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HR@Home Ep1: Kevin Green, former HR director at Royal Mail

Today, we’re talking to Kevin Green. Kevin is perhaps most well-known in HR circles for his 10 years as CEO of the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC). He was also HR Director at Royal Mail during the big transformation period prior to privatisation. More recently he has just published a new book called Competitive People Strategy: how to attract, develop and retain the staff you need for business success.

You can watch the episode below, or read the full interview underneath.

What piece of advice would you share to fellow HR people and professionals right now with everything going on in and around COVID-19?

Kevin: There are a range of things that HR need to focus on, most probably two or three big ones. One is obviously thinking about how the business survives and what they need to do with the workforce - the mechanistic bits: do they need to reduce the size of the workforce? Do they need to apply for the Government scheme?

So, there’s quite a lot of work involved in just saying, “what workforce do we need, how do we get people to work from home? How do we deal with all these imponderables (e.g. kids at home) and just the difficulties of the realities?” - so, I think there’s a bit about supporting the individuals in the business.

Then there’s a bit more about supporting leaders. The leadership team in most organisations is under quite a lot of pressure and stress at the moment. HR Directors and the HR team are the people that should be giving that [leadership] team advice, telling them to make sure they sleep well, make sure they exercise, they get fresh air.

In my conversations with Chief Exec’s and HR directors over the last couple of weeks, people are working incredibly long hours. They’re trying to make really big decisions and the HR community needs to help slow things down.

There’s a lot that HR needs to be doing; helping both leaders and managers think about new ways of working, but also thinking about how they communicate to frontline staff. There’s a lot of uncertainty; a lot of people feel quite anxious and quite stressed.

With Covid 19 going on, what are your tips for HR leaders regarding employee mental health and mental wellbeing?

K: Well, one is you’ve got to check in with people. So when people are having team meetings, I’m a great believer in going around the room and making sure everyone speaks at the beginning of a conversation.

I quite like the idea of checking in and employees give a score between one and five: one, this is the worst day of your life and five, it’s the best day of your life; tell us a bit about what’s going on, how do you feel about work and how do you feel about what else is going on? By doing this you’ll get temperature checks on everybody in the team.

Now if you’re a leader or manager and you do that on a regular basis, you’re going to pick up when people are struggling. It may be that they’re just struggling with the technology working in a different way. It might be that they aren’t sleeping, they’ve got issues with childcare, they’ve got members of their family that aren’t well, all of those things will contribute.

Clearly what you then need to do is think of how to have a one-to-one conversation with those individuals, support them and - if required - give them some expertise and get them some particular specialist advice. The key thing is to try and make sure you’re giving people the room and the space to have that conversation. Secondly, that you act on it.

The other thing I would say to leaders and managers is: make sure you have more one-to-one’s. Make sure you’re having more conversations because the bit that you’re going to miss out on is the visual management.

If you work in an office with a group of people day in, day out, you can see from their body language how they’re feeling and what’s going on for them. You can catch up with people over a coffee or as you’re walking past and you will lose that when you work remotely. So you have to be a little bit artificial, and really make sure you’re asking those questions and being supportive and then helping people where they need it.

How do you think the work from home ‘experiment’ is going to impact the future of work?

K: What this means is employers will have to find ways of working that their employees like and enjoy, e.g. they like a bit more flexibility. But it does call for culture change and different ways of managing people. You need to create a trusting environment; you don’t micromanage people.

What you’re really looking for is outputs. You know, “these are the outputs I want you to do”. You’ve got to give people flexibility. They might spend some time in the afternoon with their kids and then work in the evening or get up early. People are going to work in different ways, which I think many people will get used to and will like and enjoy.

Secondly, I think for businesses, [remote working] is a really efficient way. You think of all the money that we spend on having office premises, the money that individuals spend commuting to work, and the environmental impact. So, I think [remote working] is going to bring forward quite a lot of change just in the way that work is done.

The other thing I’ve seen in a couple of the organizations where I’m non-exec is they’ve brought forward some of their investment in AI, machine learning and the use of chatbots to provide services to customers. Now this was already in the planning stages, but they’ve gone from planning to deployment and execution incredibly quickly. What people are saying is this is a new way of working and how do I blend chatbots with human interactions to provide service to my customers.

So, what this has done is it’s really speeded up some of the things that we’ve been talking about in relation to the future of work, flexible work, remote working and using technology to provide greater value - but also to be more efficient. You know, chatbots can work 24/7 whereas human beings need to sleep and rest and do other things.

With so many employees working remotely, what can companies do to keep them productive and connected?

K: I think there’s a couple of things. One is you’ve got to be clear about expectations. So one of the things I think organizations need to hopefully have already done, or if I haven’t they sort of thinking about it now, is being very clear about what they’re expecting of individuals, what they’re expecting them to deliver by when and how.

I think we’re going to find this will create levels of discomfort. People are going to be unsure, managers will start trying to micro manage people, have people meetings all the time. And, tell me what you’re doing today and trying to monitor time, that’s not the way to create productivity.

The way to great productivity is to trust people, to give them some clarity about your expectations. And then when you have your one and one’s, or you have team meetings just tell us how you’re getting on; can you do what we want you to do? Is there a problem and then problem solve together. How do we resolve that? How do we get out, how do we overcome some of the hurdles? How do we put things in place that will enable you to deliver things effectively?

I do think that managers or leaders need to communicate more effectively and more often, most probably shorter. You know, not big long meetings about 20 minutes’ check-ins, just to give people information because one of the things that happens is people feel a bit lonely and a bit distant from the organisation.

I think shortstop communication where leaders and managers need to be very honest and direct is important, but also allowing people and their staff time to ask lots of questions.

People want to understand what’s going on. What does this mean? You’re applying for government loans or you’re potentially going to furlough employees, what does that mean for me, when is the decision going to be made and how are you going to make that decision? So I think communication is important, expectations is important.

And then finally, I think there’s this thing around trying to do things differently; the social interaction at work, so I’ve seen people having drinks on Friday nights. I was invited to a couple online, people having informal sort of lunchtime sessions or coffees, people putting on the yoga classes for their staff. So I think the point is people want to feel connected. They want to belong to something, they want to still feel that they’re part of something that’s bigger than themselves.

Organisations have to actively work to make sure that people feel connected. Well, managers and leaders need to listen more, they need to ask questions and just be quiet and allow people the time and space to get stuff off their chest.

What kinds of tech do you think can play a part in remote working? And do you think there should be more of a push for these sorts of mechanism?

K: I’m a great believer in video. If you can get to it, even if you’ve got multiple people you’re talking to because you still can see people, you can respond to body language, you can see whether people are attentive, whether they’re listening, whether they’re distracted. Whereas on an audio call, it’s quite difficult to do that. You can’t pick up any visual signals. So I think video is good.

The other thing that’s really important is the idea of being short and punchy, 5,10 minutes from the manager and then give people the opportunity. And I also think try and get people to collaborate on projects and on work. So not just the formal, everyone working on their own, I’ve got a problem, I’m working on a particular thing. Get a few other people to do a bit of a brainstorm on teams. They’ve got white boards that you can use and stuff.

So there’s lots of technology, I think WebEx is good, Zoom is good, Google Hangouts, there’s lots of it, there’s many tools that are available. I think that the difficulty with people is keeping abreast of which one they’re meant to be on next.