· 2 min read · Features

Analysis: Take the positive long-term view

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The message for delegates at the HR Leaders Forum from an array of high-profile speakers was clear: even in a downturn you must to do everything possible to engage employees.

HR directors have been warned in turbulent times to take positive steps in leadership, flexible working, corporate social responsibility (CSR), employee benefits and recruitment to engage their staff and save money in the long-term.

As senior HR professionals gathered at the Oxford Belfry Hotel in Oxfordshire for the HR Leaders Forum last month, they were reminded: "It's good to talk (to staff) but it's better to listen."

In the plenary session Caroline Waters, director of people and policy at BT, explained the importance of allowing staff to work flexibly. She said: "Flexible working will lower your costs, increase customer services and deliver much better relationships with employees."

Popularity of flexible working

In 1986, BT only had 300 home-workers. By 2008 this has grown to 14,500 with 75,000 flexible workers. Waters added: "I don't believe managers need to make a value judgment on who should be allowed to work flexibly - they are not qualified to do that. The only question they should be asking is:'Is it operationally viable?'"

Waters explained how the telecoms giant has saved millions through desk-sharing. The firm no longer pays its engineers overtime for working longer hours but instead incentivises them with bonuses for completing additional tasks - so improving productivity.

Mike Kelly, head of CSR at KPMG Europe, told delegates how the accountancy firm also saved costs through CSR. The company asked staff to come up with ways to be greener, and cleaning staff suggested minimising the use of cleaning fluids by replacing them with special cloths laced with disinfectant. KPMG has saved £4,000 so far.

Self-titled 'iceman' and polar explorer Sean Chapple compared leadership in business with his role leading an expedition to the South Pole. He said: "Although staff will not always get along, you must respect individual differences but share a common goal. Leaders must be able to identify risk, celebrate success however small, maintain a positive viewpoint and enjoy the experience."

Encourage a positive mindset

Recruitment was another hot topic at the forum. Octavius Black, managing director of The Mind Gym, told employers to hire staff with a positive mindset or at least get them to see their career as a "calling" rather than just a job. This chimed with David Smith, people director at Asda. He explained how the supermarket chain had invested in psychometric testing for staff. He said: "We specifically try to hire optimists. We are the only retailer hiring shop-floor staff that carries out a half-day assessment. We also allow staff to try working in a store before taking the job to make sure they like it."

Rather than once-a-year surveys, Asda conducts weekly employee polls called 'We are listening' to make staff feel their views are valued by the firm.

And it was Wayne Clarke, managing partner of Best Companies Partnership, who revisited the importance of listening to staff. He said: "Senior managers do a lot of telling but not a lot of listening. I really believe in internal conversations instead of internal communications."