The Right Time for Responsible Business

Jennifer Liston-Smith’s monthly blog for employers reflects on recent news and themes in the world of combining work and family for organisations, parents and carers.

A global outlook

An audience of over 1,200 in the room – and more in the hybrid audience remotely – gathered to hear CIPD Chief Executive, Peter Cheese, tell the 2022 Annual Conference and Exhibition that ‘what organisations do next will count more than what they did in the last 3 years’.

The event ranged across the pressing current themes of recruitment & retention, Employee Value Proposition, wellbeing, mental health, inclusion, fairness, culture, responsible business, learning, purpose and more. The context was geographically broad: Peter Cheese remarked ‘the Cost of Living crisis is new – in developed nations’.

I found that when I struck up conversations with the person sitting next to me, at least half the time they had flown in from other countries and continents: Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, Cayman Islands, and many more. They all told me they had come to get leading insights and ‘trusted information’ from the CIPD. Celebrating this global scope, Peter Cheese invited a member of the Iceland delegation to lead us in an invigorating Viking Clap after his closing remarks.

A series of challenges, but also opportunities

Robert Peston, in his opening keynote, described the current economic and political situation as ‘another of those once in a generation shifts’, like the financial crisis of 2008. He listed current challenges, including:

  • Labour shortages – ‘There has been a remarkable reduction in the UK workforce, which has shrunk by 500,000’: perhaps half have long covid, he speculated and ‘several hundred thousand decided to take early retirement’.
  • Disrupted global supply chains and geopolitical tensions – ‘The unwinding of globalisation is one of the forces behind the end of cheap money, the return of inflation’.
  • The UK economy and political ‘failings’. He suggested the mini-budget was based on correct insights – about cheap borrowing and low growth – but the wrong solution, leading to a ‘catastrophe’.
  • ‘Climate change is real and will shape our lives in massive ways… in a world of declining trust, you need to prove you mean what you say. People will otherwise assume corporates are greenwashing and disguising pollution.’
  • The need to take ‘long-tail risks seriously’ (some of which had been disregarded such as the possibility of bank collapse, pandemic). ‘The 1 in 100-year risk should now be one to prepare defences for.’

Looking to the opportunities inherent in the present situation, Robert Peston proposed that institutions that succeed know their history and have a sense of identity. ‘We need to have a debate about what will make us prosperous’.

Peston added: ‘We [the UK] are a big and rich economy. There will still be a high demand for goods and services. The important thing is to recognise that we always get through these different periods and there is always a recovery, and businesses that do best in those circumstances are those that invested significantly during that time in people, kit and operations.’

Everyone’s tired, but this is a decisive moment: we need to build from principle

Peter Cheese had remarked that, until Covid, ‘HR had never spent so much time in the CEO’s office’ until wellbeing became the core topic. He pointed out that ‘Permacrisis was the word of the year in 2021’ and that ‘many of these crises are about people and they land in the HR inbox’. This is a vital moment to influence: ‘Crisis amplifies underlying trends’ and ‘strategic workforce planning is as vital as other organisational plans, to avoid building a chair that’s missing a leg.’

A session on Leadership in the Post-Pandemic World highlighted Prof. Veronica Hope-Hailey’s extensive research with over 150 CEOs, HR directors and leaders across FTSE 100 firms, public sector bodies and high street brands. This showed ‘leaders are tired’ – as is the rest of the workforce. Yet, as Prof. Hope-Hailey explained to the audience, ‘this is a time when ‘leaders need to be able to take on more direct feedback without retaliating’. It is a time for deeper listening and recognition of employee activism. ‘You need to hear that voice in a new way’.

As the CIPD’s introduction to the research goes: ‘Responsible business has been steadily climbing up the agenda, driven by growing investor and regulatory interest in ESG issues, and an organisational focus on values and purpose. Work should be a force for good, and the CIPD calls for businesses to consider the needs of multiple stakeholders – beyond shareholders – and ensure employees benefit from the value created by organisations.

The workplace must offer Safe Spaces, and use storytelling to engage.

Opening Day 2, Mohsin Zaidi, barrister and author of A Dutiful Boy, said workplaces should be ensure there are ‘safe spaces’ for people to make mistakes and learn from them. He said: “People feel scared to ask the wrong question and that’s dangerous – it fosters underground misunderstanding and hatred.”

He added that ‘we can’t talk race without talking class’ and described being the first from his school to go to Oxford as a source of shame, not pride, given the inequities it reveals.

Exploring how to bring about change, Mohsin Zaidi emphasised that using storytelling rather than logic is the only way to engage a jury. ‘By telling people a story I can engender change, and I believe the same is true in the workplace. It’s easier to provoke sympathy and empathy.”

Building on this keynote, a panel discussion highlighted the need for a variety of safe spaces in the workplace. Hannah Awonuga, global Head of Colleague Engagement, Diversity and Inclusion at Barclays, said: “Often people think you need to create safe spaces for diverse people – absolutely you do – but white people need safe spaces as well. Especially at the senior leadership table where you know that they’re majority white men – they still need to have safe spaces to be able to ask constructive questions”. Safe spaces can range from networks and forums through to anonymous apps.

Be yourself, choose how to channel your emotions, and create connections in meetings

The closing keynote was a fireside chat between TV personality Sue Perkins and Katie Jacobs, CIPD’s Senior Stakeholder Lead, which brought a focus on our personal responsibilities in being the change we want to see at work. Drawing on her own life journey, Sue Perkins insisted that mental health challenges ‘can be a gift’ leading to a wider, empathic view.

Asked about authenticity, Sue Perkins explained ‘I’m exactly the same at work and outside: it’s too tiring and weird to be someone else.’ Though she also recognised ‘it can be exhausting bringing your whole self to work’, for example when she’s feeling ‘rage’ about the various social injustices in the world and knows that ‘you can’t bring rage to Bake Off.’

The art is to ‘engage with what you’re doing and not have the rage or sadness from elsewhere poke through, unless it’s provoked by work itself’. If it’s work that’s triggering it, ‘you should discuss what is dysfunctional.’ Perkins talked of checking around to see how others are feeling: if they are angry and sick about the situation too, then take action. If not, then our reactions it may be from our own past triggers and we need to work to ‘bring the 11 out of 10 down to 3 or 4, and then talk to a friend later’.

As a practical tip for meetings (including those online), Sue Perkins reminded us ‘a Comic has a warm-up act, getting the audience going (such as ‘who’s here from Manchester?’): remember ‘meetings need a warm-up too, to create connections’.

As we move into 2023, we need innovative solutions for change

This CIPD event made clear we live amid a dizzying combination of economic, political, social and climate conditions. And against this backdrop, leading thinkers and employers agree on the imperative to be known as a ‘good’ employer in times of skills shortages.

Peter Cheese explained how the newly-created ‘CIPD Trust’ will ‘use the strength of the HR community to create an inclusive society, helping people into work’. The work of the Trust will include a bursary programme enabling disadvantaged people to get qualified. New and creative solutions are needed for our times.

Our own experience at Bright Horizons has been of employers continuing to lean in to support and empower workers’ home lives in innovative ways. There is a need to demonstrate impact and make the business case; yet where this is clear, the best employers are grasping what is needed for people to thrive, and investing in it.

One of the new directions in family supports seen in 2022 has been employers adding virtual tutoring to back-up care, extending its relevance to older children and its impact from absence management to wellbeing. The business case is clear for an employer amid a cost of living crisis and competition for talent: 73% parents using the service agreed that without access to virtual tutoring they would have used private tutoring with an impact on family finances and they reported high engagement as a result.

This one small example backs up the trends captured at this pivotal conference: there are many challenges yet leading employers continue to innovate and to see the value in helping their people with both short-term crises and longer-term goals.

Author: Jennifer Liston-Smith, Head of Thought Leadership, Bright Horizons