Smarter Hybrid – Getting the HR team lined up

Over the last week or so I’ve been thinking about HR (or People) teams and their role in creating smarter hybrid working.

The pandemic accelerated existing trends – digitisation, customer behaviour and new ways of working.   While the first two continue, ways of working are being pulled back towards old approaches – highlighted by Microsoft’s research around productivity paranoia.

Why is this happening?  Some is leadership biases, some is down to mistrust and history, but some is a failure from HR.    I’ve been in many HR events with HR leaders who’ve made no real progress on creating better ways of working.   Just last week I heard an HRD explain that to be fair to all employees, no-one was allowed to work in a hybrid way.  I was horrified, but I’d heard others take similar positions.  Making people have equally bad working environments doesn’t seem aligned CIPD code of Ethics and Conduct, which expects People Professionals to have “a positive and active impact on working lives”. 

HR teams who are investing in better ways of working are reaping the benefits for their people and their organisations, but the majority seem stuck in x-days-in-the-office.  In the rest of this post I’m going to share some of the barriers for HR, and what could be done about them.

What’s stopping us, and what can we do?

1. Stop, Collaborate and Listen…

HR can be addicted to action.  We fix problems, handle crises, deal with issues.  Those issues keep on coming, accentuated by the pandemic and its aftermath – e.g. suppressed turnover led to great resignation; pent-up dissatisfaction led to quiet quitting; slow wage and career progress feeds IR issues and cost of living crisis.   

What to do about it?  I’d encourage HR Leadership Teams to take stock on how the world has changed and is changing.  Take a day or two offsite to really think broadly.  Keep the agenda light – don’t try to squeeze future of work into a 45-minute item between pay grading and lunch!  Read around the themes and issues, and explore some of the big questions – How is our workforce changing?  What do people want?  Who gets what they want and who doesn’t?  What is the role of HR? Flush out the barriers you’re seeing and hearing – e.g. two-tier workforce, lack of connection, distrust of homeworking – and see how you can rethink them.  Don’t try to solve, just agree your philosophy and the problems to solve.

I know it is tough to slow down enough to even consider this.  If it would help, I can give you a Christmas reading list for your team, just drop me a message.  I’ll also happily help you shape what an offsite could look like.  

2.  From split accountability to creating an owner

I’m guessing you didn’t have someone accountable for optimising Monday to Friday, nine to five in the office? There’s probably no obvious owner for optimising work.  HR structures tend to be split up along functional lines, with each HRLT member and team owning a slice of the strategy.  There’s no-one owning cross-cutting themes.  

Agree one HRLT member to take the lead.  They need to corral people and create momentum.  Select them based on curiosity, skills for creative problem solving and engaging others.  Be clear they are first among equals on this – their team-mates need to stay involved.  Get other HRLT members to support them with bright, enthusiastic people so that the whole team has a stake.  

3.  From safety in numbers to following the science

HR loves a benchmark, and loves a survey – reward, role size, engagement, diversity, learning and even functional maturity.  Not very helpful in innovating – benchmarks and surveys encourage people to stay in the herd.  Colleague surveys are great for testing ideas, but not great for generating them – there’s a great quote from Henry Ford that says if he’d given people what they wanted, he’d have designed a faster horse!

If you’ve got a little team together, get them to research thoroughly.  In shaping A Life More Virgin for Virgin Money (still the most progressive approach to hybrid I’ve seen) the team and I conducted research from psychological safety to nutrition and from meeting practices to the perfect nap.  We listened to colleagues and business leaders at VM and beyond.  We engaged with business schools, economists, sociologists, psychologists, and palaeontologists*.  We tried to synthesise this together to shape what could be done.  It can be overwhelming to get moving, so again – please reach out if you’d like me to share more.

(*ok, we didn’t talk to any palaeontologists).

4.  From expertise and experience to thinking like a disruptor

HR creates deep, narrow experts.  They build years of experience in the same area, and solve problems based on their expertise – e.g. policy professionals start with employment law, learning professionals start with behaviour.  They build new solutions based on this experience and based on evolving historic practice.  

In contrast, disruption is looking for things that the specialists miss.  It’s often about breaking things down into smaller units to look for opportunity.  AirBnB is a great example – instead of looking at hotels, they looked at guests.  People need a room and a bed, so anywhere that can provide that can be guest accommodation.  

If we apply this to work, then it opens different questions.  In a 24/7 world, why is the working week Monday to Friday 9-5?  Why do we deal in days?  Why meet in the office?  Why 9 to 5?  Encourage your team to look very differently at the opportunities of work, and be clear on the desired outcomes – e.g. healthy, motivated people, working together to deliver outstanding performance.

5. From “do everything” to make one thing awesome

HR as a function is unusual.  It’s often quite small but covers everything from business processes (payroll) through law and regulations (policy), financial matters (reward), technology (people systems) and strategy.  HR plans can be really diffuse, leaving the function spread too thinly to make step change.  

There’s probably nothing in the HR plan that could have the same scale of impact as shaping new ways of working.  Getting that right drives more productivity, more engagement, more inclusion and belonging, more attraction and more retention.  

Narrow your plan for next year right down.  Make new ways of working the number one goal for the team.  Determine he role for each part of the team and get their best people on it.  Pause other projects or do the minimum to keep them ticking over.  It could be tough – if you’ve got a siloed function, deep experts and a classic performance approach then people will fear under-delivering, maybe see their value as eroded, or not have the skills for innovation.   Make it ok to try and mess things up and use it as an opportunity to build skill.

6. From grand reveals to agile delivery

Quite often we treat HR products like we’re building ships – we want a grand launch, and see the thing sail off.  However, things are too ambiguous and flexible for that.  The future is uncertain, and people don’t adopt HR practices because we want them to – like any product there’s an adoption curve. 

Adopt a test-and-learn approach for new ways of working.  In launching a Life More Virgin we had five phases, testing and learning in every part of the business.  We were eight months in before a formal launch and policies.  Even then, we knew there was more work such as onboarding, measurement, management, culture.  Breaking the project down creates wins, generates proof points and the opportunity to learn and refine.

Eyes on the Prize

It’s tough out there.  It’s so easy for HR teams to feel really embattled.  Really going after ways of working and smarter hybrid is a massive benefit for the team, and delivers right across the HR agenda:  

  • 1.  Attract more candidates, by not excluding people.
  • 2.  Retaining talent, as work can flex around their life.
  • 3.  Better engagement, as people have a voice and choice.
  • 4.  More inclusion and belonging, as the proposition is adaptable to individual needs.
  • 5.  Better line-management through clearer practices.
  • 6.  Improved productivity, by focusing on where, when and how work is delivered.
  • 7.  Improved wellbeing, reduced burnout, by working smarter.
  • 8.  Stronger employer and corporate brand, with reputation as a good employer.

It’s a good prize to go for, and it is a prize that needs HR to step forward. Business leaders and colleagues expect HR to create new ways of working and solve problems. That’s only going to happen with the right investment of time and energy.  As ever, I’d love to hear how you’re wrestling with this. Some of my solutions here are dependent on HR leadership, but there are other routes, so reach out if you’re interested. And of course, if I can help you and your team think about some of these challenges, or help you get kick-started I’d be delighted to – please reach out.

Our Performance – transforming performance and culture at Virgin Money and CYBG

I’ve recently shared the case against classic performance management, and why it is time to change.  Now I want to share an example of a better way – during my time at CYBG and then Virgin Money we transformed our performance practice, and along with it the culture and performance of our people.  This is that story.

I’ll talk about how we started, the philosophy, the design, how we introduced it and how we sustained it.  This is going to be headline stuff – please do reach out to me on if you’d like to discuss more about what it could look like for you.

Before we dive in, let me share three key things:

  1. It’s made a massive difference:
  • Managers who follow this approach have 30% more colleague engagement.
  • Sustained success – five years of implementation and refinement.
  • Cultural impact – It started the cultural journey that helped CYBG acquire Virgin Money, even referred to in the deal prospectus: “[Virgin Money] will continue to build on CYBGs innovative approach to performance, with a focus on team rather than individual contributions.”  That’s the only time I’m aware of PM contributing to a corporate merger!
  • Wellbeing – we were normalising conversations about wellbeing two years pre-pandemic.
  • Future of Work ready – it underpins Virgin Money’s approach to work – A Life More Virgin.
  1. It’s an approach with a team ethos, created with a team effort:

This was a team effort including our CPO and LT, our project team, my brilliant OD team and wider HR, and our partners at Positive Group, Uncountable and Clear Review.  Most importantly, managers and colleagues across the group breathed life into the approach.

  1. I’m a wholehearted advocate:

Since 2017 I talked to dozens of companies, spoken at CIPD annual conference and recorded interviews with Clear Review.  The success of this approach is one of the main reasons I set up Green Juniper as I left Virgin Money – I want more people and companies to enjoy better, more rewarding and more successful work.

Our Starting Point and Philosophy

CYBG (Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank) was created by IPO from National Australia Group in early 2016.  The shift being a subsidiary to a newly independent bank in a tough market meant new demands for our people, the need to shift performance and transform culture.  Kate as our CPO prioritised building a cutting-edge performance practice, and that’s where the team and I came in.  

We started with a raft of external research including insight into psychology and neuroscience from the Positive Group, understanding intrinsic motivation through work such as Dan Pink’s Drive, and external scanning into all the pioneers of new performance – Adobe, consultancy houses and similar.

We looked hard at our context, org design and operations – processes, capability, structure of the business.  We thought about how people adapt and sustain change – including tipping point, nudge theory, product adoption curves and how to start a movement (remember Lessons From a Dancing Guy?).

We pulled all of this into our core philosophy:

  1. Performance must support and drive strategy and culture
  2. We want a one-team ethos, grounded in positive psychology
  3. This is about maximising performance, not controlling it.
  4. Treat wellbeing as the fuel for performance
  5. Reward allocation as downstream decisions

Our Design:

The philosophy led to our design which has a quarterly flow, with 5 key elements:

Team goalsaligning to strategy

No-one succeeds on their own.  Companies organise people into teams to deliver work.  The best performing teams have common goals, influence over their work and direction.

This led us to move from individual scorecards to team goals.  Every quarter teams come together with their manager to review and refresh goals.  They’ll have around 8 goals, with each one aligned to one strategic goal for the business.  

The approach strengthens team collaboration, gives voice to team members, increases ownership, clear prioritisation and organisational alignment.

Personal goals learning and improving

Teams get better when team members get better.  We wanted to create an environment where people focused on increasing their contribution to the team.

We did this by asking every colleague to set two personal improvement goals each quarter.  This replaced the annual development plan.  Each goal was tagged against one of our values, supporting culture.

The limited number of short-term goals creates focus and encourages immediate action.  It’s grounded in the idea of marginal gains – If each goal aims for 0.5% improvement in performance, then that’s 4%+ per year.  

Feedbackthe fuel for improving performance

We took the view that you can’t improve if you don’t learn.  You can’t learn if you don’t get feedback, and you’re not helping the team if you don’t give feedback.

Feedback often has a bad rep, with a lot of focus on what’s wrong.  It can also be very poorly timed.  We set out to transform this, making feedback feel like a gift.  To do this, we wanted lots of regular, positive, helpful feedback.  We asked people to share feedback through Clear Review, sharing one thing they liked (a thumbs up), and one suggestion to make it even better (a lightbulb).  We also asked people to tag the value that it related to.  

This approach is important – it places the onus on the giver of feedback to think harder about our culture, and about what to do to improve.  It gives much more regular praise to colleagues, priming them to be open to improvement.   It doesn’t replace difficult conversations or verbal feedback, but starts to build an environment where positive, helpful feedback is the norm. 

Check-ins – the performance pitstop

In 2017 a lot of continuous performance approaches had no regular requirements at all.  Our view was that there was always a need to pause, check-in and go again.  We created quarterly check-in, with a specific flow. I think of them as a pit-stop – pull over, refuel, refresh, go again.

The flow started by confirming the colleague was on track (removing threat).  It then moved to discuss wellbeing (the fuel for performance).  Those two points set the ground for the rest of the conversation – discussing feedback, progress against personal goals, contribution to team goals, and setting new personal goals.

The approach was grounded in positive psychology and focused on maintaining progress.

Viewpoints – creating evidence-based performance

We didn’t want to major on process and form filling, so managers had to answer just a few key questions after each check-in round:

  1. Is colleague performance on or off-track?
  2. How fast is the colleague improving?  (achievement of personal goals)
  3. Was there a wellbeing conversation?
  4. Has the colleague received a good mix of feedback?

We combined this data with all the data coming out of the system – around 250k data points per quarter.  We could mine that data to target interventions – e.g., managers who needed help, teams who were struggling with feedback or on setting goals.  This meant we were always helping to incrementally improve (in line with the philosophy).

Pay and Bonus – breaking the link

I’m not going to major on this, but recognise it is a tough hurdle for many people, if PM is basically about reward allocation.  However, with our philosophy we took the view that OP should be about performance, and financial reward was secondary.  We had to stick with a philosophy concentrating on intrinsic over extrinsic motivation.

This meant that pay awards were determined by position against market, and everyone who was on track over the year would be the same bonus percentage as their peers.  The stance was – we’re one team, we win together.

Launching the Approach

I’m biased, but I do think the design we implemented is the smartest approach to performance I’ve seen.  However, what makes it work is the engagement and the embedding.  

It’s critical to realise that people are well and truly stuck in the rut of classic PM, sometimes over decades.  Transforming it requires changing individual and collective beliefs and behaviours, often starting from a point of low engagement and low trust.

We set about on a multi-prong approach to engage people, including:

  • Making the scale of change clear – whenever we presented, our first slide was a bulldozer.
  • Inspiring examples – given our timing we used imagery from 2016 Olympics like Hannah Cockcroft sprinting to gold, or the GB hockey team huddling and resetting goals.
  • Human examples – we used Couch to 5K and Scottish Slimmers to show how we can all benefit from incremental gains.  
  • We created organisational stories – three of our LT members ran the London marathon and we used it as an example of relative performance, improvement, personal goals.
  • We found stories that others could own and share – one of our LT members illustrated personal goals with Roger Federer perfecting a new shot every off season.
  • I’d listen to and talk with teams, and we’d work out how to make the approach fit for their context.  This wasn’t once and done – I spent time with our commercial banking team every quarter for the first year, hearing their successes and challenges and refining the approach together.
  • We recognised HR was critical, and it was just as tough for them.  The changes disrupted reward, policy, wellbeing, learning, case management, change management and others.
  • When we came to training, we focused on behaviour, not the system – if you want to change behaviour, train behaviour.  If you want to have less process, train less process!  Our friends at Uncountable did this by taking our people through experiential training that was like a Mission Impossible – Apprentice – Crystal Maze mash-up in a Premier Inn.  

Embedding the approach

Sustaining is tough.  We know that some people get it right, and some don’t.  Teams change with turnover and organisational change.  Peaks and troughs of work shift priorities.  Sometimes we assume that people will all adopt new processes, but in practice it is much more like a product adoption curve.

With that in mind, we set about creating a movement.

  • Wherever there was good practice we celebrated and amplified it – we had senior leaders who were the role models for feedback, banking area managers who’d got great practice, and our Commercial Banking team nailed the spirit of team goals.
  • We used the data to spot good practice and identify those who needed help.  We weren’t punitive though – if we could see an area just hadn’t got it nailed, we’d offer help – how to generate more feedback, have better goals, improve practice.  We simply made it clear that high performing teams did this, and low performing teams didn’t.  Which did they want to be?
  • This also meant reprioritising within HR – what data we provided to HRBPs, how we sustained quarterly activity, how we tackled areas that serially didn’t do a good job.

And what about success?

Earlier this year, members of my former team shared some brilliant data with me.  They cross-referenced five simple practices in our performance with data from the engagement survey.  

There was a direct correlation between performance practice and colleague sentiment.  That included engagement, understanding organisational strategy, advocacy of the company’s products, stretching performance and satisfaction with line management.  

What emerged was that managers who did none of the five scored 50% on the above measures.  Managers who did all five scored 80%.  To get a sense of the performance difference this creates I picture a hockey or football match, where one team has five players who are motivated, know their positions and the team tactics, and the other has eight.  We all know which team will win every single time.

What next?

One of the most common barriers I hear is along the lines of “our organisation isn’t ready for this” or “our managers aren’t good enough”.  Let me assure you – when we started, we weren’t “ready”.  However, taking the long-term view, making a start, and continuing to improve was transformational.  You never complete a journey you don’t start!

I’m passionate about this because I know it works.  It makes work better for people and people better at work.  A big part of the Virgin ethos is creating great colleague experience, and that’s why we shared with so widely.  We also know that context is everything – what we did won’t fit other organisations.  Both of those beliefs remain true now I’m running my own business.  It is absolutely possible to create a positive culture and high-performing organisation.  Elements I’ve described above will work, but it’s got to be tailored to you.  If you’d like to make a start on transforming your performance and culture, please reach out, either via LinkedIn or to .  Wherever you’re starting from, I’d love to help!