What you missed from the CIPD Festival of Work

Professor Brian Cox, safeguarding the NHS, hybrid work tips and lessons learned from mistakes in the pandemic - here are some of the key takeaways we gleaned from this week's CIPD Festival of Work.


Listen to rather than assume what people need

Prerana Issar, chief people officer at the NHS, became the organisation's first CPO in 2019, a fact which she said even surprises her.

“For the largest employers in Europe to not have had a national people function or role is quite staggering,” she said.

The creation of her role, she said, shows how the NHS has shifted prioritise the wellbeing of those in health and care. Speaking about the pandemic she said: “Our people were responding to extraordinary demands, and we had to do our best to support them through it.”

To support all NHS staff from day one, the people team put a new wellbeing initiative in place.

“In 2020 we set up a collaboration with the Samaritans and a helpline for our staff to call for one on one counselling sessions if they felt they needed it. 

“People were working around the clock last April and very little was known about it [COVID-19] so the kind of stress our staff were under was in incredibly high,” she said.

The wellbeing resources were used more than a million times over the last 15 months by NHS staff and 210,000 people have downloaded the mental health apps.

Issar added that 16,000 people contacted the helpline during the pandemic, and she expects that number to continue to rise.

Importantly, Issar said: “We (HR) can’t decide what people need to support their health and wellbeing; we need to listen to what they need.”

More coverage from the CIPD Festival of Work: 

Coronavirus presents historic shift to new era of HR 

Creativity or development? Hybrid work plans depend on aims


Hybrid work can be the best of both worlds

Carl Benedikt Frey, director, Future of Work at Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford, spoke to delegates about how a hybrid working model can be the best of both worlds for both people and technology.

He said: “The digital revolution has not led to the end of office spaces being used, but it has meant high skilled tech jobs are now centred in big cities meaning people have to live in these areas.  

“New job titles that are related to new technologies, such a roles in IT, tend to all be located in specific places, for example Silicon Valley or London.”

Frey added that it is low wage industries that are less able to work remotely.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown the disparity between which types of industries are able to work remotely and which are not,” he said.

Highly skilled and paid jobs in tech have been able to remote work quite easily, whereas lower paid and skilled jobs such as retail and hospitality, have had to be placed on furlough schemes.

Frey reasoned that to counteract this inequality, hybrid work could place the power in the hands of the worker and not the job role or city they live in.

Read more from Frey's keynote here.


Saying something, even if it’s not the final answer

In a panel on changes in leadership Amanda Mackenzie, chief executive of Business in the Community, referred to Penny James chief executive of Direct Line Group, who said without a doubt the strength of her organisation throughout the pandemic came from doing the hard work before it in thinking about purpose.

Mackenzie said: “[Having purpose] is a huge ready-made life jacket for helping businesses navigate the pandemic.”

“I honestly thought business would batten down the hatches and be very single minded about surviving and actually I've been incredibly impressed how the breadth of thinking across the responsible business agenda.”

Many companies are already beyond standard environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria, but the change now she said is how intrinsic those values have become to regular business.

“It's been very heartening to see at a time when it may not have necessarily been that way.”

Another thing Mackenzie herself has learned as a leader in 2020 is the importance of acting quickly when an issue arises, even if you can’t provide certainty.

“I certainly know when Black Lives Matter happened, and George Floyd was murdered, I didn't react quick enough. I was busy having the conversation in my head that I didn't just want to do signalling, I wanted it to be authentic, but then I should have said that,” she said.

“So I definitely made some mistakes around the speed of reaction. I think people’s sensitivity to needing something, even if you acknowledge it’s not a full-blown answer is really important.”


It’s okay to not know everything

The closing keynote session was held by Brian Cox, professor of particle physics in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester.

Speaking about humans' place in the stars and the universe, Cox brought home ways to find meaning in a time of chaos. The universe, he said, needs humans to conceptualise it.

"So yes we are physically insignificant...but meaning exists because the universe means something to us," he said.

As scientific understanding is based on hypotheses and probability the best transferable skill, he added, is being comfortable with not knowing. Doubt, he said, should always be welcomed and discussed.

He concluded the conference highlighting how important it is we all care for one another and our home.

“The earth is an island of meaning in a sea of 200 billion stars, and this alone makes it worth fighting for,” he said.