HR@Home Ep10: James Edgar, global chief talent officer at Wavemaker

Today, we’re talking to James Edgar, global chief talent officer at Wavemaker. James is responsible for developing strategies that unlock the potential of Wavemaker’s 7200 employees and creates a culture that is inclusive to the 90 markets in which Wavemaker has a footprint. James has over 20 years experience in the Human Resources field working for large companies such as Ford, Citigroup, Sodexo and Barclaycard. James is also an executive coach and mentors a number of university undergraduates.

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

What is the single biggest challenge you’re facing as an HR leader right now, as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic?

James: I think like most of us facing this, what we’re finding at the moment is the role that I’m playing is starting to split into a number of different areas.

Firstly, it’s about really understanding and caring for employees that are going through quite drastic impacts as a result of COVID-19 and the uncertainty of the environment is rapidly changing across our 90 markets, which each in a different place in its life-cycle.

So there’s a lot around how we protect the health of our workers and understand where they are, but with many working remotely, it’s about how we make sure that we care for those too. Because a lot of them are now having to juggle various responsibilities like childcare or elder care, or work with partners, or even if you live alone and you miss that social interaction, how do we still have a level of connectivity and ensure that people still feel part of an organisation?

It’s a balancing of all these needs, as well as then serving clients who are also going through exactly the same challenges as we are. And for certain clients like, British Airways, the airline industry and hospitality are really suffering. And so what we’re needing to do is also be very proactive in our partnership with clients who are suffering so that we can actually help them through this and support them as we go forward.

So, there’s a lot to think about for employees, to think about how quickly the environment is changing - and as each government is responding in a slightly different way, keeping up to date with all of that, and the impacts that has for the workforce - but also, understanding client demands globally.

You touched on employee wellbeing. What are you doing at Wavemaker to help with employee wellbeing and mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic?

J: We are obviously acutely aware of the potential impacts of mental health that this might have. So, we’ve done a number of things. One is to really try and use technology to make sure that we’re connecting with people. So using video conferencing and actually upping the frequency of that communication with people so they still have a level of connection is, I think, important.

We’ve also thought about how we can see the current circumstances as an opportunity. I’m kind of blown away by the ingenuity and creativity as we’ve got online choir’s, we’ve had various kinds of yoga lessons and meditation, we’ve had people teaching other people new instruments and cooking. We also have daily catch-ups and virtual drinks, so there’s a camaraderie and that kind of spirit is amazing.

We’ve also tried to take some of those good practices and then move them across the globe. We are also extending our employee assistance programs and have available doctors and psychologists in some of our markets to try and keep a confidential support network for our employees as they start coping with [COVID].

I guess the other thing that we’re also trying to do from a global perspective is start taking some lessons learned from our Asia Pacific colleagues. We’re now seeing our China office slowly come back into work, so it’s really important to understand some perspective that in Western Europe and the U S that there are actually other markets now starting to come out of [the COVID-19 pandemic].

We’re taking a lot of lessons from the guys in China and Singapore and Asia Pacific to understand what we might be facing in the coming weeks.

How do you think this experiment of mass remote working is going to really impact the future of work?

J: The biggest thing for us is actually working through what the new norms are, and I think this has definitely tested some beliefs that we’ve had in the past, you know?

One of the things that we would be guilty of is, although we offered agile and remote working, there were still naysayers in the organisation that said it doesn’t work and, actually, suddenly being forced to, found that they can and it does.

I think what it does do for us in terms of the organisation, is it really helps us to give much more flexibility for our staff, who I suspect will want more flexibility coming back. They’ve now experienced this and it might not be for all, but I can definitely see a demand for more flexible contracts, more flexible working, and patterns and arrangements.

One of the challenges we’ve got is working parents. And I think actually this is an opportunity really, to hear from our workforce in different kinds of life cycles about what they really want from an employer - and how do we then tailor to that?

Also, despite all the news of uncertainty, we’re still pitching in markets currently in lockdown. And pre-COVID, we would assume that we’d have to be in the client’s office, and actually, clients have adapted and used technology like

to allow us to pitch for work virtually.

In the past we would probably rely on a UK pitch to be staffed by UK people, but actually the use of technology like this suddenly allows us to actually leverage some great ideas from other markets and bring that up as to your thoughts.

I also think we’ll see a changing landscape. This will create lots of pressure with clients that we have and so we’re probably expecting some level of consolidation. As a result of this, there will be demands on us as a supplier in terms of what’s our flexibility and agility to ramp up and down, and prepare for future crises as well. So, we’ve done a lot of work in thinking about succession planning and emergency covers.

Companies now need to be more flexible for clients and partners, as we start facing the next crisis that might arise - and I think that will also change the requirements that we have on people.

The final bit is really just how we consume. We’re seeing with certain retailers a real push to accelerate eCommerce and online retailing. And that will have a knock on effect on how people consume products and what that means for employees in terms of technology they might get from their employer, but also some of the skill sets that we might need as well.

So, we’ve been looking at our future capabilities as an agency going forward, and what does the future agency look like?