Episode 7

Back To The Office Of The Future

The future of the office is of particular interest to this week’s Oven-Ready HR guest. Seemingly a day doesn’t go by without an announcement from an organisation about their plans or apparent lack of concerning a return to the office. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has weighed into the debate criticising the ‘inhumane’ approach to work taken by Goldman Sachs. Without waiting for divine intervention, I thought I’d ask a senior member of the Executive Team at IWG plc, the world’s largest workspace operator about where she sees the future of work.

About my guest

As Head of Talent, Francesca Peters plays a pivotal role in shaping the culture, talent and employee experience for some 12,000 colleagues worldwide. Francesca has held a number of senior HR roles within IWG including Global HR Director and her current position as Chief Talent Officer.


[Chris]: Welcome to the Oven-Ready HR Podcast. We tell compelling stories from the world of work to bring you captivating and thought-provoking conversations with expert analysis and insights. To find out more about your show host Chris Taylor, visit OvenReadyHR.com, and please do remember to rate and review us. You can also follow us too on Twitter @OvenHR. Thanks.

The future of the office is a particular interest to this week’s Oven-Ready HR guest. Seemingly, a day doesn’t go by without an announcement from an organisation about their plans or apparent lack of concern and a return to the office. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury has weighed into the debate, criticising the inhumane approach to work taken by Goldman Sachs. Without waiting for divine intervention, I thought I’d ask a senior member of the executive team at IWG plc, the world’s largest workplace operator, about where she sees the future of work.

As head of talent, Francesca Peters plays a pivotal role in shaping the culture, talent, and employee experience for some 12,000 colleagues worldwide. Francesca has held a number of senior HR roles within IWG, including the global HR director and her current position as chief talent officer. Francesca’s perhaps surprisingly keen because of the hybrid working model, the combination of homeworking local working and on occasion attending the office. I muddled that perhaps IWG and other flexible workspace providers will hope becomes the norm. Welcome to Oven-Ready, Francesca. How are you this afternoon?

[Francesca]: Yes. Excellent. Thank you very much.

[Chris]: Good. The debate about the return to work is exercising many senior directors, and I say even the worldwide head of the Anglican Church. Do you think the archbishop was correct to call out Goldman Sachs in the way he did?

[Francesca]: Well, I don’t think we can say that very many good things came out of 2020, Chris, but I think employees now have the opportunity to have a better work-life balance with the evidence that working from home or working closer to home actually works. In fact, some of the data coming out of company, it’s like EY, have shown productivity going up by 40% with employees working from home. Although, it has pros and cons.

[Chris]: Right.

[Francesca]: I don’t know about Goldman Sachs specifically, but I think giving people a better work-life balance is good for the company or good for employees.

[Chris]: Okay. Your equivalent number of nationwide building society, Jane Hanson, believed poles and 13,000 of that, 130,000 employees and only 6% of them wish to return permanently to the office. And over half of those polled wished to stay at home. What sort of approach is IWG taking?

[Francesca]: Well, we’ve been operating Chris in a hybrid way for many years.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Francesca]: Having corporate space for employees to come into a couple of days a week, which is incredibly important for culture, for a sense of identity and pride. For anybody that’s tried to induct anybody during a full lockdown, I mean, it’s incredible difficult if everybody sat at home.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Francesca]: We’re, of course, very lucky to have three and a half thousand offices worldwide. I could walk to work from my home in West London and then perhaps one or two days a week from home. So, I think that hybrid working is working well for us, but we’ve recently signed a deal with NTT Telco for 300,000 of their employees who will all have a membership at IWG offices have signed a deal with Standard Chartered Bank for 150,000 of their people to work in a hybrid way. And of course, a reduction in commuting is great for the climate as well. So, companies win, the climate wins, and employees win. So, we think it’s a great approach.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Francesca]: And a sustainable approach for people going forward.

[Chris]: Okay. Going back to what you said at the beginning of that was the induction, for example, for new employees.

[Francesca]: Yes.

[Chris]: It’s very difficult. So, as a talent professional, isn’t all this working from home, hybrid working, isn’t it making your job harder? I mean, if visibility is a key part of talent or spotting talent, and everybody’s working at home, your job must be more difficult than it was before.

[Francesca]: It is more difficult to operate in an inclusive and equitable way, Chris, when people are working from home, no doubt about that, which is why this hybrid approach, where you do see people a couple of days a week, but the rest of the time you give them more flexibility to work in the way that they want to. Our research is also less than in single digits of people want to stay at home and work from home all the time, but over 70% of people said actually they don’t want to go back into the office five days a week either. I think the hybrid approach gives everybody the best of all worlds, but I wouldn’t advocate for working from home all the time.

[Chris]: No, no. Do you think this is going to see a bit of a Renaissance in sort of regional towns and cities, do you think, particularly looking at the UK, for example?

[Francesca]: I think you’ll certainly see city centre office prices and square meterage of cost of square metres falling off. I think companies will consider relocating to secondary cities. The housing market certainly seems to be following that sort of direction. So, yes, I do.

[Chris]: Okay, and in this brave new world, how were you as sort of chief talent officer assuring that IWG tracks and retains the best talent, and how do you know what you’ve got in your business? How do you understand what talent you’ve already got? I’d be interested to know.

[Francesca]: Well, sadly, because of unemployment, we have over a hundred thousand hits on our career’s website every month.

[Chris]: Gosh.

[Francesca]: Globally. What is important is how you evaluate that talent fairly and equitably whilst getting the best skills for the organisation. But when you’re a growth organisation, actually hiring talent has never really been a challenge for us because we’re lucky enough to be in a growth sector. But certainly, I think things like digital skills, the more e-commerce and the digitisation of our high street becomes prevalent that there are pockets of talent that are always more difficult to recruit for. Which is why retaining the best people we’ve got already with 12,000 of them is pivotal.

We’ve moved recently over to Microsoft Dynamics Talent who have a very good workforce analytics suite to help us from goal setting to reviews to 360 communications, a whole suite of workforce analytics, actually alongside our own performance analytics. But when you’re in 128 countries and 900 cities with a very geographical workforce, you do need strong process analytics to help you retain your talent.

The good thing is over the pandemic, we actually work together more closely, strangely enough, even though we were more remote as we put together cross-functional task force and working parties to deal with the economic crisis and the pandemic. I think in a crisis, you always get to know where your great talent is. I said to the chairman that, “I’ve got a better view of our talent today than probably ever before because of 2020.”

[Chris]: Right. Okay, so that’s been one positive takeaway perhaps from it.

[Francesca]: A tiny, tiny positive, Chris. I’ll tell you.

[Chris]: A very small one.

[Francesca]: A very small one, but even with hybrid working, when people can work from home or from a local office that they can work to, you really open up your talent pool to perhaps workers who can’t commute into city centres every day but have great things to offer. So, we’ve widened our talent pool through looking at people who can get to work if they can work locally.

[Chris]: Okay. I recently did an interview with a talent thought leader chap called Mark Effron. He’s president of the Talent Strategy Group, and I asked him about the difference between what Europeans, for example. Well, he thought that Europeans see talent in a very different way to the rest of the world. He thought that when we talk about talent in Europe, we’re referring to that sort of rarefied strata of exceptional people, where in the US, talent has a much wider definition. How would you define it?

[Francesca]: Well, I wouldn’t say either of those things, Chris. Actually, for me, the talent is our entire workforce.

[Chris]: Right.

[Francesca]: You need people who are very experienced, who are happy performing their current job as the backbone of the business, and you need new talent with lots of future runway to help attack the future. I look at our talent as the entire organisation, rather than pieces of it, and that’s actually what, what my job is as a talent [inaudible 00:10:37] is to look at everybody fairly. But I think there is a home for high-potential people as well as steady performers.

[Chris]: Okay. No, no, absolutely. I mean, I talked to him a little bit about it because he said, “Lots of Europeans consider we need a Mozart, or we need a Cristiano Rinaldo, and of course there’s only one of them. You can’t find that many. He was saying,
“Look, if you look at forklift truck drivers in the States, that’s also talent.” We don’t look at it in the same way as you guys do, but also, you have a different—you’re looking at it as the entire workforce. Was that right?

[Francesca]: Yes, and I think the US is more mature in its approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion. If you look at the hospitality industry there, the waiting community and concierge community are considered as equally talented as the chief executive. They just have a more mature approach to people who go to work, and I think we’ve got a bit of catching up to do, actually.

[Chris]: Okay, and you mentioned earlier about the investment you’re making in HR analytics. Do you think this is changing the way that as an HR team, you’re are working considerably, or?

[Francesca]: I think with things like ESG, and DEI workforce analytics are becoming even more important. I wouldn’t have said they’ve changed the way that we’ve been working because we’ve had to have workforce analytics being such a geographically disparate organisation. But I think the data required now as a plc is becoming more and more prevalent. As you know, Chris, the statements you make in your annual report and accounts have to be backed up with real data.

[Chris]: Sure.

[Francesca]: So, I just think it’s got a greater presence than it ever had before, and rightly so. I mean, when you think about implementing hybrid working, you have to start with workforce analytics. So, when you’re changing the shape of your organisation, the first place you start is data.

[Chris]: Okay, and you touched upon the DNI agenda and within IWG, how important is the fact that diversity and inclusivity is important to ensure that your workforce reflects broader society?

[Francesca]: I think there is more work to do. I wouldn’t say we have completed our strategy yet. Our DEI strategy is a work in progress, but we’ve paid particular attention to things like recruitment channels and making sure we are reflected on job boards that have diversity at the centre of what they’re trying to do. Our assessment techniques in evaluating a hundred thousand people applying for jobs is pivotal to make sure that people are dealt with very fairly and ethically. Making sure our opportunities for promotion and our evaluation processes are globally robust. We’ve done more training on diversity, equity, and inclusion than ever before. We’re starting things like Affinity Groups. We’ve got our first African American Affinity Group running in the US with diversity and bias training, which has been incredibly well-received. But I think there is more to do.

[Chris]: Okay, because when I talked to Peter Cheese, I think he would agree very much what you said. He said, “I think we’ve come rather a long way, but there was quite a long way to go.”

[Francesca]: Yes.

[Chris]: Because I talked to him a little bit about there’s been a number of sort of scandals within organisations where leaders have behaved extremely badly. It seems that there’s been a lack of HR sort of standing up and taking responsibility for this. Would you say that’s generally you’re feeling too, that we know we do have to confront toxic work cultures? We do have to confront bullying cultures, and that is part of our job?

[Francesca]: With cherries on top, Chris. A hundred percent.

[Chris]: Okay.

[Francesca]: I need diversity, equity, and inclusion in IWG, but I also expect our leadership team to stand behind our diversity policy, and that’s from the board down. So, it is a company-wide initiative, but the HR Director that I have in North America, and I jointly sit on the DEI strategy task force, but more to do.

[Chris]: Okay. It’s such an international organisation and operating in lots of different cultures and jurisdictions. What do you do to ensure that values and behaviours that you champion as an organisation? How do you make sure they’re adopted in other parts of the world?

[Francesca]: Well, people working remotely from home makes that more difficult.

[Chris]: Sure.

[Francesca]: Our interview practises, our induction methodologies, our performance reviews, our communications are all underpinned by the IWG values. I hope if you bump into anybody from IWG, they will be able to tell you what the values are off the top of their head.

[Chris]: Right.

[Francesca]: But I think that’s one of the most important things about hybrid working is that having a corporate space where people can come in and literally feel the values of the organisation. They can see them, and they can feel some sense of pride and identity is hugely important. I wouldn’t like to work in a Twitter where they’ve said, “You never need to come back to the office again.” I think endorsing values in that organisation must be incredibly difficult. There should be your next guest, Chris. Ask them how they do it.

[Chris]: I’ll make a note of that. I’ll get them on, and then I’ll let you know. But no, I mean, but the organisational culture, I mean, it’s such a big organisation of IWG, and you operate in all these different territories. It must be rather exciting when you sort of bring people together at sort of big conferences, which of course, you haven’t been able to do because of the pandemic and all the rest of it. But you must get a rather warm sort of sense to see that actually you’ve got all these different cultures coming together. Do you miss that during 2020?

[Francesca]: We have missed it. We did have a virtual global leadership conference this January.

[Chris]: It’s not the same, though. Is it?

[Francesca]: It’s absolutely not the same, Chris. There are downsides of remote working. I’ve noticed stress. People getting disconnected more quickly. We really had to up our communication, team building, quizzes, competitions, events. We had to put a lot more emphasis onto the softer side of keeping people motivated and connected and making sure we’re staying in touch with what’s going on in the organisation because it’s been an incredibly hard 14 months. So, it’s just amplified a lot of our culture and wellbeing programme tenfold.

[Chris]: As part of the pandemic, do you think that HR has finally come to the forefront now? Do you think that?

[Francesca]: It should do.

[Chris]: Okay.

[Francesca]: I think it’s got an opportunity now with hybrid working to really drive permanent change, which is financially beneficial for organisations.

[Chris]: Yeah.

[Francesca]: I think it’s great for the corporate social responsibility agenda with 50%-60% of companies saying they will travel Internationally and nationally less than ever before. I think it’s fantastic for employees, particularly those people that couldn’t apply for jobs in major cities because of personal commitments. They’ve got a wider career opportunity now that people can work locally or from home. So, I think it’s one of the most unique opportunities that I’ve seen for HR to drive financial benefits for the organisations that they work for as well as employee and climate change as well.

[Chris]: Absolutely.

[Francesca]: It’s a unique situation.

[Chris]: Absolutely, and optimistic for the future?

[Francesca]: Cautiously optimistic I think we would say, Chris. It has undoubtedly been the most difficult set of trading circumstances and health circumstances I’ve ever encountered in my working career, and I’m pretty old.

[Chris]: Nonsense.

[Francesca]: Very tough for people, lots of anxiety.

[Chris]: Sure.

[Francesca]: And concern for the future because nobody really knew where this would end.

[Chris]: No.

[Francesca]: I’m not sure we quite know where it will end even today, but I would say we are cautiously optimistic,

[Chris]: Francesca Peters, thank you very much, indeed.

[Francesca]: Thank you, Chris.

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