Working practises are evolving and so is the people function. Technological innovation, increased understanding that people are an organisation’s greatest asset, and attempts to improve the employee experience are just some of the changes that are forcing the people function to reimagine the relationship between people and work. Take remote working for example: with the understanding that employees want greater autonomy, and technology now allowing this state of play, many people professionals are advising their businesses to allow talent to work from wherever it wants. Additionally, many employers have revoked traditional working structures giving employees greater autonomy in the hope that this will work to boost retention, engagement and, of course, the bottom line.

When I say that HR needs to rewrite the rules it is deliberately provocative

Remote working isn’t the half of it, though. As the working world has changed, many employment practises are evolving in order to meet business needs. One firm that recognised the importance of carving out a sustainable working environment that employees can truly thrive in is giffgaff. The mobile network disruptor created an untraditional and unique role dedicated to developing a high-performing internal culture and employee experience. This is what Alastair Gill, Head of People at giffgaff, is responsible for. A core part of Alastair’s role centres around identifying the business capabilities that giffgaff needs going forwards and developing strategies that deliver this in a people-centric manner. While people practitioners traditionally have a reputation for being risk-adverse, some professionals believe that the entire people manual needs overhauling to drive employee-powered business results on this changed landscape. This is exactly what Alastair is saying.

As Alastair sees it, the people function needs to rewrite the rules of work to drive better engagement and business outcomes as well as revitalise stale workplace policies before it’s too late. “I’m effectively the product owner of culture and employee experience and the features of my product are to do with recruitment, onboarding, management development, and all the other stages. So, I should be constantly optimising that for our [employees],” he explains.


Engaging the people function

At giffgaff’s head offices in Uxbridge Alastair tells HR Grapevine the clear business case for riding roughshod over the people function’s risk-adverse past. “When I say that [the people function needs to] rewrite the rules it is deliberately provocative,” he explains. “If we don’t then other people will and [the people function] will just be playing catch up. We have to rewrite the rules for people experience in the workplace,” he adds. According to Deloitte’s 2017 Human Capital Trends survey, 80% of people and business leaders dubbed employee experience either ‘important’ or ‘very important’ to them. With 60% of employees explaining that ‘the ability to do what they do best’ at work is ‘very important’ to them in a Gallup study, carving out a positive employee experience is something that no employer should overlook – and one which remains at the forefront of Alastair’s mind when developing new engagement and culture strategies.

“The most important thing [in business] is people. That’s the reason we need to reinvent the rules of how people are treated at work and create the conditions for them to find purpose, meaning and do their best work,” Alastair adds. To properly create a workspace that employees can thrive in, Alastair works closely with giffgaff’s leadership team to build an environment that is grounded in mutuality with inclusivity at its core. Aside from coaching and advising senior managers, there are several successful employee initiatives that have been implemented under Alastair’s stewardship including ‘Universigaff’ – a scheme that provides staff with weekly talks from inspiring businesses – to better the employee experience.


Engagement needs to be driven from within

Be flexible

Giffgaff’s people leader isn’t alone in his thinking – Josh Bersin, amongst others, is a recognisable figure encouraging firms to improve ailing engagement – and although Alastair admits his ‘ripping up of the rulebook’ sounds provocative it results in easy-to-implement practises that people professionals should recognise. For example, when giffgaff was redesigning its office space it was completed in tandem with its people in order to drive better inclusivity, productivity and engagement.

Alastair recalls the engagement survey prior to the redesign, which asked if staff had the right tools to do their job and highlighted how many employee needs weren’t being met and how the firm’s assumptions weren’t entirely right. “You assume that tools mean a phone, laptop and pen and pencil but it turns out that means teabags, car parking, office space, prayer rooms, rooms where new mums can lactate and then you suddenly realise that you’re not meeting the needs of employees,” he explains. With Alastair explaining that ‘everything giffgaff does is through their people’ it was crucial they got this basic element of work right – and they did. In fact, so important is office design that one study found it can boost employee happiness by up to a third. Yet, could all employers say they are aware of what their employees want regards their working environment?

• The mobile network was launched in 2009

• Giffgaff operates entirely online with no physical outlets

• Key customer demographic: 25 to 44-year-olds

• Giffgaff is owned by the telecommunications behemoth O2

Inclusive thinking

D&I-centric thinking, and genuinely listening to what staff wanted, also sparked giffgaff to seriously consider their working structures. As a result, they gave public holidays back to staff in order for them to decide how to use them. After listening to giffgaff employees and learning about their individual cultural experiences, such as Eid and Ramadan, Alastair tells me that he thought: ‘We talk about flexibility and choice, but we are giving employees a fixed bank holiday.’ He explains: “The British public holidays are roughly based around a Christian calendar. We’re no longer in a purely Christian country. It is one of those rules we’ve accepted and the reason behind them is lost.”

With 2017 research indicating just how important workplace autonomy is for increased employee engagement, giffgaff is unlikely to regret its decision to reverse fixed public holidays. A 2017 study, conducted by University of Birmingham Business School, revealed that employees with greater autonomy reported higher job satisfaction and positive effects on their overall wellbeing. Dr Daniel Wheatley from the Business School then explained that “greater levels of control over work tasks and schedule have the potential to generate significant benefits for the employee, which was found to be evident in the levels of reported wellbeing”.

The research behind rewriting the rules

According to the 2017 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Report Rewriting the rules for the digital age, the dedicated people function can no longer operate in harmony with old paradigms: the function must embrace new ways of thinking around how they lead, motivate, manage and engage today’s workforce.

Rewriting the rules of employee experience will create a positive shift in morale and productivity and this will translate into commercial success too.

The people function can use technology to rewrite employee engagement from the beginning of the employee lifecycle at the hiring stage, right through to learning and development and engagement.

Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite

Even giffgaff’s approach to staff wellbeing has been rewritten with the employees at the heart of it. “What we have at giffgaff is ministries – [it’s] very Harry Potter like,” Alastair explains, adding that the idea for wellbeing ministries came from the realisation that giffgaff’s member base reached a couple of million people a few years back and was comparable to the size of a small country. “We realised that we were bigger than Latvia and we thought we’d use that metaphor: if we’re the same size as a small country then we need to have a joyous republic,” he explains. This resulted in all giffgaff employees receiving a passport which gets stamped each time they attend an event as a way of engaging them. “Engagement needs to be driven from within, so we created the Ministry of Development, Ministry of Health and Wellbeing, Ministry of Parties and Good Times, Ministry of Good Deeds (and so on),” he adds, noting that it is the employees themselves who are running them.

What we have at giffgaff is ministries – [it’s] very Harry Potter like


And then keep rewriting

Alastair explains that those people professionals tasked with carving out a positive internal culture and employee experience should be genuinely looking at all aspects of work to see if they could be improved – properly considering whether every rulebook needs rewriting to create optimum engagement and experience. In fact, according to the mobile network’s Head of People, the people function should review all initiatives and systems, asking if they actually engage employees or drive great outcomes – and he says if they don’t, then get rid of them. “[Or], if you can’t get rid of it because of legislation then find a different way of delivering it,” he adds.

Alastair continues: “When I say rewrite the rules, I mean look at how it affects those [employees].” He uses talent acquisition as an example of how the people function can do this, adding: “We should rewrite the rules of hiring, everything we know about interviewing, everything we know about interview questions. Why does it have to be a telephone interview, a face-to-face-interview and then a job?” The people function should consider what it is striving to achieve – and whether the current system properly fits the bill.


We need to reinvent the rules of how people are treated at work and create the conditions for them to find purpose, meaning and to do their best work

Now or never

The risk, according to Alastair, is that if the people function doesn’t rewrite the rulebook “other people will”. The implication being that the people function could get left behind if it doesn’t step-up now. With statistics proving the importance of employee experience for boosting morale, increased productivity and engagement – which can positively influence the bottom line – there is a lot stake. The people function should be best placed to rewrite the rules in a way that puts the employees at the heart of business. “HR has a brilliant opportunity to be central to the future of the workforce,” Alastair adds. “I suspect most people in HR aren’t necessarily ready for that or aware of it, but the opportunity is there for them to lean in and grab it if they want it,” he concludes.

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