CIPD | Flexible and hybrid working: Principality Building Society (2023)

Principality Building Society is the UK’s sixth largest building society with over 160 years of expertise. It employs over 1,200 people, approximately 750 of whom are based at their head office in Cardiff, while a further 450 employees work in 53 retail branches across Wales.

In 2018, in response to employee feedback, Principality embarked on a programme to improve its flexible working offering, through consulting employees and training managers. It launched a new policy in October 2020, making flexible working requests a day one right. These include:

  • ad hoc flexible working requests for in-the-moment issues
  • informal requests for longer periods (such as to accommodate caring responsibilities, travel disruption, etc)
  • formal permanent requests, such as increases, decreases or changes to hours, condensed hours and job-shares.

Homeworking

Homeworking was not an option in retail branch roles and had been the exception in the head office until the pandemic struck and 750 head office staff were quickly mobilised to work from home. It was decided to bring forward planned refurbishment works during this time and consequently these employees continued working remotely for 18 months while the building was closed.

An internal survey showed colleagues were seeing the benefits of working from home and had a strong preference for this option going forward. The organisation was also seeing improvements in motivation, engagement and productivity. Head of Change Alex Aviles says, “All our preconceptions about needing to be face-to- face to be productive or manage performance got busted.”

Principality hired an external consultancy to engage with colleagues through focus groups, interviews and a detailed survey to identify what they wanted from work patterns, the office environment and culture.

Alex says, “We found that people had very different reasons for either wanting to stay at home or working in the office. Some of that was purely lifestyle choices, some missed the social connection of being face-to-face. Others found their commute really disheartening due to packed trains or unreliable modes of transport.”

Using information they gathered about preferences for future ways of working, Principality created different ‘colleague personas’. These were helpful in considering different motivations to inform their new approach and what it meant for managers, individuals and departments.

Representatives from the people function, facilities and estates team, finance, brand and marketing, IT, business change, colleague forum and union worked together to ensure that the needs and concerns of each business area were incorporated into their approach. ER Policy and Projects Manager Marie Haggett says, “It was important to listen, but also to challenge where appropriate, for example, if people fell into the mindset of, ‘That’s always how we have done it,’ or, ‘It won’t work.’”

Dynamic hybrid approach

The employee consultation found that 81% of colleagues wanted to work remotely three or more days a week and they valued the autonomy to make decisions and be trusted to carry them out. In response, Principality committed to a fully ‘dynamic’ hybrid approach, whereby colleagues have the choice, on any given day, to shape how, when and where they work in a way that balances the needs of Principality, their teams, and their personal circumstances.

During the months of the head office closure, Principality worked to reassure colleagues of their commitment to hybrid working when it reopened, through regular communications, consultations and updates. They launched guiding principles to outline what hybrid working means at Principality, a working together agreement to show how it would work in practice, a flexible working podcast and a hybrid working handbook. Short videos were distributed to show how the new refurbishment was progressing and the actions being taken in response to colleague feedback.

The organisation also stepped up its focus on employee wellbeing during the shift to more remote working, through coaching managers, increasing the number of mental health advocates and a health and wellbeing week that focused on flexible working. They adopted a new employee assistance programme with more online resources (including online exercise classes), which has proved popular.

Line manager training was rolled out before the office reopened. This used the colleague personas to increase awareness of different drivers and preferences, and also included bias awareness (such as proximity bias) and a focus on equity, regardless of where people worked. Subsequently, managers held one-to-one discussions with all team members to discuss their preferences and then whole-team discussions to create a ‘working together agreement’. Some teams have agreed to have a day or two a week together in the office, others meet face-to-face less regularly or for specific processes (like reviews), and others operate on an ad hoc basis but communicate when they’ll be in the office so others have the option to meet up.

Marie says, “One of the key questions managers had in the training was, ‘What do I do if I need everyone in for a meeting?’ Communication is key. Managers need to be able to explain why that might be the best approach. Hybrid is not 100% homeworking – if that is what people want, they need to put in a formal flexible work request. We have spent time coaching managers through those conversations.”

Principality’s hybrid policy

  • Sets out the reasons for introducing hybrid working and what it means.
  • Clarifies the difference between hybrid working and 100% home-based roles (which may be available by request).
  • Outlines 10 key principles of hybrid working, including what employees can expect and inclusion.
  • Includes guidelines for working hours and keeping in touch, balancing the needs of the individual, team and business.
  • Includes recommendations to support wellbeing, including taking regular breaks, not working when ill, maintaining connections and ensuring a break of at least 11 hours between one work day and the next.
  • Covers equipment entitlement, health and safety procedures, and data protection requirements for remote working, and reimbursement for costs and expenses.
  • Includes contacts for further support or questions.

An enabling office environment, equipment and technology

The head office refurbishment incorporated colleague feedback and innovative design to create an attractive working environment that met the needs of employees and the new ways of working. The building now has meeting rooms fitted with high-quality videoconferencing and virtual whiteboards, collaboration areas, soundproofing around phone booths, focused desks with high walls to reduce distractions and a quiet ‘no phones’ floor with ‘head-down’ workspaces, a wellbeing room and two multi-faith rooms. Photos of wildlife and outdoor places in Wales submitted by colleagues are displayed. A sophisticated app allows employees to book their desks, see who is in and where at any time, and create their own hubs with colleagues.

Marie says, “We wanted to create a space that meets performance needs and inspires people to come together to collaborate, innovate, build trust and generate energy from being together in person. It’s lovely when you come in and see people using all the different spaces, not just sat at desks.”

Principality has also invested considerably in technology to ensure employees are able to be connected and productive regardless of where they work. Alex says, “We have guidelines in place to be disciplined in maintaining a focus on all participants, but we’ve also introduced collaboration tools, such as Slido and Mentimeter, which have been really helpful to encourage participation, connection and interactive feedback. We can talk about a subject and then take a temperature check or poll.”

Retail branches

Hybrid working is not an option in retail branches because the roles are customer-facing, but Principality has consulted extensively with these colleagues to address their issues and preferences alongside reviewing the staffing requirements of each branch.

The key complaints of colleagues – including being rostered for Saturday shifts and the challenge of leaving on time, having a lunch break or a team meeting when customers were in the branch – have been addressed through introducing Saturday-only colleagues and adjusting branch opening hours (such as closing for lunch times and half an hour before staff are due to leave). Efforts have also been made to accommodate all flexible working requests, including compressed hours, job-shares, changes to hours and flexible start and finish times.

Outcomes

Forty-two per cent of employees now have formal flexible working arrangements, an increase of 10% since Q4 2019. Principality reports 508 different formal flexible working patterns.

An employee survey conducted following the reopening of the head office shows a significant increase in scores on every question compared with the previous survey in May 2021. ‘Choice of work’ location (identified as extremely important to employees in the previous survey) had an average score of 4.8/5. Positive feedback on the office redesign is reflected in scores showing colleagues have what they need in the office to do their job effectively and comfortably.

Marie says, “The feedback we’ve had, from colleagues and through LinkedIn, has been overwhelmingly positive. People say it’s ‘life-changing’. It has had a clear impact on work–life balance and wellbeing as well as in attracting talent, as we have greater geographical scope. Our annual figures show we’ve had a great year – in terms of productivity, in terms of growth and in terms of our aspirations.”

Moving forward

Principality continues to encourage active communications for continual improvement through its colleague forums, suggestions boxes and ‘open door’ policy. It has a formal review of its hybrid working arrangements coming up, 12 months after reopening the head office, to take stock, review the data on participation, occupation and colleague sentiment, and make any necessary changes or adjustments.

Efforts continue to ensure that all colleagues feel supported and connected to the organisation’s purpose and values as well as their teams (such as through monthly newsletters, hybrid quarterly ‘town hall’ meetings, regular team meetings and ‘virtual coffee chats’). Many value the opportunities for social interaction (like lunch, drinks) when teams do get together and this is encouraged. Particular focus is on integrating new starters including through ‘buddying’ them up with experienced colleagues.

Principality’s advice for successful hybrid working

  • Don’t make assumptions. Ensure colleague voice is central to develop an appropriate hybrid model and strategy for your organisation. Listen, learn and adapt.
  • Invest in the technology and environment to make hybrid work and flourish.
  • Review policies, procedures and ways of working to make sure colleagues don’t feel disenfranchised or disadvantaged no matter what option they take.

Acknowledgements

  • Marie Haggett, ER Policy and Projects Manager, Principality Building Society
  • Alex Aviles, Head of Change, Principality Building Society
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