’t do and we wanted our approach to be simple and ensure people understood our re-opening plans and what that meant for them. The heart of our “return to the office strategy” has always been the well-being of our people and hence we have been very clear that the return to the office is not mandated, giving our people the choice of when they want to come back.


It is well known that the most concerning outcomes of the pandemic is the impact on peoples mental health. We know that social is key and our leaders have been working out ways to see their people whilst still keeping to the guidelines. It is great to have the office open for those who struggle with homeworking or those that live in shared houses or alone. We want it to be there as an option for people.


A tool we have developed at Natilik is a people location finder, which we launched to show people that if they are not ready to go back to the office, that’s ok, the office doesn’t have to be the point in which you collaborate. The tool can be used to see where your colleagues are and arrange to meet in a more comfortable location with less public transport, where you might feel more relaxed. Setting up almost satellite collaboration points as a interim balance for face to face collaboration before returning to the office. This has helped us all to realise that where you physically are does not actually matter, it’s about having the right space to collaborate. That is something I am really excited about as if it really kicks off, again it’s like, look, you can create those communities and groups with people. Combining that with the office and working from home opens a whole wealth of opportunities.


How important do you think building adoption of the technology into the induction process has played a part in this success?

It’s how we communicate every day, so it is not only what is included within your first few weeks at Natilik but you live and breathe collaboration tools like Webex teams every day. For us comradery and being connected is so important and we saw a massive increase in the social use of the tools through virtual socials, competitions, sharing pictures, virtual workouts and people campaigns. It was an easy transition to run virtual events and our people made it work by getting involved. The only issue that we become worried about was suddenly people not being able to separate their home life from their work life as for most of us the two began to merge. We addressed by ensuring people were still taking annual leave, arranging events that did not spill over into peoples evening and encouraging our people to switch off their tech.


We do believe in the importance of everyone finding the right balance between work and home. Our Leaders have been instrumental in having the right conversations with their people to support them in finding the new norm and getting their home/work/face to face balance right. We think that everyone needs the right balance and there is no simple answer that applies to all; we all have different needs/circumstances and different comfort levels with social contact during the pandemic.


Surprisingly, our technology enabled us to build deeper connections with our people, as we get an insight into people’s home, their children, or even the family dog! It made us feel more connected to people and enabled more empathy, especially for the parents that were home schooling. It made us all remember that we are all human and we have built deeper connections as a result. Something I was not expecting as an outcome of homeworking.


If you had to take away one thing away from this experience within your role?

It would be the importance of listening to our people. Through all of this we were governed by what the government told us to do, but we balanced that with how our people felt. It was our people that shaped our return to work approach. We opened the office not when the government said we could but most importantly when our people said they wanted to come back. We strongly believe that people are most happy when they work for a company that gives them a voice and a company that cares about their well-being.   A return to the office has not been mandated, and we’ve found there is a real spectrum of how people feel towards this. Some people are more nervous than others to venture out of their homes, whilst others are very happy to travel into London. It’s getting the balance for people that desperately need to go back to the office from a mental health point of view, whilst still respecting the wishes of the people who could be struggling with the idea of returning to the office. So yes, the biggest lesson we have learnt is that our people will shape our people policies.


What was the starting point at looking to re-open the office?

The first thing was the safety of our people. It has to be the number 1 priority and we wanted to make sure that if people were making the effort to come into the office we wanted to make it a really welcoming experience.  


So the first thing we wanted to do, was make sure we are able to abide by the 2-metre distancing rule. To do so, we used the soft Natilik colours and thought carefully about the use of wording across all signage. We were really lucky we have enough space to move around the office without needing to implement plastic screens.


Office space is an expensive overhead for a company especially in London, is the success of having your teams working remotely going to impact your choices on office space moving forward?

We are due to renew in a years’ time, but how our people and clients want to work will determine what we do with our space. We know we need a London office, but the use of the office may change. We are considering more areas to collaborate, meeting space and more of a social catch-up lounge. Very different from not that long ago when we were trying to ensure as may desks as possible. Our people and clients will shape our office plans and will depend on what they want from the office.


How have you utilised technology to support your return to office strategy?

A key element for was the transformational Safe Harbour solution, designed to give our people the reassurance that everyone who enters the office had taken the necessary safety precautions beforehand. It was a game changer for us, reassuring our people that we had really thought about their safety and had developed a solution to ensure their well-being.


How do you feel technology is playing a part as a barrier or a facilitator?

It is a massive facilitator for us, reassuring people that we have a strategy in place that we can rely upon. We have a member of the team in every day, but the system is there to be on 100% of the time. It helps remove the human error when we are tracking everyone who is coming in.


How do feel the technology is being adopted?

The feedback has been great, with so many of our people saying that it’s a really easy and useful tool. I haven’t even had to send out a user guide!

HR and IT working together as one unit and one team is so important, we have always operated as a team but it has brought us closer together. In the future I can only see us working even closer together because IT really does enable us to be better connected to our people.


What advice would you give to other HR or People Services professionals facing the same challenges?

I think the main thing is to really listen to your people, everyone has been working from home over 6 months now and you can’t just mandate to get back into the office. Allowing people to find their new way and balance is really important. Everyone will feel differently and as leaders we should respect that people will adjust at different times. It’s all about listening and being empathetic.


Are there any resources you referenced or tasks you undertook to support you in your strategy?

Yes, we completed a full external risk assessment via DeVono which really helped. They carried out interviews across the company, looked at the locality of our people, and our people survey results. They really helped us understand the risks, even considering people’s journey into the office and how they could travel more safely. Having an impartial view really helped and we are all learning on this, and whilst no one is an expert, having external support is reassuring for us and our people.