Helen Webb, Chief People and Services Officer, Co-op: In these unprecedented times, provide your employees with guidance, not rules

Companies should aim to provide their employees with guidance rather than strict rules as they navigate the world of business post-COVID-19. This is especially true when it comes to providing help to employees that continue to work from home, as “being sat at a desk from 9 to 5 is not the only way to get the job done,” says Helen Webb, Co-op Chief People and Services Officer.

She leads an inclusive and strategically-aligned people agenda for Co-op, a fast-paced, matrix organisation active across a diverse range of businesses including Food, Funeralcare, Legal, Life Planning, and Insurance. She’s also responsible for the development and ongoing delivery of a new Co-op Service Centre – a contact centre for colleagues, customers, members and suppliers.

In this exclusive interview, she offers tips about what businesses can do to navigate the challenges of the ‘new normal’ and discusses the importance of diversity, equality, and inclusion in the workplace and the strategies the Co-op uses to accomplish this.

How do you see the ‘new normal’ in the workplace? What are some of the steps you are taking to prepare employees for this new reality as they are returning to work?

Helen Webb: Although planning for the future is a big consideration, we’ve been more mindful to address the here and now. Right from the beginning, we knew it would be dangerous to consider COVID measures a simple short term thing, where we could bide our time for a ‘return to work’ or life as we knew it. Our chief focus is always the immediate safety of our colleagues and our customers. For both our colleagues working remotely and those who continue to be based at one of our sites, we’re doing everything in our power to protect them, support them and reassure them.

Beyond safeguarding colleagues and customers, we see that the world of work has changed for many. This includes those usually based at our Manchester support centre, now operating from home. With their help, we’re realising new ambitions – that we don’t have to be in the office to achieve great things together. Online collaboration has helped us unlock so much potential and, with the right technology, the majority of us in the support centre can do our jobs from just about anywhere.

When it comes to home working specifically, or ‘the new normal’ for these colleagues, we know it takes more than just providing a laptop to make this sustainable. Our leaders are committed to listening and learning, to help us all evolve our thinking and find new ways to help as each week passes and colleagues’ circumstances change. These are unprecedented times and we’ll experiment and trial things together to make sure they work for us for now, and that they also, potentially, inform ways of working in the long term.

We feel it’s about providing guidance, not rules. COVID has presented everyone in the country with unique, unforeseen life challenges. We’re encouraging our colleagues working from home to think differently, and to find the best possible balance between work, their wellbeing and the needs of their family. Being sat at a desk from 9 to 5 is not the only way to get the job done.

Where we do consider the future of our offices, the idea of a ‘return to the norm’ is way too restrictive. We’re preparing these spaces for colleagues to work in totally new ways: to come together and reconnect with a focused purpose, to be creative together, to socialise and re-energise in the long term, especially as and when the latest round of COVID measures begin to relax.

As we are rebuilding the workplace now, how can companies put diversity at the core of their HR strategies? What are some of the things employers can do to make the workplace more inclusive?

Helen Webb: It can be tempting for some businesses to move away from long terms goals to focus on short term needs right now, especially as workforces adapt to the effects of COVID. For good businesses, diversity and inclusion is an established golden thread that touches everything, including refreshed processes and new measures. The sooner it becomes a truly natural, rudimentary part of an HR strategy and a key part of the business strategy, the better.

Diversity and inclusion has always been central to the Co-op – our 19th-century founding fathers campaigned for better rights for underprivileged partners.

As COVID stays high on everyone’s agenda, it was important to us to reassure our teams and stakeholders that diversity and inclusion remain at the forefront of our minds.

To that end, we announced a series of targets in September, including a pledge to increase the percentage of leaders from Black, Asian or ethnic minority background from 3% to 6% by the end of 2022; to require diverse shortlists for leadership roles and to publish our ethnicity pay gap annually from next year, with a call to government to make this mandatory for all businesses.

How do you create a work culture where people embrace equality, diversity, and inclusion?

Helen Webb: We couldn’t achieve this without our people themselves – it’s something we will continue to build together.

I’m very proud of the colleague networks we have across the group, including Respect – our LGBTQ+ network; Aspire – our colleague community focused on equality for women; Strive – founded in support of younger Co-op colleagues aged 16 – 30; Rise – building a supportive community for colleagues from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and our newly founded disability network – Represent. We consider the opinions of trusted expert advisors and consult with them when developing new policies and ideas. We also have a team of Diversity & Inclusion, Pioneers, working in departments across the group, who take responsibility for achieving related goals across the business.

Leaders remain critical to shaping our culture and ‘Inclusive Leadership’ is something we look for in each of them, across the Co-op. We have a keen comms programme, to educate and inspire these inclusive leadership behaviours as we collectively prioritise diversification. This summer, we hosted our festival of learning – ‘Leadfest’ – with a major focus on equality, diversity and inclusion in a new virtual format, developed almost overnight, to ensure we could still reach those working from home.

In fact, it’s this kind of innovation that keeps momentum behind how we empower and include all – we’re incredibly impressed by our colleagues across the business that found new ways to express themselves, join in and help us celebrate Pride or Eid, as examples, safely and in spite of COVID.

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