Cover Feature

approach to HR
and change

An exclusive insight into why Purplebricks’ Chief People Officer chose the disrupted last 18 months to completely redefine her employee experience...

Words by Kieran Howells

Despite obvious challenges, the past 18 months act as a great example of widespread flexibility and adaptability. In fact, the pandemic has proven that, at least for office-based businesses, the ability to be agile and make unplanned changes is completely possible – and, in many cases, beneficial. Take remote working, for example. According to ONS statistics, 85% of UK-based companies implemented some form of remote working over the past year – a number that skyrocketed from just 27% in 2019. As a result of this quick adaptation, 75% of workers consider themselves more productive, and 83% report increased wellbeing, according to Finder data.


But will this newly flexible way of working change organisational outlook? McKinsey research recently found that more than three-quarters of businesses believe that the crisis will create significant new opportunities for growth but the consultancy giant also concluded that ‘seeing the opportunities emerging from this crisis is not the same as seizing them’. Currently, fewer than 30% of the leaders polled in the research feel confident that their business is prepared to address future changes and innovate as a result.

The reason for this hesitation could come down to a couple of key elements: culture and mindset. Some businesses are centred around a growth mindset, in which innovation is expected and championed, and some are more concerned with stability; last year was often a good litmus for this, when some organisations were not keen for changes to working life whilst others perceived it as a time in which to shake up their practices.


Purplebricks' Chief People Officer Helena Marston on communicating change

“It’s so important that any change that’s made is really well communicated. We always take the time to explain our decisions, and every change has a value attached to it, so there’s a clear line of intention for our people. We knew that if we set out this big mission statement to transform the business, but we didn’t underpin it by taking people on that journey, it wouldn’t mean anything and nothing would change.”

Puplebricks’ culture of innovation

Purplebricks considers itself to be part of the latter group. The tech-fuelled estate agency has been a champion of innovation since it sought to shake up its sector back in 2012 – doing away with the traditional brick-and-mortar model in favour of a digital-first approach – and with change seemingly part of the Purplebricks identity, the pandemic, the booming housing industry, and an internal reshuffle created the perfect storm in which to push the boundaries yet again.

For Helena Marston, the company’s Chief People Officer, who joined just before the pandemic began, this kind of innovation has been a priority since day one. “When I joined, our CEO had been in the business for a year. I’m now his longest serving executive. The week after I joined, the CFO joined, three or four months later the chief digital officer joined. After that, the chief marketing officer joined, and we’ve just promoted two MD in sales up as well. So, it’s an entirely new executive team,” she explains. Such drastic change in leadership is unheard of in most organisations, let alone one grappling with a novel pandemic.

[If we don’t] underpin it by taking people on that journey, it wouldn’t mean anything and nothing would change

Initial HR transformation

Whilst many may logically assume that a business with a whole new executive team would need time to adjust and take stock, this isn’t what Purplebricks did. Instead, and with HR in the driving seat, the new team set about transforming the internal operations of the firm, changing several elements of core HR practice: including the way they communicated with staff, their employees’ sense of belonging and purpose, and delivering digital resources, that have since become essential in the era of home working.

“Not only did we have to mobilise ourselves to accommodate the changing world, but we also went on a journey internally – we didn’t delay our ambitions. We knew that if we set out this big mission statement to transform the business, but we didn’t underpin it by taking people on that journey, it wouldn’t mean anything and nothing would change.

“So, we completely redid our employee value proposition, we made new brand values, we have a new culture and new ways of working, with a broader talent pool across the country. And, we’ve done it all virtually because of Covid. To think that we’ve come as far as we have is amazing,” she explains.

The benefits of agility for HR

Purplebricks is undoubtedly an agile business, but what are the benefits to being agile? Well, PMI stats state that 92% of C-level executives believe organisational agility is critical to business success. Yet only 27% consider themselves highly agile. Truly agile firms are more than twice as likely as the average organisation to achieve top-quartile financial performance – 55% versus 25%. Agile firms grow revenue 37% faster and generate 30% higher profits than non-agile companies. And, finally, 59% don’t have the cultural attributes –ranging from willingness to share knowledge, to quick decision-making – that are fundamental to agility.


Employee voice and decision-making

When she arrived at the company, Helena was surprised to find a firm that externally championed innovation, but one that had not necessarily applied this concept internally. “I naively assumed that Purplebricks would be a very remote and digital-centric company, and it very much wasn’t,” Helena explains. “It was an office-based business. They obviously disrupted a market when they were formed, and they did an amazing job with the technology, but what they didn’t do was disrupt the business in terms of their people – that’s what we’re now doing.”

She decided to immediately begin innovating with the core aim of ensuring that workers had a voice within the organisation. She created a D&I council, with the aim of making sure all workers felt comfortable within Purplebricks’ culture. “People didn’t necessarily feel like they belonged. To make this change work we had to ensure people were confident in bringing their true selves to work. We needed to do this together. It was essential that the first move we made was starting from a place of belonging,” she says.

It was also important to Helena that the employee perspective played a key role in instituting new initiatives, and revamping old ones. Ultimately, she understands that her job is to ensure that the customer experience is unbeatable, and that this starts with a strong employee experience. As such, communication, she says, was not only key in persuading workers to embrace change, but also in ascertaining what was the right course of action for both leaders and, in turn, their customers. “We do employment engagement surveys annually, we do pulse checks regularly and we gauge interest in things via polls and surveys as much as possible. Even when it came down to the idea of coming back to the office, we surveyed staff and our leaders to understand what they feel has been going well and what hasn’t.”

HR makes you think of traditional payroll and process – we’re so far beyond that

Purplebricks’ ‘four pillars’

However, whilst Helena’s a big believer in gathering the right data and understanding the employee perspective, she also insists that “there’s no point getting data if you aren’t prepared to act on it,” and deciding what were important first steps was her biggest concern. Therefore, the company resolved that any initial change should be extremely targeted. “Instead of just spreading effort thinly everywhere, we honed in on essential areas that we wanted to ensure were absolutely outstanding. We needed to be mindful of what we were going after and that it was a shift for people.”

The result was that Purplebricks created a measurement of new initiatives that boiled down to asking: ‘Does this change fit the company and the culture?’ To make it measurable, this essential question was broken down into four pillars that define everything that the people team does. “We’ve got four very clear pillars in our strategy. Those are: ‘winning more customers’; ‘making our experience amazing’; ‘the power of people’ and ‘building the business to scale’. Everything we invest in, everything we put time into, comes under one of those four pillars, or we just don’t do it.”

An ideal example is Purplebricks’ view of ongoing remote working and how they utilised this within the thinking of these key pillars. Helena notes that adapting to the shift in working patterns – to, at points of the pandemic, an enforced remote-if-possible model – wasn’t undertaken without thinking of how it might benefit the company in the long term. Instead, the company used this shift and started sourcing talent from further afield (and completely remotely) to strategically benefit its internal knowledge base, and therefore simultaneously build the business and, hopefully, improve the customer experience for the long term.

The Purplebricks story

Purplebricks was founded in 2012, by brothers Michael and Kenny Bruce. It’s a technology-led estate agency that provides a hybrid service, as it combines the use of an online platform and local property agents. The aim of the company was to disrupt the traditional estate agent market, by creating a digital alternative to the traditional brick-and-mortar model.

Talent attraction and the market boom

With an ongoing boom in the housing market – unprecedented demand following the current stamp duty holiday has inflated house prices by a total of 15%, according to the BBC – and a niche in the sector for contact-free service, it was always set to be a bumper year of work for Purplebricks’ people team. More customers meant hiring more staff but, the concept of hiring presented quite a challenge. “Not only have we been dealing with the pandemic, but, because our field has been extremely busy, it’s meant that we’ve needed more people. We had to be able to respond with our recruitment process because bringing 20 or 30 new starters together to train them just couldn’t happen,” says Helena.

Any solution to this would have to be digital, but when agility is so deeply engrained in the employee experience, ensuring that new starters are culturally aligned was a must. “We appreciate that this kind of business doesn’t work for everyone, so we do an assessment when we meet candidates to ensure that they’re joining a business that really suits them. If you can’t work at pace, be radical with your thinking and innovate on the go, plus being comfortable with failing and moving on really quickly, then we’re probably not for you,” she says.

There’s no point getting data if you aren’t prepared to act on it

Digital resources

For those that do embrace the adaptable and agile ‘Purplebricks way of working’ the benefit is apparently joining a business that is very much focussed on the worker experience and which, over the past year, has solidified its culture. From day one, employees are given an interactive digital playbook that outlines the business, its culture, and what is expected of staff. Core values are front and centre, letting staff know exactly where they stand. And, realising that remote working was likely here to stay, her team also commissioned a new learning platform, which is available as a mobile app that all workers have access to, further pushing the revised digital-first approach.

On top of these resources, Helena also notes how important she believes constant communication is to remote engagement. Like most other companies, Purplebricks took advantage of the many comms tools available and adopted an instant messaging service. However, this was just the tip of the iceberg in terms of keeping people talking. “We do regular Q&A sessions every month, we’ve been doing ‘Wellness Wednesdays’, we’ve done everything we can to accommodate home-schooling and we’ve done lots of competitions and fitness sessions with our partners at Team GB. We’ve also done a digital conference, which landed really well. That’s where we launched our values and our new playbook. All of those elements have helped people stay connected,” she says.


The importance of leaders

However, according to Helena, the biggest factor in ensuring worker wellbeing and engagement is good is the role of the line manager in disseminating the people function’s ideas. Teams with strong leaders are not only happier, but also 4.6 times more likely to feel empowered to perform their best work, according to Gallup. This is a link that Helena is very aware of. So, the past year involved a push toward re-educating and retraining managers to be better people leaders. “We needed to ensure that our leaders knew what was expected of them, as they’re the ones who will be carrying out most change. We have a clear and revised vision for training our leaders that takes constant conscious moderation. We invest a lot into them and in fact, we just promoted eight people within the last 12 months onto our growing SLT.”

It’s not just the presence of reliable leaders that’s important to maintaining a new standard of worker wellbeing. Helena says that, to truly ensure that workers are willing to share their own experiences, it’s essential that leaders are sharing their experiences with staff too. Helena is adamant that, regardless of whether the company has a growth mindset, that doesn’t mean that mental health isn’t a serious concern. “If you think that leaders’ lives are perfect, then you’re likely to feel like you’re failing because yours isn’t. So, we’ve been extremely conscious to share the struggles that we’ve had with our people and start conversations around that – and I don’t think this really existed before the pandemic. So that’s been a really brilliant change for good. I’m all about authenticity and honest conversations.”

When I joined, our CEO had been in the business for a year... I’m now his longest serving executive

Purplebricks and the future

Whilst Helena seems to have achieved a great deal in her time with the company so far, it’s easy to forget that she’s been in place for little over a year. As a result she insists that the current changes are just the start of a far longer journey – the end result for now is the aim of conquering a 10% market share – a goal that will require all the strength and support that its employees can muster. But looking beyond this goal, and back at the past year that saw the function move to the top of the leadership agenda, Helena states that she’s reflected a lot about its place within not just Purplebricks, but all organisations.

Purplebricks have four key pillars that Chief People Officer, Helena Marston, states define all decisions that the company makes. Those four key pillars are:

pillar 1

‘Winning more customers’

pillar 2

‘Making our experience amazing’

pillar 3

‘The power of people’

pillar 4

‘Building the business to scale’

Her view is that, with digital becoming the standardised way of conducting business and the adoption of people-focussed technology landing in the function’s remit, she no longer believes that the current labels, for what would traditionally be known as the HR function, are relevant. “My role is very far reaching – I believe it’s important to every aspect of our business and the traditional term HR, I don’t think it suits what we’re necessarily doing any more.

“HR makes you think of traditional payroll and process – we’re so far beyond that. I’m all about developing an organisation to be the best it can be; we take people and technology and we twist and shape the experience of those two elements and I believe that this is the CPO’s responsibility. I am responsible for the biggest transformation pieces inside of Purplebricks – you can’t transform anything if you don’t have the investment of the people who will be living it. Without the people function there is no transformation. HR and People I don’t think do it justice,” she concludes.