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Refining Workplace Strategy and Driving Employee Retention

2023 looks set to be another particularly precarious year for the workplace. Given the amount of recent change we’ve seen, organizations are trying to pinpoint exact areas for improvement. Whether its optimizing their approach to flexible work, nurturing and retaining internal talent, or looking at how leadership must develop, there are countless opportunities to fine-tune how the workplace operates.

Employee retention

During our recent SocialTalent Live webinar we hosted a group of CPOs from global companies to ascertain how they’re approaching their workplace strategies for the year. Our goal from this panel was to gain practical insight on the core trends, while also discussing how changes in the workplace have indelibly altered the environment within which they operate.

Panel speakers:

Lars Schmidt, Author and Founder of Amplify.

Kevin Green, CPO at FirstBus.

Sara Andrews, CPO at the Acacium Group.

Claire Cross, CPO at Gattaca.

Key takeaways:

1. There is no ONE workplace priority right now

Although our STLive poll showed that employee retention just edged the vote on this, it was in fact very split. As Lars says, CPOs are navigating on three fronts right now – business strategy, people strategy, and the external realities of the marketplace and economy. And as a result of this, it creates a situation where priorities all start to align and impact each other. Sara Andrews took this example of employee retention and spoke to how improving other areas, like leadership in the workplace and internal mobility, will also have positive implications for lowering employee turnover too. Claire expanded on this point then, describing how interlinked the workplace is with culture, and how embedding it into your values can be truly transformative.

2. Clearly articulate your people strategy

According to Kevin, when you’re thinking about people strategy, you first need to ask yourself three questions:

  • Why are we doing something?
  • What difference do we want it to make?
  • How we’re going to measure it? 

By ensuring you can answer these at the beginning of the process, there is a much higher likelihood that’d you’ll be able to review, evaluate, and deliver value later on in proceedings. And as Kevin states, when it comes to an effective people strategy: “it’s got to be aligned, it’s got to be meaningful. You’ve got to be able to communicate it and you’ve got to be able to deliver against it.

3. The power of career conversations

Talent mobility was a big theme of SocialTalent Live. And one of the key stats we learned from Sara Andrews was that around 40% of the feedback they were getting revolved around the need for more career pathways. The organization realized that managers needed to be having deeper, richer conversations with their employees about career ambition and see how they could meet these expectations in order to retain this talent. Gone are the days when you send your people a link to an internal job board – now it’s about nurturing and creating these moments for employees. And also building the support and functionality so people can confidently come forward and have conversations about the kind of career they want to forge within the company without reproach.


  • [0.16] Introduction
  • [1.36] Driving people strategy from the needs of the business
  • [3.57] Culture transformation
  • [6.32] The what, how, and why of people strategy
  • [11.36] Employee retention and career progression
  • [17.25] Holistically looking at talent and skills
  • [20.30] The skills needed in HR and People roles


Johnny Campbell:

I want to welcome to the screen our guests for the first panel of the day, Lars Schmidt, Sara Andrews, Kevin Green, and Claire Cross. Lars, take it away.

Lars Schmidt:

Johnny, thanks so much for getting us started and kicked off. And that poll is fascinating, albeit not surprising. And so, we’re going to continue on with a lot of the conversations that I know you want to hear and I’m really excited to bring forward our panel for this first session. We have a lot to cover and we’re going to jump right in. You’re here to learn about CPO priorities. And that’s going to be my first question for each of them is in the backdrop of the economic uncertainty, everything that we just covered in the poll, how are you thinking about designing your 2023 strategy? And Sara, I want to ask you to come forward first and share how you’re approaching designing your talent strategy for 2023?

Sara Andrews:

Thanks, Lars. Yeah, we’re so delighted to see everybody voted for retention! That’s our biggest focus for this year. And I think when I was kind of looking at those choices on the screen, so many of them are interconnected. So, when you are in a sort of Chief People Officer role, it’s really easy to think that we need to focus on the most important thing, but actually they’re holistically connected together. And if you do one thing well naturally some of the other things are going to come good too. Our people strategy always is driven from the needs of the business. We’re a complex organization and we’ve got 26 brands within the group, but we always start thinking about our people strategy with what does the business that we’re supporting need and work back from the business requirements. We’re quite lucky, we have a fantastic group of strategic business partners that work with the business in that people space.

And their role is to translate those business plans and those business objectives into what that means from a people perspective, so that we are focused on the right things in supporting them. But as per the poll, our single biggest focus this year absolutely is retaining great people and retaining great talent. But of course, to do that, some of the other areas of the poll come into play, like great leadership, internal mobility, and thinking about how all of that connects together. But yeah, for us, absolutely, we start each year working with our different businesses, understanding the business first, and then working that back through into what are the people’s strategies and the important people themes that will enable the business to achieve the outcomes that it’s looking to achieve.

Lars Schmidt:

And I appreciate that context. I think, it’s such an interesting time when… Especially as CPOs, you’re navigating really three components. It’s the business strategy, first and foremost, you have to design a program for that. You have to design the people strategy that helps the business meet their goals, but you also have to do it understanding the external realities of the marketplace and the broader economy and just so many other geopolitical aspects and more that are impacting our work.

Claire, I want to come to you next. In your role leading people at Gattaca, how are you thinking about designing your workplace priorities in the year 2023?

Claire Cross:

I think, I mean, some of this for us is kind of flowing through from the back end of last year, but to Sara’s point, actually knowing that many of the components to try and make our workplace as successful as possible and a place that people want to be in are interlinked. And for us, that’s all looped back into our culture. And we’re going through a bit of cultural transformation at the minute. So, we relaunched our vision, mission, purpose, and values about 18 months ago. And something we’d never previously been great at doing, in all honesty, was bringing those values to life. So what we really wanted to do was weave those values into our performance frameworks. So actually we are a sales organization, but we are not just looking at people’s performance from numbers and metrics.

We’re also thinking about how do they interact with people, what behaviors are they demonstrating, how do they contribute to actually creating the right culture and organization that we want to work in and people want to stay in because again, to Sara’s point, retention has been a challenge for us. We did see people leave the business as I think many of us did when there was opportunity to work in lots of different locations from your kitchen as it were. So we are really looking to retain our great talent and part of that for us is really going to be making sure that we nail this cultural transformation that we’re kind of in the midst stuff at the moment.

Lars Schmidt:

Yeah, I appreciate that perspective. And you’re right, I think that the workplace has changed pretty dramatically over the last couple years, whether it’s remote work, workplace flexibility, and I think also the priority of our employees. Right? It wasn’t long ago that we were in this kind of hustle, glorification culture where everybody bragged about how busy they were. And I think going through three years of a pandemic and everything else we’ve experienced over the last couple years has really caused a lot of employees to recalibrate what’s important in their life and the relationship between work and life and what that balance is and isn’t. And so those are all things that we have to account for, particularly as it relates to attraction and retention. And Kevin, I want to come to you next because you know are also in a role that you’re designing your 2023 strategy in the backdrop of a broader HR transformation effort. And I know that is your jam, that’s kind of your sweet spot. You like to get into those situations and help modernize operations.

But give us a sense of how that impacts… Knowing that you’re in a transformation role and you’re also doing it in these volatile times. How do you think about designing your own strategy?

Kevin Green:

Well, I think there’s a number of things. I think both Sara and Claire are right that a people strategy is an integrated set of activities designed to improve the business. And I like strategy maps. I like to be able to physically see the relationships between the activity that we’re doing and the things that we think it will have an impact on. And look for the causation in the data so that we are not only just doing things. We can start to see it makes a difference. So for me, that’s a really good thought for chief people officers. I suppose the context for us is 14,000 people, legacy business, a bus business.

We move people from A to B, get them to hospital, get them to school, get them to work. And we were hugely affected by the pandemic. So we went down to 14%, was dependent on public sector funding to survive. We lost 16 colleagues who died through Covid by providing our services and that had a psychological impact on the organization. So we came through that. And then what clearly happened is as an organization, new leadership team, we treated our people as a cost and a commodity. So we’ve embarked on a massive sort of five year transformation. So a very innovative strategy.

Three new growth businesses, a different approach to a marketplace. So we’re in the coach space and we’re doing platform businesses and all sorts of things, but the core legacy business where our drivers and our engineers operate, we are having to change their whole employee experience. So how they are treated at work, how we treat them in relation to diversity, and we make it an inclusive place to work, but their personal wellbeing. We have turnover at 40% on the back of ’21 and every bus driver costs a seven and a half thousand pounds to hire. And we were losing a high percentage of them within six months. So we were losing people. So the retention was one issue and then hiring was another one. And we’ve got labor shortage drivers, engineering shortages, skill shortages, and a talent shortage because we’re trying to innovate and create new opportunities for growth. So how do you do that?

So the people strategy is very clearly articulated with metrics and stuff, but at the end of the bottom line, and I talk about this to my team and I’ve had them all together today, it’s really three things. Why are we doing something? What difference do we want it to make and how we’re going to measure it? So before we start to do any kind of planning activity in our people strategy, why are we doing it? And quite a lot of the HR activity disappears because we’re challenging ourselves right at the beginning to make sure we can answer those questions. If you can answer those questions effectively at the beginning, then you’re much more likely to be able to evaluate them and review them and make sure they are delivering the value that we set out to do at the beginning of the year or the five year transformation. But I can talk about some of the activity around engagement, employee experience, leadership development, there’s all other things in our people’s strategy is there is in most people’s strategy.

So I think it’s about what you amplify. What are the big plays in your strategy and what do you need to dumb down that aren’t going to be critical and aren’t going to deliver value in the stage of your process of transformation. So I think the first thing is to obviously it’s got to be aligned, it’s got to be meaningful. You’ve got to be able to communicate it and you’ve got to be able to deliver against it.

Lars Schmidt:

Yeah, and I think as you described that you hit an interesting point that I think CPOs are experiencing that maybe they hadn’t experienced before, where you have, again, we’ve gone through a global pandemic and you have employees who have died are dying because of the pandemic still. And that’s a unique place to be as a people leader when you’re navigating an organization in a culture through that. And so yeah, I think it just speaks to some of the things that people in your role are experiencing today that in many industries and roles, that just wasn’t something that was really part of the role in the past.

And I want to come back to retention because obviously all of you mentioned retention in your description in terms of your priorities. We saw how it graded in the poll that Johnny ran earlier. And Sara, I want to come back to you because obviously working in the healthcare space, that is a space similar to Kevin’s, an industry that has seen massive amounts of turnover and churn, and there’s a lot of knowledge that walks out the door when that happens.

And so I’d love to get your thoughts on how you actually think about… You mentioned this being a priority of yours for 2023. Do you have any programs, and I know we’re only in January, but do you have any programs that you’re putting in place that you feel are having an impact that maybe some of the attendees might want to mirror? And I’d also encourage the attendees, if you’re watching, if you have any retention programs within your business that you’ve found to be very effective, add those in the chat window, share those with your fellow viewers, and Sara, let me turn it over to you to get your thoughts on that.

Sara Andrews:

So when we think about retention, we’ve done quite a lot of work just trying to understand the reason why people are leaving. We made quite a significant number of changes last year actually to move away from sort of exit type surveys and to really put some time and effort into having a conversation both with the manager and with the colleague that was leaving us. And what we definitely have valued is the insight that we get from having a meaningful conversation is absolutely worth the investment of time in making that happen. It’s given us much richer data and insights on which we can then think about what is it that our colleagues want and need in order to stay with us?

And that the key theme that comes through for us when we look at that retention data is around careers. It probably accounts for about 40% of the feedback that we get. People are telling us that they need to be able to see a career pathway. And so we really started to think about career pathways. And in sort of typical HR style, people want to jump almost to a document that sets out, you’re a junior, then you’re a senior, then you’re a principal to work their way through a hierarchy, but within their silo. So there’s a couple of things that we are doing. We’re really trying to talk to people about transferrable skill and the opportunity that there is to use all of those skills internally and to create that internal talent marketplace. So that was kind of one of our approaches. And then we got to a point where we then sort of realized that we needed to have much richer conversations with people about their career ambitions and how we met their expectations.

And it became really clear that it’s so much more, particularly for entry level people that are at the beginning of their career. It’s not enough anymore to point people to a job board or a list. We are having to have much deeper conversations to understand an individual’s wants and needs, what their aspirations are. And actually rather than the employee finding their career with us, we are now having to create the careers that our employees want and need. So the reason that I said earlier that there’s this connection with lots of the items that were in that poll is because that is really challenging our thinking for managers and leaders that we’ve got to be more agile, more creative, be able to think about how we design work in a way that meets the expectation of the employee rather than just expecting a colleague to fit in with a predefined role or a predefined a model. And of course that’s hard when you’re running a business when you have got to think about customers, clients, productivity structures and all of those other things that kind of fall into a people function.

But in terms of that retention piece for us, we are being told through our engagement survey and through our exit survey that having more meaningful, richer and deeper career conversations and being able to design work around the employee is definitely for us the direction of travel going forwards. That brings in a whole raft of leadership development in how to have those conversations. And also encouraging our managers to say a measure of success is not holding onto your people. A measure of success is developing them so that they can move on within our organization. And we’re a global business with 26 brands within us. So we’ve got the ability to do that. Our challenge is how do we get somebody that sits in a particular team to see the breadth of opportunity and to be confident enough to come and have a conversation about the career that they want to carve out for themselves.

Lars Schmidt:

Yeah, I mean it’s interesting and you hit that skills piece I think is so important. And it speaks to a broader shift I think, of how we think about certainly recruiting, talent development, retention, moving from a role-based approach to a skills-based approach. And I think that that is going to be such a fundamental shift in how we think about talent attraction, talent development, retention within our business, and it’s going to open up a whole new field of talent if we can get that right. And that’s an if, right?

Because I think a lot of hiring managers, as you all know, and I’m sure you watch it, a lot of managers are like, look, I need fully baked candidates that have seen and done everything that I need them to see and do in this role. I don’t have time to develop. And it really narrows that talent pool.

Claire, I’d love to get your perspective as well. When you think about shifting from role-based to skills-based, and obviously you talked about kind of the employer value proposition within Gattaca and how you are attracting talent, what role does that shift towards skills based factor into your talent strategy?

Claire Cross:

So I think for us as well, it’s looking at where our talents historically come from and we know there’s opportunity to better mobilize our talent in the organization. So to Sara’s point, actually, we’re looking at ways of rewarding those managers. So even in our manager’s scorecard reviews, which is a quarterly kind of performance framework we go through, they have a waiting around retention and what they’re doing to retain their people and also something around engagement. So we want our managers to be thinking in a much more holistic way about the organization as well.

But in terms of the roles themselves, so when we are bringing… About 80% of our workforce are salespeople. So actually they can come from any background, any level of experience or demographic. And I think we’ve really challenged ourselves, certainly our talent functions challenge itself on what are we bringing through the organization. We’re starting to trial blind CVs with parts of our management and leadership team because again, we believe that there are sometimes some unconscious biases sweeping around what they’ve hired in the past, what’s worked well for them. So I think by placing an emphasis on both some skills that we’re looking for, but actually predominantly in that particular cohorts more about the behaviors, are people able to demonstrate tenacity, ambition, resilience, some of those kind of key traits that we might look for when we are looking for recruiters. And if they are regardless of their background, then let’s explore that a little bit further. So I think for our more technical type roles, we’re still probably on a little bit of a journey in the organization to look at that.

But even if I think of the makeup of my team, and if I was to bring somebody into the people team, I’m certainly not going to be looking for somebody with an HR specialism all the time because I see the value in bringing someone with commercial acumen, perhaps somebody that’s worked as a recruiter in the business because again, they bring a lens that we might be missing sometimes in our function. So I think there’s opportunity for, regardless of the function you work in, think about actually what skills are you looking for. Does that necessarily have to be someone that’s SME with that qualification, or actually could you get a better person into that role that perhaps brings a different skillset with it? So yeah, that’s kind of our approach at the minute.

Lars Schmidt:

Yeah, no, I appreciate that perspective. I want to come to Kevin with this last question. How does all this change impact how we think about developing skills and capabilities within the people function specifically? So obviously there’s much change as we’ve gone through. We’ve talked about the external volatility that we’re having to navigate. Claire talked about bringing people into the field from different disciplines. You might bring design experience, commercial acumen, whatever it may be that can help level up the field of HR and people. But how do you think about bringing in and focusing on what are the skills that we need within the HR and people teams today?

Kevin Green:

Yeah, I mean it’s a great question, Lars. I mean, I think if you’ve got a clear strategy and what you’re trying to achieve, then it’s the ability to execute. So having the right capability and capacity is critical. So like most organizations, I’ve got a shared service, I’ve got business partners and I’ve got centers of excellence. The three elements of an HR function. For me, there’s two things. One is the old business partnering. What does that really mean? Quite often I come across people that call themselves business partners and they’re sort of order takers. They basically just provide some kind of support and service. What I’m really interested is people that can challenge and hold up the mirror and get under the business strategy and ask the questions that the managers and leaders aren’t asking of themselves, and then can work with others in our expert fields, whether that’s inclusion or whether it’s organizational design or whether it’s our head of resourcing to be able to come up with solutions so that we can deploy them.

So for me, there’s a lot about how does the HR function collaborate, how does it work as a whole, but it’s really about how does it partner and really understand and prioritize the actions that it needs to take. So for example, what we’ve been doing, we’ve signed up for Gartner my team are doing lots of stuff with them. We’ve done a business partnering event over the last two days where we had a business simulation. So I’m bringing new talent into the organization often from different sectors, often some people that haven’t been in HR but have got a change orientation or an ability to run programs and lead change. So again, it’s about coming up with the right blend to be able to execute your people’s strategy. And I think we have to be brave. I think the problem with HR people quite often is they don’t hold up the mirror.

They’re not brave enough, they’re not courageous, they don’t challenge, they don’t see themselves as leaders. They see them as part of a support function and supporting people. So I think there’s still a huge shift in our profession about repositioning what we do. And that means that I’m always on the lookout for great people, talent, people that have got a track record of making a difference, whatever particular discipline or skillset they have. So sometimes it’s about that blend as well. How do you create a great team? I’m a great believer in the performance is delivered by teams, and that’s what I’m trying to create in our HR function. A great team with the right skills and right capabilities to deliver the people’s strategy at pace because we’re going to have to move and do this quickly.

Lars Schmidt:

Yeah. Well I appreciate that perspective and Sara, and Claire, I appreciate your perspectives as well on all of this. These are very interesting times in the field of HR. I feel like it’s never been a better time to work in this field. There are a lot of challenges, so let’s own that. But there’s also a tremendous amount of opportunity. In some cases, we’re building new constructs of work that haven’t existed before and that’s pretty exciting. So I want to thank all of you for sharing your approaches, your journeys on creating priorities for 2023. And I want to thank all of you who joined us in the audience and shared your own views. So keep those conversations going in chat. And with that, I’d love to turn it back to our host, Johnny Campbell to move us on in the next session and his amazing fireside chat with Pat Wadors.

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