Helen Webb, Chief People and Services Officer, Co-op: The pandemic is affecting so many people in so many ways, inside and outside of work – listening is key at the moment

Flexible working, employee mental health, and employee engagement continue to be crucial elements of the ‘new normal’ workplace. “Right now, this is very much about listening and providing guidance, not rules,” says Helen Webb, Chief People and Services Officer at Co-op, where she leads an inclusive and strategically-aligned people agenda for the company. 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, Helen shares her thoughts on the role and future of flexible working, on how companies can put mental health at the core of their work culture and employee engagement in the new normal.

Will flexible working become the norm? How can corporates work around this new reality?

Helen Webb: Right now, this is very much about listening and providing guidance, not rules. These last few months have provided us with many valuable lessons on flexible working, allowing us to refine what we do and also consider the long-term benefits of these new ideas in a post-pandemic world.

Working from home like this, with technology, will likely make permanent changes to ‘office life’ for all businesses – we’ll continue to stay close to new practices that can benefit our workforce and still allow us to attract new talent, now used to working in different ways.

An important point I have to make here is that many of our colleagues are key workers, who have kept the food retail and funeral business operating since March. They have made a staggering effort and we’re beyond grateful – we also understand that, for them, working from home isn’t an option. Where this is the case, we have put in place extra precautionary measures. Their safety remains of paramount importance.

How do you care for the mental wellbeing of your employees?

Helen Webb: Wellbeing is at the core of our people strategy at the Co-op, and it’s never been more critical than it is now. We’ve found that the most important thing to remember, when addressing mental wellbeing, is not to see it in isolation – it’s important to consider what might be having a negative impact, not just its effects.

Since March, our colleagues may have new physical health issues, childcare worries, changes to family finances and more. It’s critical to create routes to support them that are multi-faceted and provide advice on mental health, which leads to guidance our colleagues might not have realised was available, or they actually needed.

We support leaders across our business in identifying where a team member’s wellbeing is not what it should be. We also help them see the signs that suggest they might need to take greater care of themselves too. With the help of our partners at LifeWorks, we have an extensive ‘Co-op Cares’ hub of resources, a downloadable app with advice and ideas and a 24/7 confidential support line.

How will this pandemic change employee engagement? What are some of the things your company has done over the last few months to keep their employees engaged?

Helen Webb: The pandemic is affecting so many people in so many ways, inside and outside of work. Also, for our frontline colleagues, they’re adapting to unprecedented circumstances and really going above and beyond to serve our customers, members and communities. We have to appreciate that engagement levels will inevitably continue to shift, as everyone adapts.

However, our internal comms team have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic, to understand the channels with the greatest reach, the messages with the best resonance and the content which is most appreciated, as a celebration of what we’re able to achieve together.

As part of that process, we’ve increased the number of Co-op wide surveys, in addition to our cyclical engagement surveys, to understand how our team is feeling and where they’d like to see changes. We’re mindful to take action on each set of results straight away – colleague engagement is vital in our mission to provide key services to communities across the country.

Acknowledging everyone’s efforts and achievements has also been key. This is why we introduced additional Thank Yous worth a collective £13m to 56,000 colleagues, and introduced new recognition initiatives, for the exemplary work going on in our funeral homes and food stores.