by Vicky Walker drawing on 25 years’ HR experience with major brands such as Tesco, Vicky joined Westfield Health in 2017, and is Director of HR. Passionate about learning and development, Vicky prioritises developing people management skills throughout an organisation and believes that wellbeing and engagement are the key tools to drive performance and create a positive employee experience. A firm believer in an individual-first, consultative approach to HR, Vicky believes that HR’s role is to act as the conscience of an organisation and the voice of employees in the boardroom.

For over a year now, HR teams have been in the spotlight. They have navigated a big shift in the way people work, including many policy changes and health and wellbeing initiatives, to support them through the pandemic.

Despite efforts, the ongoing uncertainty continues to cause some employees to feel less connected and less engaged. With the Government pushing back its roadmap, planning ahead remains difficult. However, on the plus side, this extra time gives teams more opportunity to reflect on ways of working and how to create a workplace that lets people perform at their best.

There is one thing employers, led by HR teams, really need to do to make this happen — to make the return a success — and that’s to listen.

While uncertainty is a given, open two-way communication can help lessen its impact. By listening to employees and taking their opinions on board, companies can shape workplaces into spaces that suit people, improving wellbeing and morale.

Westfield Health’s Future of Work report tells us that half the workforce (51%) is anxious about going into work, so wellbeing support will continue to be vital. The most requested initiatives were flexible working options, mental health support, policies to support wellbeing and fast access to healthcare.

This insight is a good starting point, and businesses really thrive when leaders and HR teams get to the heart of what their people need. The Government’s reopening motto has been ‘data not dates’, and this idea can be applied to a business’s own return to work strategy. 

However, gathering data, where it helps us to be confident in our decisions, is not the only thing businesses should be doing. HR teams need to get to know their people before jumping to conclusions on data alone.

There are many ways to go about this. Reaching out to managers is always a helpful way to get insight into how teams are thinking. Now is also a good time to gather feedback from specific groups. Homeworkers, those going into work and those on furlough will likely have their own unique worries and expectations.

It can be difficult, but we must listen to people and act on what they say, even if it isn’t what we hope to hear. With employees split across different styles of working, it is even more important that they feel comfortable communicating their needs and worries to decision-makers.

At Westfield Health, we use data from our Pulse survey to gather an overview of how things stand, but it is the conversations and qualitative feedback that really helps us understand employee feelings and motivations — the story behind the data.

The ‘right way’ to handle the return to work will be different for everyone. If employers do not listen to the people who essentially keep the business running, they will find their valued employees are feeling run down, with their wellbeing being sacrificed first. 

Making sure that team leaders are listening and responding to the feedback will improve employee wellbeing, which can lead to increased resilience, better employee engagement, reduced sickness absence and higher performance and productivity.

Different people will require different means of support from their employer. It is vital to build a culture of open conversation, to reach out, listen and create a ‘new normal’ that works for a company and people alike. By taking in the ‘data and details’, business and its people will thrive.