5 Elements of a Flexible Workplace

Today I’m speaking at the CIPD / ACAS flexible working conference. I’m going to be sharing what I believe are the five, key elements of a flexible workplace.

Together, these elements will lead to a culture where flexibility is truly embraced for the benefit of employees and the organisation alike.

1              Flexibility for all (or as many as possible)

When I say flexibility for all, I recognise that there are some jobs where introducing more flexibility is easy – in theory at least. There are of course some jobs where it is more challenging if not impossible, such as those where a physical presence is required at set times.  But with creativity and open minds, flexibility is often much more feasible than it first might seem – or some believe.  Too often, the stereotype of someone wanting flexible working is a mum returning from maternity leave, or a new parent.  This stereotype is extremely limiting.

Flexibility is about inclusion at its widest sense. It is about tackling the gender pay gap.  Despite what I have said about us challenging the stereotype, we also know that many parents want flexible working – and this includes senior roles. Less than 10% of quality  jobs are advertised as flexible.  If we want true representation throughout our organisations, then we need flexibility throughout the hierarchy.

Because employees want flexibility and that demand is not matched with supply, this makes flexibility a talent issue both in terms of acquiring it and retaining it. A survey by HR Magazine in 2013 showed that a third of people would take more flexibility over a 3% pay rise.  If you offer people the flexibility to work how they want and when they need, this is a clear retention strategy.

Flexibility is also a wellbeing issue – the stress of long, difficult commutes takes a toll on work life balance.  This isn’t about parents, this is about everyone. Flexible working can also open up our workplaces to staff with disabilities.

2              Acceptance of flexibility in all its forms

Flexibility doesn’t just mean working part time or working from home one day a week. It isn’t a family friend benefit.

Work can be flexible in time and place. Where and when the work is done.

There can also be flexibility in the how.

We don’t have to work in an office, we can work wherever we are inspired.  The park, the library, a co-working space, a coffee shop.  Where the role permits, we can organise our own work.  Use different technologies to complete it.

3              High Trust

For flexibility to really work, you need trust.

There is no place for the belief that if you can’t see someone doing their stuff then you can’t manage their work. If you have to have someone in your eye line to make sure they do their work, you’ve got bigger cultural issues to address.

You have to trust the people you work with, unless you have a very good reason not to.

But many organisations are riddled with blame, arse covering, and presenteeism. All too often we reward the latter.  It is seen as commitment and graft.

Whenever I have introduced flexible working the issue of trust has come up in a roundabout way. Usually through the questions about how people will be managed and measured.  My answer is often flippant.  Manage them on output, not time at the coalface.  Desk time and productivity do not go hand in hand.

enabler 2

4              Enabling and supportive managers and leaders

Managers who understand the benefits – and that they exist for both parties.

Managers who get that flexibility is a talent issue, an engagement issue, a wellbeing issue.

Managers who recognise that flexibility will help them keep good people.

Managers who don’t see flexibility as a pain in the ass to be managed and seek reasons to say no, but see it as an opportunity.

A senior leadership team that does the same.

Managers who are open minded to try stuff.

Managers who work flexibly themselves.

Managers who don’t search for barriers that don’t exist, or bring their personal opinions to the table.

Managers that are trained.

5              Good Policy

A good flexible working policy is one where there’s no gap between the rhetoric and the reality.

Good policy isn’t a document that explains how to say no, but encourages innovation, working together to find solutions, experimentation.

Good policy goes beyond the statutory minimum.

There is stuff around the policy like guidance and good advice on how to implement and trial new ways of working.

A good policy is one that easy to read and understand, and there’s a place or a person for more questions.

A good policy has an encouraging, welcoming tone.

Together, these elements will create a culture in which flexible working and flexibility can thrive for the good of both people and organisations alike.

Together, our challenge is to create them.  And there has never been a greater need for us to do it. 


5 steps to managing in a heat wave


It’s hot. You might have noticed.  Unusual weather often provokes a range of advice on how to manage people, just in case common sense fails along with the air-conditioning.

  1. Tear up your dress code if you have one. Replace it with a notice that says ‘no swimwear’ and be done with it.
  2. Give all your staff free ice-cream. Fancy employee engagement strategies can work well, but in my experience food always works better.
  3. Be flexible. Commuting is mostly horrible in the heat, especially for those who use public transport BO boxes. Strongly consider allowing people to work from home or commute outside the sweat hour.
  4. Have outdoor meetings (sunscreen is advisable). No one says you have to sit indoors in a hot, airless office in order to get stuff done.  Better still, have your meeting in a pub beer garden (should there be no health and safety implications of course).
  5. Enjoy it. It will probably be raining this time next week.



I first became interested in the idea of the influence of the workplace itself on feelings about work when I read ‘A Time to Think’ by Nancy Kline, a book that has had a continued influence on my practice as a HR professional.

Kline is of course focusing on place in this context as a space that can, or cannot, influence great thinking. She says that it not just about appearance.  There are some places in which it is hard to think, some places which almost invite good thinking.  She argues that a workplace can reflect back to people; ‘you matter’.  In the book, the chapter dedicated to this particular issue concludes with a question (or perhaps a challenge); ‘what would you have to change about your work space, or even your home, for it to say back to you, ‘you matter’.

This book prompted me to make some changes in a former organisation. I worked in what can best be described as tired.  It has suffered greatly from a lack of maintenance.  At some time in the past, someone had made some terrible decisions around the practical stuff.  The carpet was grey.  The walls were grey.  The filing cabinets, of which there were many and many, were also grey.  Many workstations lacked natural light.  Meeting rooms either boiled or froze.  The furniture was old.  The basics were poor; the toilets, the food provision, the car parking.  No one really seemed to care.  How was that relevant to hitting the financial goals?

I inherited a training room. It was the place that old furniture had gone to die.  Two tables, different in colour and height.  Eight chairs, each a relic from an bygone age.  Broken blinds.  Dirty cream walls, old blue tac marks creating a greasy dot to dot for anyone so inclined.  This was not a place that said ‘you matter’.  It was the funeral of ambition.  It was not a place that leant itself to thinking, to learning, to spending time lingering or talking.

It was a place that said we don’t care much at all.  You don’t matter, and neither does your learning.

So I changed it. I persuaded our facilities team to paint the walls a calming blue. I had the furniture tossed into a skip.  I used my meagre training and development budget to order some new furniture.  Instead of the usual office stuff we went for sofas and comfy chairs.  There were cushions and a coffee machine.  New blinds and fresh water.  The day that the Ikea delivery van arrived, some eyes rolled.  It was that girl in HR again.  I was lucky enough to have a boss that believed in me and the decisions that I made, so I carried on regardless.

It didn’t involve much effort. It cost less than a £1000.  But I believe we created a space that whispered softly to our people, ‘you matter’.

So it is with this backdrop I eagerly awaited the book ‘The Elemental Workplace’ by my Twitter friend Neil Usher, who is also, in my humble opinion, one of the best bloggers out there, writing about this work stuff.  When it landed on my doormat I dove straight in and I was not disappointed.  His usual sharp sense of humour is present throughout, along with his evidently deep knowledge of his subject matter.  I love the book because it is practical.  You don’t have to be building a new office building right from the plans.  You don’t have to have a huge budget. There is always something we can do to create a better place of work for the people that move within it in the every day.

It feels to me that in the ongoing discussions about human resources and employee engagement and better work, this is a piece that we too often miss. We instead focus on leadership and management, and reward and recognition, wellbeing and corporate social responsibility and so and so on.  We survey our people to assess their percentage of engagement, if there is even such a thing.  We ask if they understand the vision, if their manager makes them feel valued, if they have a useful performance review – but do we ask them if their chair works or they can access fresh air or if they are within reasonable distance of a water machine or if they can control the temperature in their office?  Do we create a place that says ‘you matter’ for our people?  Do we even think about it when designing our people strategy and our annual operational plans?

You can buy Neil’s book here.  If you work in HR, if you are a leader in an organisation, you really should.*   If we really believe our people matter, this stuff matters too.


Neil did not pay me to write this blog post. He should however be aware that he can buy me Prosecco if his sales go up as a result.

Choice and Trust.

You know when you read something and just say….

Yes. This.

This is what I really meant in all of those posts I have written about flexible working.

This is the thing.

My morning commute today was spent reading an ACAS Research Paper (yes I really am that geeky). Flexible working for parents returning to work: maintaining career development.  You can find the full report here. It is well worth a read if you are interested in the subject.

There are a few sentences that stood out. If you don’t have time to read the full 32 pages, here they are.

Flexibility is about choice: choice about how to deliver against contractual commitments whilst we balance all the parts of our lives. Choice is core to intrinsic motivation and therefore emotional engagement.

At the heart of success lies trust. Trust that flexible working really can be good for business; trust in the employee to do the right thing in getting the work done regardless of the particular hours that they work or their location and trust that a flexible worker is as committed, productive and worthy of career development as their more traditionally working colleague

There is really nothing more to be said.

Apart from of course, how we make businesses understand this truth.

Time for a menopause policy?

I’m doing some policy work at the moment.

A little while ago the question arose…. Should we have a policy on the menopause at work?

My immediate response, fuelled by a general dislike of having a policy for everything, was…. no. Why would we need one?

And then I educated myself a little bit more.

It’s an area that is getting increasing focus from government, trade unions and organisations. You can find a recent publication here.

Here is what I now know.

Women are working later in life than they did in the past.

If we take the typical age that women experience the menopause, over 4m could be working through this life transition in the UK.

For some women, the symptoms can be severe and debilitating. There’s various research, but around 10-15% of women experience very severe symptoms.

Symptoms vary – but many can impact upon work either practically or in terms of confidence.

At the same time, for many women, it’s hard to talk about their menopause in the workplace – especially to male, younger managers.

Some women find coping strategies. Others opt to hide their symptoms.

Women are concerned about how they will be perceived if they talk about it. Some research points to discrimination and inappropriate comments and banter (otherwise known has harassment) about the menopause.

More research pointed to the increased likelihood of negative reactions in male dominated environments – making women even less likely to speak out.

We’ve seen the matter of the menopause in the employment tribunal too. The leading case involves a women being dismissed for performance, which she alleged was as a result of her menopause and associated health conditions.  The dismissing (male) manager made no attempt to verify this with Occupation Health, and instead based his decision on the (non severe) menopause experiences of his wife and HR advisor……. I’ll just leave that there.

On my commute today I saw a poll on Twitter, asking if women should get ‘menopause leave’. The evidence is clear that menopause is an experience that differs significantly from woman to woman.  So a one stop shop piece of legislation or ‘right to request time off’ isn’t the answer.

Small changes are sometimes all that is needed. If you provide uniform, making sure it’s made of natural fibres, or providing more than normal so that women can change at work.  Small adjustments to working hours or breaks for women who are experiencing sleep problems or fatigue.  Ventilation, fans and access to cold drinking water or changing facilities.

Above all, like with most people stuff, it is about dialogue.  Creating the conditions where conversations are safe, people feel like they can raise the difficult stuff and reach out for the support that they really need.

I’m still in the ‘no’ camp on a policy. But a little more awareness, guidance and support where it is needed?  Very definitely yes.


I am a big believer in employee wellbeing.

But there’s wellbeing, and there’s wellbeing.

A spectrum. At once end there’s a statement on the corporate website saying that the health and wellbeing of employees is very important to us. Etc.  At the other end, a wellbeing strategy, integrated into the whole of the people agenda.

It’s the occasional bit of free fruit versus employee benefits that enable health.

Managing absence versus supporting attendance.

Too often, what passes as employee wellbeing is just carewash.

Statements without substance.

Token gestures.

Individual, one off wellbeing events can make a difference.  They can send a signal, or start a journey.

A half day of health checks at a place I once worked led to an employee being diagnosed with a previously unknown and potentially life threatening medical condition. (Thank you Andy Romero-Birkbeck).

Of course, not everyone has the budget or resource to do wellbeing well. In which case, a little something is always better than nothing at all.

So do what you can – but only if you mean it.

Employees can spot empty gestures from a great distance.

For wellbeing to really make a difference the case for it needs to be widely understood and accepted. It needs a strategy.  It needs to be integrated in everything that you do.

Consider how, in the public sector, we assess the impact of policies, procedures, changes and initiatives on equality and diversity. If we want to make wellbeing make a difference, for it to be taken seriously and made a priority, then a similar approach is required.

Considering formally and with structure, what would add to wellbeing and what would detract from it. How any negative impacts can be mitigated.  That work stuff that you do – how does it impact upon the physical and mental health of the people that work for you? And then what can you do about it?

If you are serious about it, of course.

Because you are spending more time telling people you do wellbeing than you spend actually doing wellbeing, then you don’t really mean it.  If you have a wellbeing programme because everyone else has one, or if you are doing wellbeing because it is good for your employer brand, then maybe this isn’t genuine wellbeing at all.

Maybe what you have got instead, is carewash.

All the policy that is fit to print

I am spending a whole lot of time at the moment writing people policy. It’s one of the main areas of focus for my interim work.

On people policies, I so often hear the same complaint:

The policy doesn’t work.

Of course sometimes this means something else. I don’t like this policy.  Enforcing this policy isn’t my job. I don’t want to have this conversation.


Here is what I know about people policy:

You can write whatever you like .

You can agree approaches with your trade unions or employee forums.

You can establish a tone of voice and a format. You can make the language inclusive.

You can place responsibilities wherever you wish.

You can produce accompanying guidance notes and toolkits and flowcharts.

You can introduce all of the above with great internal communication and mandatory training.

You can consider the impact on equality and diversity.

You can follow all of the best practice.


But so what?

Documents don’t change stuff. People do.


Policies can fall down in the drafting. Documents written in the abstract, following what is the so-called best approach rather than what is right for the context. Only in my experience, that’s rarely the issue.  When companies tell me that they have a problem with their policies, often isn’t the policy itself that is the problem, it is the application – and the lack of consequences.

The problem is not in the drafting but the doing.

If your absence policy says return to work interviews are compulsory but no one does them, is the policy wrong or the manager who doesn’t bother?

If probation reviews are seen as vital, but you don’t actually monitor completion and the only time they take place is when someone is underperforming, where does the fault lie?

Are there any consequences for ignoring the policy? Does anyone care?

I will always favour people doing people stuff because it is the right thing not the told to do it by HR thing. I don’t want HR to be about compliance.


Policies are targeted at employees.  What they can do and what they can’t.  Sanctions. Responsibilities. Requirements.

The question arises…..

Who manages the managers?

You can have all of the policies that are fit to print, but what matters is that documents come alive. That they make the transition from paper to real life action.

HR can listen, draft, consult, support, guide, teach.

But ultimately it’s the people manager that make this stuff happen, in the every day.  And if they are not, the response shouldn’t be to change the policy or produce more checklists, flowcharts and scripts.

Its about skills – and accountability.

How does this make people feel?

On the wall in my last office there was a whiteboard.

On it, our projects and priorities.

To the side, questions.  Reminders, challenges to self.

Question number one: How does this make people feel?

‘This’ could be anything.  The new policy in draft.  The project in planning.  The development programme.  The status update on our internal social network.  The letter to an employee.  The new shiny thing.

This people stuff that we do.  Recruitment, reward, learning and development, induction, performance management.  It cannot be separated from how people feel.

When we talk about engagement and motivation and meaning and performance, scratch the surface, see through the theory, and what is underneath is simply feelings.

Maya Angelou is often quoted on this subject.  She said that we forget what people do and what they say but they never forget how we make them feel.

Apply this to people stuff.  Your employees won’t remember much of their induction.  They won’t retain all that much of the PowerPoint from the training course.  They certainly won’t be likely to quote text from your employment policy or handbook.

We have built theory around simplicity…. in concept at least.

Because feelings are messy.  Changeable. Inconsistent.

Something that can’t be turned into a percentage on an engagement survey.  Cannot be represented in a project plan.   But as people practitioners, something that should be at the forefront of what we do all the same.  Even the difficult stuff, the not so nice part of the job, can be done with empathy and decency and with thought to the way people feel.

There has been an increasing call of late for work to become more human.  The starting point for me is to keep the question in mind and in sight…… how does this make people feel?

Eight Hours

The Zero Hours Contract debate rumbles on.

Are these contracts about flexibility and choice, or are they a race to the bottom? Are they about coffee shops and MacBooks, or exploitative and a symbol of a two-tier workforce?  Are they the dark side of the gig economy?

You can find arguments and opinion to support both frames of reference.

The answer is that they are probably both, depending on your personal circumstances and experiences.  For some, they equal freedom and flexibility.  For others, the best that they can get.

But Zero Hours Contracts are only part of the story.  The rest of the narrative is about low paid, low hours work – whatever the contractual status.

Now anyone who has every used a job alert service via a job board will know that their algorithms are…. interesting.  As a result of a request to receive notifications for new HR roles, I’ve recently been sent information on roles for financial accountants, software developers and chefs.  Some of which were in France.  Someone in my timeline recently commented that the criteria for receiving a notification from some job boards amounted to nothing more than ‘do you have an email address and are you alive?’

One such recent notification caught my eye….for all the wrong reasons.

It was for a leading retailer.  Paying the national minimum wage.  For eight hours each week.

Now you might think that there is nothing wrong with an eight hour per week contract.  It’s better than a Zero Hours one perhaps.  There are plenty of people who might value eight hours of paid employment.  A student looking to work whilst studying.  Someone seeking a second job to top up their income.  The only problem that I could see was exactly when the eight hours were taking place.  Because it could be anytime at all.  The shop was open 12 hours each day, seven days per week.  And the role required total flexibility – actual shifts notified on a weekly basis.  Applying for, and accepting, a position meant agreeing to working those hours whenever.

What would this mean in practice for the successful applicant?  Less than £60 per week, before deductions.  A limited ability to secure other work around that contact. An inability to plan, arrange childcare, make any advance arrangements.  Waiting on a whim.

This isn’t flexibility and choice.  This is barely a weekly food shop for most families.

There are no good reasons that I can think of that a major retailer could not, with some planning and foresight, make this a fixed set of hours or days, or at least offer reasonable parameters or some certainly.  It smacks of lazy management.  There is something just a little arrogant about it too.

I can’t think what it would be like to be employed in this way.  Wondering if there will be any overtime this week.  Wondering if this is the week that your boss will give you a shift that you just can’t get childcare for.  When exactly your hours will fall, if there is any other way to increase your income.

While we debate concepts like meaningful work, workplace democracy, employee engagement and all of that people stuff, let us also look in our own back yards.

Do the jobs, and their design, where you work, allow your employees the basic dignity of both living and working? Or does the way that the work is organised cause stress and uncertainty for the people that undertake it?   Do those jobs and their design enable both parties…. or just the organisation?

When we have a resourcing requirement, when we start drafting that job description and advert, we need to think not only about the needs of the organisation, but the needs of the individual who will be doing the work.

Contracts have many implied terms, amongst all the express ones.  Maybe it is about time that humanity become one of them.





We live in a post-truth world apparently.

I can’t help wondering if, based on the news that appears in my Twitter timeline at least, we are entering a post-human world of work.

I’m not talking about all the automation, robots, AI stuff.  This isn’t about suggesting work doesn’t need people.  But instead that many of our organisations have become places in which we have lost sight of the human element of work.

Amazon are the latest in a long line of companies being heavily criticised about working conditions in their distribution centres.  Not for the first time either.  Sports Direct had all of the headlines previously.  The accusations are familiar.  Poor treatment of agency workers. Harsh sanctions. Lack of job security. Fear. Oppressive management.

Scientific management, just with added tech for the digital age, rules still.

Despite everything we know about what motivates and engages people and what does not.

Despite the impact that we must know these working conditions have on the people that operate within them.

This isn’t about criticising one particular company.  I don’t have any information beyond the headlines.

But this is about suggesting, again, that we can do better.

As I have quoted in a previous blog post, in the machine age, only the human organisation will survive.

We can merge technology, targets and good people stuff.  We can create human centred workplaces, that ask, not only how will this improve the bottom line but also how will this make people feel?

It is possible.

Or maybe we’d just prefer to have a new sandwich toaster delivered within an hour. 


How to rock your people event

I often get involved in events. Sometimes as a speaker, sometimes through my day job, and sometimes as part of my volunteer role for the CIPD.  It probably isn’t a surprise to anyone that I love a good conference or event. Last week I managed three HR events. They are a great opportunity to share information, to engage, to meet people and to learn. What happens at HR conferences often finds its way into my work in one or another. 

So, prompted by a conversation on Twitter, I thought I’d share a few things I have learned along the way about events, hoping they might be useful to others. 

  1. Like with all good people stuff, start with why. What is the point of your event? What messages do you want to send? What do you want people to know or to feel at the end? Start with the end in mind and keep it there at all times when designing your content. It will keep you on track.
  2. Recognise that some people don’t like events and conferences. It isn’t their thing. Maybe because they are disengaged with their job or company. Maybe just because they find them difficult. I’ve been at several conferences where a delegate has been having a snark fest on Twitter. For those who find events difficult, make it easy for them to play some part (see next point). But at the same time recognise that your event is for the majority – focus on them first, and a little less on those attendees that you couldn’t engage even if One Direction turned up (maybe just me that one).
  3. Think carefully about any of that team building malarkey. For every person who thinks it would be super awesome to learn how to do the Haka or play drums in a circle of truth, there is another (including me tbh) that would rather run away as fast as possible in the opposite direction. If you take people too far out of their comfort zone then they are just going to check out one way or another. 
  4. Don’t make it all about you, all about a broadcast. I’ve been to too many events which are just corporate messaging and information sharing and ‘can you read this slide from the back?’  Frankly, you could stick this sort of stuff in an email / video / blog etc. An event needs to include dialogue.
  5. Put yourself in the place of the delegate and look critically at your content. Would it interest you? Would it inspire you? Or would it send you to sleep with your eyes open? Design your event with the delegate in mind, not yourself.
  6. Stick to your timings. Don’t pack so much in that you run over. Make sure your speakers don’t run over too. I’ve been known to stand up and tell someone their time is up and ask them to stop talking. It is rude to your delegates not to stick to what you have promised. If you put an Agenda out there, make sure it happens as stated.
  7. Build in learning. If you are spending time and money getting people in a room for a work conference, make sure that there is something in it for them to take away. Help them learn something new along the way.
  8. Build in fun. In particular, see next point. Fun at work is not against company policy.
  9. Build in agenda-less time. Open space. Thinking time. You don’t need to manage every moment, and some of the best insights and thinking often come from outside the structures. 
  10. PowerPoint. Less is most definitely more. As noted above, if all your speakers are going to do is read off a slide then you might as well just send it to people via email instead.
  11. Don’t forget the hygiene stuff. The right food and venue won’t make a bad event good. But they can certainly take a good event to a great one. Have decent food, plenty of water, natural light, good temperature. Make sure the venue is easy to find and provide directions and information about public transport. Have plenty of breaks.
  12. Don’t make it just about the day. A good event should have an effective build up and should then live on. There should be stuff before and stuff after. Tell people what to expect in advance. Share outputs, share photos, send updates, write blogs, encourage reflection and action. Ask others to do the same. Start an open discussion. Be open to feedback. Take the message out wider than the delegates.
  13. Include cupcakes, always.

Of course there is one last point. One that you might have come to expect from me.  Make your event social.  For the internal events, this is an opportunity to use your enterprise social network.  Externally, get the content out there. Blog. Tweet. Instagram.  Periscope. Increase your reach.  Involve the back channel. Provide a resource for others. Share your stuff. Make that hashtag rock.

And….. Don’t forget to enjoy it!

Wellbeing and the importance of choice

I’m drafting this blog post on a Sunday evening. I’ve just spent an hour or so responding to emails that came in on Friday when I was on leave. I’ve also spent a little time getting myself organised for the day ahead tomorrow.

There is much being talked and written about on the subject of wellbeing right now. About mental health.  About stress in the workplaces.  About the scourge of emails and the impact that always on technology is having upon us. It is the subject of many a conference, many a blog post.  There is plenty too about what we should do about it.  There’s even been a suggestion in France that out of hours emailing be entirely banned.  Then there are other countries experimenting with shorter working days to assess the impact on productivity.

Here’s my take on it. When it comes to my own wellbeing, a big part of it is about having choice.

It is about doing what is right for me, working when it is right for me. That is what true flexibility means.  Working how it works for me to be best effective.  I don’t do well when I am told what to do and when to do it.  That is what causes me to be stressed and unhappy at work.

There is nothing wrong with email; it is how we use it that can cause a problem. There is nothing wrong too with having a notification pinging constantly on your watch – if you like that and find it helpful for you. (I do.  I want to see ALL of the tweets).  There is something wrong with making people undertake commute to an office when they don’t need to and work in an office environment that doesn’t cause them to be well, or to be effective.  There is something wrong with requiring everyone to work a standard set of hours because that is the default in the contract of employment. There is something wrong with people using technology in ways that could cause stress without evening being aware of it.

There is no one size fits all advice. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a recommendation to turn off your email notifications.  Have a few hours per day when you are not checking them.  There are even Apps that will manage your notifications, silencing them for a period.  If this helps you, then fill your boots.  But for every person that finds this an effective way of working there is someone else that doesn’t want to, can’t comprehend working that way. It wouldn’t work for me. I want to see what is in my in-box.  I want to respond as quickly as possible to the easy things, delete the unnecessary things.  That is the right thing for my wellbeing.

I might be one of the few people that quite like the 9-5. I like it because it fits really well around my exercise regime. I also like being in the office rather than being at home, as I need the stimulation of the team environment.  I think best, create best, out loud.  As my team would no doubt attest.

Here’s the thing. I’m not here, sitting on my sofa, working on a Sunday evening because I am an awesome employee.  I’m not doing it because I am over worked.  I am not doing it because I am trying to prove to someone else how hard I’m working. I’m doing it because I want to and it will help me have an effective day tomorrow.  And TBH, there’s nothing on the TV and I’ve already been to the gym.

What can organisations and HR professionals do around wellbeing at work? Plenty.  But for me, it starts with recognising each employee as an individual with their own needs, their own ways of working personal to them.

Help people find what that is.  Help leaders understand this very simple concept.


Flexible Futures

I found out yesterday via Twitter (where else) that it is flexible working awareness day today. A subject I am passionate about, but something that many organisations still aren’t getting their head around, and for many a missed opportunity too.

Our history in the UK around flexible working started with rights for parents of young children, then went onto encompass carers and then finally, everyone. We have taken rights (and the associated process) initially designed for parents and then extended it to others, just like we have with maternity leave. It is a right only to request, and have that request duly considered.

There is a whole framework around it that goes something like this….. (which is my way of saying I haven’t read the Regs for a while). There is a service requirement before you can even ask.  Then there’s a formal request process, including stuff you are supposed to include in your letter.  There’s a time period for responding.  The right to appeal.  A whole prescribed list of reasons for which you can be turned down.

But it is all a little too processes driven… a little, well, inflexible.

We need to move past the parental rights and part time paradigms.

Because too often when we say flexible working we really mean (or think of) is part time working. But there is so much more to it than that.  Long term contractual changes and short term arrangements.  Term time, part time, compressed hours, reduced hours, flexi-time, home working, working outside the traditional 9-5, anywhere and anywhen.

But flexible working is one thing…. agility and choice something else entirely. For me, working flexibly doesn’t mean going through a process.  It means getting up on Monday and instead of driving to the office deciding to do the one minute to my home office.  It means being effective anywhere I have a wifi connection.  It means getting the job done without necessarily being present at a desk for the hours of work set down in my Contract of Employment.

When will we know we have achieved a more flexible approach to work?

Simple. When we don’t need the process.  When we don’t need to fill in a form and write a change to terms and conditions of employment.  When we don’t need to ask permission. When we can just do it.  When it is the norm.  When the job still gets done.  When we don’t need even more legislation.  When we finally recognise how much our people value it, how it will retain and engage them.

When it is simply, the way that we work every day.

30 Second People Strategy

Earlier this week, I was watching the Twitter backchannel from a HR event. Several people tweeted all at once about whether it is possible to explain your people strategy in 30 seconds, presumably prompted by one of the speakers.


Now I have never been all that keen on having a People Strategy. For me, you have a business strategy, mission, vision…. People stuff is just part of that big picture.  Having a separate people strategy just feels a little too close to talking about ‘the business’….making us separate.  But maybe that’s just me being overly fussy.

What I do have of course, is a plan. A plan for those people things that we are going to do, that support and enable those big organisational goals. And to go alongside those, a set of guiding principles to keep us honest, keep us focused.  A thought process, perhaps.

So if I have a people strategy, this is it. In very much less than 30 seconds.

Do good people stuff, always.

Focus on making things more awesome, at your place.

Make peoples’ lives easier at work, wherever you can.

Chuck out your chintz (by which I mean make things simpler, get rid of unnecessary bureaucracy)

Never lose sight of how something will make people feel.

Help those people around you to be the best that they can be.

Provide the best possible employee experience that you can, within your context, with whatever resources you have.


What’s your 30 second people strategy?

The part time fallacy

I was recently chatting to a smart, highly competent, funny woman. She also had just returned to work following maternity leave.

Prior to having her young son, she was in a managerial role. She made a flexible working request to work three days per week.  It was accepted.  But with a condition.  It wouldn’t work, so they said, to be both part time and a manager.  So she was returning in a more junior capacity.  No people responsibility.  No strategy or the like.  No trial of new arrangements to find out.  No open minds, either.

What a load of bollocks.

She is far from the first women to feel like she had to make this choice. She won’t be the last either, sadly.

Who has lost out? She has, first and foremost.  She’s dropped her pay, and her morale with it. The company in question has lost out too and they probably don’t even realise it.  They have missed out on having this intelligent, caring and funny woman as a leader in their organisation.

Excuse me for stating the obvious: working part time doesn’t mean that you are less committed, productive, engaged, or able. It does not make you any less of a contributor.  Many of the part time workers I know in practice are actually the opposite; they are very organised at getting the work done in a different way.  Often, I have barely noticed a difference in output when someone has reduced their hours.  On the other hand, you can have someone pulling a traditional five day week, but barely pulling their weight.

There’s also nothing incompatible with working part time and leading a team. If you are good enough leader of people, then simply being out of the office for a couple of days a week, working non-standard hours, working from home or the like, should make no difference at all to what gets done and what gets achieved.  If you need to be present to ensure stuff happens, I’d suggest there’s a wider question to be asked and answered.

There are two angles to this. One is those Neanderthal organisations and managers who need challenging and changing, and bringing up to date.  As I said in an earlier blog post, nearly two thirds of employees rate flexibility as their most desired benefit.  It is no longer a mum returner thing.  The other angle is encouraging women to believe that if they want to make that personal choice to work part time, not just after a family but any time or for any reason, then they not only have the legal right to ask (big smegging deal) but that they can and should push back if they get back a poorly evidenced platitude in response.  It is about belief.  Belief that part time working is just as valuable.  There’s no ‘only’ about it.

And as for that company that still believes you can’t work part time and hold a leadership role, then I will say simply this. You get the employee relations, and the talent, that you deserve.  That woman I told you about?  She’s going to leave and set up her own business.

It is time to start working like it’s 2015.


Being truly flexible

I’ve recently seen some research about what employees really want at work when it comes to benefits.

Top of the list was flexible working.  Above and beyond those benefits that actually cost employers to provide like cars, or healthcare, or vouchers and the like, and all of those other things that we often offer or include in flexible benefits schemes.  What people (two thirds of those surveyed) wanted more than anything else, and more than employers were actually offering it, was flexibility.

For many of us, the Monday to Friday 9-5 is predominantly what we do and how we work.  The promise about work being something that we do rather than somewhere we go, simply hasn’t delivered.  Our working hours and practices are culturally hardwired.  Tradition.  But the thing about many traditions, is that when we step back and take a long, hard look, they aren’t really all that necessary or important or even sensible.  And we certainly wouldn’t invent them all over again if we started from new.

Here’s the thing.  Many flexible working arrangements cost the organisation precisely zero.  Not one single pound.  Nowt, as they say where I live.  Or at the very least, significantly less than the other reward and engagement activities that we are happy to spend our corporate cash on.

Compressed hours, reduced hours, changing when and where work is done, finishing early for the school run, travelling outside the rush hour, a day a week from home.  The investment required isn’t so much financial as it is an investment in a little bit of effort and a little bit of trust.  And of course, the willingness to try and step out of the old routine.

It is becoming clear that if you don’t offer flexible working, you are missing out on one of your biggest potential opportunities around retention, engagement and candidate attraction. And when I say ‘offer’ flexible working, let me be a little bit more specific.  I don’t mean doing the statutory minimum, and only saying yes to a mum returner if you can’t come up with a reason to say no.  I mean building it in to what you do, when the roles in question genuinely allow it.  Talking about it at the recruitment stage.  Making it part of your employment offering.  Welcoming the discussion from anyone.  Educating your managers on the benefits.  Challenging those who take a default no position.  No snarky comments.  No one feeling like they have to apologise for working differently.  Not only making flexible working possible but actively embracing it.

It appears that more people want flexibility than can get it, or feel like they can ask for it.  This means it is both an opportunity and a threat.  An opportunity to offer something truly valuable to your people, that will engage and retain and attract.  Or a threat, because if you can’t or won’t get flexible, then maybe they will go somewhere else that can and will.

It wasn’t me, it was my network

Someone recently told me that they thought I was creative. As much as I’d like this to be true, it really isn’t.

I am not any more creative than the average person. But I do have an awesome network of people from whom I draw ideas and then fiddle with them a bit. A network of people from whom I take inspiration on a daily basis.

Over the last few months, I have been working with a lot of people that I know (initially anyway) through Twitter. They are helping me deliver some key elements of the leadership development programme where I work.  I have asked these people to come and work with me for one simple reason.  They are really good at what they do.  We are delivering sessions on mindfulness, leading change, resilience and positive psychology, to name just a few.  This year, some of the folks from my network have also helped me to deliver targeted social media training and start us on a journey towards digital skills.

Twitter is awesome for this stuff. For helping you find and connect with great people. Smart people, who are simply sharing their stuff, putting it out there, expecting nothing immediate in return.  In the past, stuff that we would probably have had to pay for, out there in the world for free.  Practical stuff, and ideas too. It’s this thing called the sharing economy.

Recently, someone I know through Twitter sent me a tweet, asking me if I’d share our social media policy with her. So I did.  But there is probably someone out there that would have been willing to charge for that service.

I draw on my network every day. In the past, I’ve sent a generic tweet or posted in a G+ group I’m a member of, asking for recommendations for a particular type of supplier. I’m about to start some work with someone who responded to just such a post. Then there are companies that I have first come across in the social world, and then begun a dialogue with which has turned into a partnership.  Then there are the vacancies that have been filled through a kindly shared link. Then there was the wellbeing idea that I stole from Inji Duducu. But don’t tell anyone about that.

When I have a particular need in the people stuff space, I usually know someone somewhere in my network. And if I don’t, someone in my network will and then they will tell me about them.  Our networks are like a spiders web of ever increasing connections, reaching further than they have ever done before.  BT (Before Twitter) my network would probably have been some folks I’d met at networking events within a 10 mile radius of my home or office.  Now, we are closer than ever to Kevin Bacon, or at the very least, another professional in your field.

My network is also my PLN (Personal Learning Network). With the exception of the books that I read (and actually, the really good one that I am reading right now was recommended by a tweep), the social world is where I learn pretty much anything new.  Whether article, blog, tweet, slideshare or Ted Talk, someone is bouncing something useful in my feed every single day. I don’t even have to go and look for it, it just naturally comes my way.

At the recent #cipd15 conference, I sadly had to miss the final keynote. But thanks to the tweets and blogs from my network, I can see that Herminia Ibarra talked about the power of networks.  She said that without a network that is diverse, you die a little every day in terms of capacity. Her recommendations for forming  networks are breadth, connectivity, and dynamism.  Don’t just connect with people like you, but connect widely.

Here’s the thing.

In 2015, in our connected, social, sharing world, increasingly, you are your network.


Thoughts on employee wellbeing

Tonight, I’m speaking about employee wellbeing with Andy Romero-Birkbeck at the North Yorkshire CIPD bitesize conference. Three hours of jam packed people stuff.  It’s a sell out, so if you are too late to the party serious learning and networking event, here is a little of what I am going to say.

According to the latest CIPD survey on absence from work, 1 in 5 employers now have a wellbeing plan as part of their people strategy. That sounds to me like there are still plenty of organisations who are yet to put a focus on this important area. So if you are thinking about doing some wellbeing at your place, here are some thoughts from me, in no particular order.

  • When it comes to wellbeing strategies, we get them wrong when we treat them as a standalone programme or an initiative, do them because everyone else is (best practice klaxon), or use them to treat surface symptoms and not organisational underlying causes.
  • If you are going to do wellbeing, make sure it aligns to your specific organisational needs and challenges. That isn’t to say that you can’t take ideas from anywhere else. I stole some of mine from Inji Duducu.
  • You can’t just ‘do’ wellbeing if you want to make it impactful. Taking wellbeing seriously needs to be part of your culture.
  • True wellbeing is about more than free fruit. It is about the whole, holistic person. About creating an environment in which people can be themselves and thrive.
  • That said, there is nothing wrong with a bit of free fruit. After all, we know that people appreciate the little things.
  • Don’t forget the hygiene stuff. Offering informative seminars or health benefits is great, but it is also about light, heat, fresh air, quality food in the canteen, having a decent chair to sit in.
  • Reasons you might want to bother.  Start with the practical – reduce your risk, reduce your absence levels, increase engagement (whatever that is). Then there’s employer brand and reputation – talent has choices about where it works and it wants to feel valued. Wellbeing can be part of this message.
  • Start with where are you now. What is your absence data telling you? What support do you have, and what resources? What do you already offer and what was the take up? Where are your gaps? What are your specific challenges?
  • Seminars, roadshows, themed events…. they all help get you started, get the language of wellbeing into your organisation, begin to make it part of your culture.
  • If you are going to do some wellbeing activity, as Simon Sineck says, start with why. That should guide the rest of your journey.
  • Businesses cases and return on investment is important, as is evaluating your outcomes. But it is also okay for wellbeing to be just about sending a message that people matter too.
  • You will have cynics who don’t think that is anything to do with the workplace.  You will need to work on them.  Your data is the starting point to do so.
  • Sometimes the work that we ask people to do makes them sick or contributes to it.  So this is just one reason more why we need to consider the wellbeing of our people.
  • Start with your line managers. They will be where a wellbeing programme lives or dies. Make sure they understand it, will support it, even role model it.
  • Give away free stuff. Everyone loves a bit of free stuff.
  • Make sure your wellbeing stuff aligns with everything else. Your vision, mission and values to begin with, but everything else too. If HR launches a wellbeing programme but managers are managing like it’s 1899, then you will just look like you are out of touch with the every day reality of your people.
  • Not everyone will want to be involved in whatever you do. About 5% according to recent evidence I’ve seen from Westfield Health. That is just fine.
  • Don’t do it if you don’t mean it. Employees can smell bullshit at 1000 paces.

And finally…. When it comes to wellbeing in general and evaluation in particular, as they saying goes, not everything that counts can be counted. It is about how you make people feel. The starting point for most great HR stuff.

You can find the link here to my Haiku Deck.

You can also check out the hashtag #cipdNY15 for more from the event this evening. If you are a local HR type, the North Yorkshire branch of the CIPD does some awesome events (and I’m not just saying that because I am Vice Chair) so keep your eye on their Twitter account @CIPD_NYorks for more about what is going on.


The day I turned purple.

Imagine this if you will. I am in a social situation, chatting to a recently retired business leader.  We get into a discussion about what I do for a living.  It becomes very clear to me very quickly that this man probably reads the Daily Mail.  He is a fully signed up, card carrying, ‘employment rights have gone mad’ type.  Our conversations ranges over how TUPE is a joke as it is too much ‘red tape’, through to employment tribunals shouldn’t exist and people should be employed at will so he could dismiss people if he feels like it.  He really thinks that it is employers who have it tough rather than his employees, whom he admits he pays less than the living wage.  It is worth noting at this point, that this man owns a helicopter. Then, as the conversation progressed, he launched the nuclear strike.  ‘When I ran my business, I never hired women of child bearing age as maternity leave is too expensive and disruptive.’

At this point, I went what can only be described as a funny shade of purple. I was in a situation that required me not to in any way cause him physical injury.  So, as they used to say in the best tradition of News of the World journalism, I made my excuses and left.  His view was so ingrained, so fundamentally entrenched, that I considered a debate would have been simply a waste of my breath.

Here’s the thing. The latest research tells you that these attitudes exist, one of heck of a lot more than we would really like to admit.  See this earlier post from me, and the links within it to the work being done by Maternity Action.  I’ve also heard dozens of women say that they have been asked questions at job interviews about whether they have kids, or are planning to have them.

Questions like these have assumptions built in. That all women want children.  That if they do, they will take a full year of maternity leave.  That covering this leave will be a huge problem.  That when the woman returns from maternity leave, she will want to work part time.  That if she does, flexible working is difficult and other people will want it too and that will set a precedent.  And so on.

Well you know what they say about assumptions.

These are just some of the reasons I welcomed the recently announced and forthcoming Grandparent leave. Because when anyone can take leave to look after a child, such outdated views become redundant.  Assumptions about who will do what and when simply no longer apply.  And men like the one described above have less power to wield through exercising their outdated and biased views.  Changes in law can drive changes in thinking, changes in behaviour, intended or otherwise.  And when they don’t, sometimes they just force the issue.

If you stop hiring people just in case they take leave, then you would never hire anyone. Such views are desperately short term.  Hire the best person for the job, always.  Anyone can get sick, leave, get headhunted, suddenly become a carer, have a change of priorities… the list goes on.  Some of these changes are permanent, and some merely temporary.  Assumptions limit your talent pool which limits your business.

Although on that particular occasion I chose to walk away rather than share my feelings, there are still actions that as HR professionals and individuals we can take. You can chose not to follow my example and challenge these attitudes where you see them – especially if you see them within your organisation.  You can have policies that support more men taking parental leave and shared parental leave. You can embrace grandparental leave when it arrives and do the same (or just offer it now).  You can support the work of #MothersWork2015.

And when it comes to the guy who made me turn purple, and others like him? I’ve always believed that to a large extent, you get the employee relations that you deserve.  There was probably a good reason that he spent so much of his time dealing with grievances and employment tribunal claims: the way that he treated his people.

In 2015

Occasionally you read something about the world of work that seriously pisses you off. Something that you kind of already know, but you see it in a tweet or an infographic or a blog post, and you get angry.

Because it 2015 and this should not be happening.

I’ve used this blog before to argue that many organisations are still working in the dark ages. That many employees are still being treated appalling in the course of their employment. That for every enlightened employer there is in turn, an exploiter or a discriminator, or someone who just couldn’t care less about their people.

If you don’t believe me, then how about this for a statistic? Each year, in England, Scotland and Wales, 54,000 women lose their job because of pregnancy discrimination. That is one in nine pregnant women in the workforce. And those figures are just for those that end up out of work. The same research that gave us that figure, also found that one in five women and new mothers experience harassment or negative comments from their employer or their colleagues related to their pregnancy or flexible working arrangements.

In 2015. Decades after the Sex Discrimination Act. Years after flexible working became available for all.

Even more worryingly, this is a worsening situation. Similar research ten years ago found 30,000 women being forced out of work – but we have now nearly doubled that figure. How has this happened?  More problematically, we now have a situation in which pregnant women are being discriminated against, but with the additional impact of employment tribunal fees meaning that many of these women have no recourse to justice*.

In 2015.

There is another Twitter account that I follow, that tells its own horror stories. If you don’t follow @PregnantScrewed then a review of their timeline will give you the personal stories behind the statistics. They are in some cases, heartbreaking.

Change is long overdue.

Maternity Action and the Alliance Against Pregnancy Discrimination are campaigning for the Government to take action to prevent pregnancy discrimination, not leave it up to individual women to sort it out on their own (if indeed they are able to).  You can find more out about their campaign here.

Get involved. Follow them on Twitter. Read the stories.

And if you work in HR, don’t let this happen, wherever you work. Not in 2015, not ever.


*Here is what has happened to new ET cases, highlighting the access to justice issue. Graph kindly supplied by @WonkyPolicyWonk.

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