Moving from a transactional, reactive HR system to ‘people-led’ proactive HR
This practice example is part of the Guidance for better workplace wellbeing.
Resolve is a pseudonym: The company in question did not wish to be named. This case study is based on interviews with six people with roles in general management, HR and accountancy.
RESOLVE are an audit, accounting and advisory organisation operating in the East of England. Established in 1888 as a small accountancy practice, following a merger in 1969 it quickly grew, establishing nine offices throughout East Anglia. In 2010, RESOLVE joined a national accountancy association that brings together like-minded accountancy firms covering the UK, to share best practice, knowledge and skills. Through the national accountancy association, RESOLVE obtained membership of an international network of accountancy firms and in April 2019, alongside other member firms across the UK, RESOLVE aligned their name and branding with these networks.
Today, RESOLVE are a major independent partnership of chartered accountants and tax advisors and one of the UK’s top 40 accountancy firms. Employing 326 people across 8 sites, run by 22 Partners and headed by a managing Partner. The majority of staff provide professional services, with approximately 20% of the workforce employed in a support role. Great client service is fundamental to RESOLVE’s business model providing a caring and professional approach towards clients and employees alike. These core values are iterated as a ‘passion for our people’ and ‘client service’. Their work comprises primarily of advice, audit and tax services, and processing business and personal accounts.
Wellbeing risk factors
RESOLVE has a mobile workforce undertaking a wide range of visits to external sites, as well as a workforce distributed across the region. Home working and flexible working arrangements are common practice throughout the firm with one employee even working remotely from abroad. Whilst these arrangements are key to maintaining work-life balance, they also present particular risks, specifically isolation and disconnection removing relational contacts with other team members that are important.
The work of the firm is task orientated, client focussed and sometimes remote, the nature of this work can put people at further risk of loneliness and also expose them to excessive demands. The accountancy industry experiences a peak in workflow in the January period and RESOLVE are mindful of how professional deadlines can create strain and burnout amongst staff.
Overall approach to wellbeing
Taking into account the wellbeing risks, business model and the competitiveness of the labour market in the sector, RESOLVE’s approach to wellbeing has been to prioritise its people through six strands of wellbeing. The strands are underpinned by a ‘commitment to wellbeing’ in the firm and led by senior management, these strands are: financial, social, mental, physical, career and community. This includes a broad range of activities, examples including mental health awareness training, flu jabs, healthy eating initiatives, debt management advice, charitable and community work as well as a social fund for team based social activities.
RESOLVE has incorporated existing HR policies and support that fit under these strands, but has also substantially built upon those, extending what they offer and striving to make it accessible. Recognising individual needs and circumstances, the six strands are concerned with the wellbeing of the whole person and the wellbeing programme has been designed to provide something for everyone; the firm is also keen to take on new ideas from the workforce where there is a gap, or room for improvement. The establishment of wellbeing champions in all locations and an employee forum are key mechanisms for engaging the workforce, with a wider aim of openness to new ideas and for staff to be able to have influence.
“I think the first thing we did was have a staff forum, which we didn’t have previously… What I was trying to do, as much as anything, was to make sure that, once somebody had a good idea, that it actually happened…Clearly, I’m an owner of the business, but actually, if there’s a committee, then I’ve got one vote the same as everybody else. And I think that’s important, so people feel that they can make a difference.”
Their approach recognises wellbeing as fundamental to the services the business sells and in supporting their talent framework. Giving professionals necessary support and training provides them with the confidence and ability to provide high quality services to customers and underpins good wellbeing. The wellbeing offer also differentiates RESOLVE from competitor firms, where they are starting to be seen as sector leading.
Here we shine light on the detail surrounding the introduction and roll-out of one particular strand of RESOLVE’s wellbeing programme. The adaptation and enlargement of RESOLVE’s approach to employee wellbeing in line with its core professional values was developed through a directional shift in the HR function moving from transactional, problem driven interactions to a positive supporting role for managers and employees.
Rationale. The firm knew that their people are fundamental to their business and that although they were doing a lot to support employee wellbeing, this was not being co-ordinated through a strategic approach and that support was not as proactive as it could be. A change in HR leadership combined with strong backing from senior managers led to an on overhaul of the firm’s wellbeing activities and a more dedicated approach. The labour market that RESOLVE draws talent from is also very competitive and the firm recognised that enhancing their approach to wellbeing would enable them to retain people and decrease sickness absence. Whilst RESOLVE had a range of HR policies and assistance in place to maintain and enhance wellbeing, these were not being accessed by employees, nor was it easy for managers to access information to support their teams. In 2016 the firm was seeing turnover rates equivalent to call centres 20 years ago, whilst the highly competitive labour market was a driver of that turnover, it was also a sign that RESOLVE needed to do more to hang on to employees. Reducing and simplifying existing HR policies that are underpinned by a wellbeing commitment was possible because evidence was mobilised to secure buy in from senior management:
“Obviously, it’s a firm of accountants, so I went to the partners with the numbers, and when they looked at things like the absence rate, the staff turnover rate, engagement scores, things like that, you know, that produces a compelling argument to do something. And the first thing I got the partners to do, was commit to a wellbeing commitment…and said, look, if you say you’re not going to sign up to this, you’re saying that you don’t care about the wellbeing of your people. And I think it was the realisation, I think they all knew.”
Moving from a transactional, reactive HR system to ‘people-led’ proactive HR
In 2017, RESOLVE’S new Head of HR presented the case for a strategic and focused wellbeing programme to the Board. The wellbeing commitment was secured, because evidence supported it, but also because it aligned with the firm’s core values of ‘passion for people’ and ‘client service’. Although the Head of HR and their team have been key actors in shifting the approach at RESOLVE, they play a facilitating role. Rather, the wellbeing agenda is led by senior partners in the firm, and the ‘wellbeing offer’ is simply framed as good employment practice.
This framing has been adopted so that employee scepticism about any wellbeing agenda is reduced and to mark a cultural shift in absolute support of the firm’s values which was led by the way that the HR function presents itself as supportive and approachable. This leadership was evident in the launch of the wellbeing programme that was introduced by senior partners leading their teams at all sites throughout the firm, launching ‘A week of wellbeing’. All partners also undertook mental health awareness training and employees were introduced to the new benefits e-platform.
A raft of HR policies have been replaced with principles that support employee wellbeing making it easier for employees and managers to proactively engage with HR for advice rather than seeking help to navigate complex procedures and polices when things go wrong or problems arise. The prioritisation of staff wellbeing as a business priority has been integrated into RESOLVE’s people management and the HR department is integral in managing and supporting wellbeing, but language and framing alongside leadership have been important to engage staff and get them to become more proactive.
“We could have called it HR and then probably it wouldn’t have got much support at all because I think, particularly in private practice, HR is a support function and it’s kind of, we’ll let you know when we need you, kind of thing. …that was very much the culture when I first joined. It’s not the situation now…. I don’t think it is a HR initiative, I think it’s a business initiative that all the leaders have to be behind. If HR just come in and say, oh this is the strategy, this is what we’re doing, no one’s going to buy into that…The important thing for us is not so much raising the profile of HR in the role, but actually, if you need support on any particular aspect, where do you go? And so as long as they know where they go for that support or what support’s available, then I don’t think it really matters whether it’s HR lead it or the business lead it.”
Putting people first
Following an initial launch and communication push to inform employees a monthly wellbeing calendar identifies various activities under the six strands of wellbeing to further signpost people and generate interest and engagement. The intention is that people in different career stages and with different work demands and roles can benefit from different activities and that if RESOLVE can improve what they offer they are open to ideas. Wellbeing and employee forums with representatives from across the worksites are key spaces for this engagement and feedback to inform further development and test ideas.
“So we didn’t used to have a voice, but now there’s a wellbeing forum, a group of people, and there’s an employee forum which I’m a member of. And I feel like it’s come a long way in that employees have the ability and the platform to say what they want to say and I think that things have come from that. So tea and coffee in the office for example wasn’t free and I think someone said oh that would be good if it was free. And then lo and behold it was free. It’s just little things like that”
Although formal mechanisms, like employee forums and surveys, are used to refine and improve the wellbeing activities at RESOLVE the presence and approachability of managers and senior managers is also key. Employees at all levels are seen as equal partners in influencing how wellbeing is delivered with a range of seniority and roles represented at forums. Leaders and managers also act as role models, one notable example being a senior partner who has delivered mediation and mindfulness workshops to staff.
“For me, actually listening to someone who is of partner level, or of manager level, speak about perhaps the struggles they have and the way that they have dealt with pressures and stress and taking time for themselves, that for me I think is a big thing.”
Getting beyond the fluffy stuff, employee wellbeing as good employment practice
In changing people’s mind set about the role of HR and its approachability and pushing wellbeing, the firm has had to overcome some scepticism. This scepticism was overcome at board level by the explicit linking of wellbeing activities with core business objectives and values. Later career employees have also been more reluctant to engage with the renewed wellbeing offer at RESOLVE, the danger being that this kind of thing is seen as a ‘fluffy’ HR initiative.
However, the framing of RESOLVE’s approach, widespread uptake and high visibility of activities combined with role modelling from leaders means this perception is beginning to change. For the generation of employees beginning their career, RESOLVE’s wellbeing offer is more central to their assessment of potential employers, determining whether they join or stay at the firm. The social and community strands of the wellbeing commitment further support employee ownership of wellbeing activities, for example, staff can nominate charities and causes important to them. Similarly, the social fund gives teams’ freedom to organise local events, which has given rise to more informal activities and so created a stronger team spirit and social side to the workplace.
Impact and looking forward
Key indicators of the success of RESOLVE’s approach have been a major reduction in sick leave and turnover. In 2019, staff turnover is down 23-25% on the previous year and absence has reduced significantly, helping to address a shortage of skilled labour. This success has also been recognised externally with RESOLVE being announced regional winner of the Workplace Wellbeing Award in the British Chambers of Commerce ‘Chamber Business Awards 2018’. However, RESOLVE recognise that the changes they have made is not an endpoint and the firm has to keep on improving its approach to wellbeing in order to retain its position in the sector and maintain the reputation of the firm with clients, employees and other stakeholders. The cultural shift in HR and supporting people management practices means that the firm is now set up to continue learning and developing its approach to wellbeing, with an approachable and supportive HR function.
“Suddenly HR, which used to be almost like a back office function in the firm, has become more of a, it’s almost like a front of house part of the firm. People coming to us and saying we want to learn from your experiences, well that’s unusual I think for HR teams to have people knocking on their door, I think, so we must be doing something right.”