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Talking SME Podcast: Reconsider how you Hybrid

Our latest guest on Ten2Two’s Talking SME podcast is Francis Lake, Founder of People Advisory Company, Green Juniper. In this episode we discuss the recent attitude change toward hybrid working, Francis’ experience developing and implementing innovative working practices, and why one popular hybrid policy is an ill-fitting suit.




A bit about Francis

Francis has a long career in organisation and people development. He’s got a track record in deploying groundbreaking practice, winning awards for performance and purpose. His work on post-covid working has been the subject of a Gartner case study, and he’s a frequent speaker at conferences on subjects including future of work, purpose, culture and performance. He established his new consultancy, Green Juniper last year to be able to help more companies have brilliant people practices.


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‘Reconsider how you Hybrid’ is just one in our series of podcasts where we talk about a wide range of topics. We talk with business experts, and also offer broad insights to help SMEs become more successful.


John O’Sullivan (00:00):

Hello and welcome to our expert podcast series from Ten2Two, the Flexible Recruitment and Services Company. My name is John O’Sullivan, and today we welcome Francis Lake, founder of People Advisory Company, Green Juniper. Welcome Francis.

Francis Lake (00:14):

Thanks John. Good to be here.

John O’Sullivan (00:16):

Nice to have you here with us. Now you’ve recently moved on from Virgin Money to set up Green Juniper. Can you tell us a little bit about your time at Virgin, which is of course where we first met, and what inspired you to branch out and set up a new business?

Francis Lake (00:32):

Yes, sure. So I was at Virgin Money for about six years, including a period with CYVG beforehand, where we acquired, Virgin Money and then rebranded to it. Um, and in that time what we were really setting out to do was create a, really progressive people deal, examining lots of sort of corporate rituals like performance management or the way we recruit or the way we engage, and really looking at whether they actually worked and designing things that are fit for purpose now. And as you know, the kind of performance approach we went after was quite a big change. So what we were trying to do there was just really create a workplace and a working experience that was really powerful, and that got people enjoying work and working at their best.

Francis Lake (01:29):

The other kind of really critical thing in that was being part of a Virgin branded company. What we sort of talk about is the Virgin family which is phenomenal. Virgin companies are largely independent from each other. But connected by the brand. And because the Virgin brand is so experiential, then being able to pull on that experience into a space like financial services, is fantastic. And that makes for a great colleague experience and encouraging people to think more, to make the most of it and to enjoy themselves more really.

John O’Sullivan (02:10):

What made you branch out Francis into doing your own thing?

Francis Lake (02:14):

Yes, there’s probably a few drivers. One was, uh, our youngest left school. So very much at a kind of life crossroads if you like. The other thing was we’d done so much progressive work and so over time, I think I must have spoken to 60 or 70 different companies about our performance approach and over at least two who basically replicated it. Our approach to sort of future of work had been profiled in, case studies in Harvard Business Review.

So we knew, or I knew the work that I’d been shaping was really progressive. And there was a chance to do that work for more people, I guess. Then the last thing was, I think, the whole covid thing and looking at future work and ways of working really got me thinking about my life, my working balance and so on. Whether carrying on in that sort of corporate role felt sustainable for me as well. So yeah, three big drivers I guess.

John O’Sullivan (03:22):

Okay. So I was obviously a witness to some of the things you did at Virgin. So what feeds that? What’s been your philosophy and your approach to culture and people development?

Francis Lake (03:32):

Yeah, sure. So, I mean, at its heart I think we employ people who are fully formed, fully functioning adults. Who are trying to do the right thing, and are trustworthy and well-intentioned. I think if you start from that premise of making things feel human and trusting people and assuming they want to do the right thing, and if they don’t do the right thing. It’s probably because they’ve just been pointed in the wrong direction. That can kind of drive so much. And it allows you to give people much more responsibility. It allows people to be more autonomous and so on. I see so many companies with values like, you know, empowerment or trust and then processes that don’t reflect it. So that’s the second bit really. I think the system has to reflect the way you feel about people.

Francis Lake (04:34):

So whether it’s who you hire. Approaches to promotion and performance management is probably the single greatest one. And development, the system needs to reinforce that you trust people, that you treat them as adults, that you want them to act responsibly and you want them to kind of enjoy work. Then the third thing is you can kind of have those two beliefs and then you’ve gotta implement stuff. henever it comes to a change, I always, I talk about share of brain and I think generally people have got a lot going on in their brain. So the amount of time they can pay attention to any particular change is tiny. So if you can make it more connected with other changes, that helps. And if you can make it really simple and really memorable, that helps an awful lot.

Francis Lake (05:23):

So an example of that would be getting away from sort of heavy, corporate ambiguous language and just being really simple. One of the things we would say when we talked about feedback, we’d say, if you don’t give feedback, you’re not helping. And if you don’t get feedback, you’re not learning. Rather than these whole great big three pages of explanation, you know, it was calling on that kind of connectivity. So, make sure the thing is simple to understand. You’re thinking about the share of brain. Getting in line with positive psychology and then using some of the neuroscience things like, creating intrinsic motivation, creating psychological safety.

And then the last thing I would always do is effective for any intervention, test it to destruction. Whoever’s the author or the producer of it, is invested in it and it follows their logic, but people who don’t understand it will do things differently. So, really thinking about if that’s sent out and you knew nothing about it, what would people do? And if you can test that with real people, brilliant. And, at very least kind of really challenging yourself on the design and the way things are going to work. Cause I think with that you can guard against things going in the wrong direction so much.

John O’Sullivan (06:45):

It’s interesting Francis, you talk about testing things to destruction and what we were gonna spend some time on today was really thinking about hybrid working. How it’s come about, where we think it’s going. And of course when hybrid working first came about when we all had to go home. When the pandemic hit, of course we had no time to test anything to destruction. Everyone just had to upsticks, get home, get online, start working again. Now I know, you took a sort of slightly different approach of moving to hybrid at Virgin. What drove that thinking and what did it look like?

Francis Lake (07:21):

Yeah, sure. So we called our approach a life more virgin, which I guess is one of those, you know, Virgin brand. You kind of feed through everything. And even in that the idea was, because it was about life, not just work and trying to capture that, wherever you’re starting from, it’s a little bit more virgin, a little bit more experiential, a little bit more fun. We started the work in probably April, let me get the year right, 2020. So almost as soon as we got sent home. And what we were quite quickly looking at was things like, we were seeing things where language, like it’s a two-tier workforce. There are people who can work freely and there are people who aren’t able to work freely. And I’ve seen people who’ve said, rather than create two-tier workforce, no one gets flexibility.

Francis Lake (08:12):

Which seems kind of perverse to me. Then we’re also seeing things where, as you say, we all kind of went home and we all started working out our own ways of doing things. And there wasn’t really that kind of bringing things together and kind of collective learning. So we’d see lots of people doing things like, you know, they’d go for a walk in the day, which is great. The problem was if you have people going for walks all at different times, when do you actually, gather people together and those kind of things. So where we got to was an approach where we started with five really simple personas, which basically, is where you work and when you work fixed. So we had colleagues who work in bank branches, they need to be in that branch when the branch is open.

Francis Lake (09:08):

Now that’s always been the case, COVID didn’t make that happen. And then there were other roles where potentially, when the work needs to be covered. So maybe, you know, some of the contact center roles where you start to get more, more optionality about location. But it’s driven by custom demand, through to ones where there’s huge flexibility. And the whole idea of that was really just given that starting point for people, you know, just making it really explicit that we don’t start from the same place.

So the second thing we went to is what we called team rhythms and what we’d say for any team, what is the rhythm of your work? So if you, if you want, a team meeting on Tuesday at 10:00 AM, everybody needs to be online on Tuesday at 10:00 AM. Maybe once a month you have an away day or, maybe every six months there’s a volunteering day.

Francis Lake (10:00):

But trying to put down as far as possible what are the fixed points. And the rationale for that was that if people have fixed points, you can plan around them. So whether that is planning for the nursery or someone to look after the dog or whether you could buy a season ticket or not. All of those things. So those two things effectively gave you what does the company need and then what does the team need?

And then it got into the individual side. And here we looked at two things as well. One was what we called stage. So, where are the things that either by your stage of your career or your employment with us or your life stage, where are the things that you need now but might change? So if you are new to a company, you probably need more time, build relationships and so on.

Francis Lake (10:50):

If you’re kind of old and miserable like me, you don’t want to make any more friends. So, you need less contact time, but it could be, you know, the needs of a parent with a baby is different to someone whose child’s going to school or someone whose child’s a teenager. So, stage was something that encouraged people to think about what you need now, but open the door to that flexibility and adapting. And then the last bit was about you.

So what do you need or what is important to you? Which could be, going for a walk, it could be Friday prayers, it could be anything. So those four in combination, we created this sort of feel that there are certain things that we need of you. And then as an individual, there’s lots of things where you can work out how you work best, but you’ve got a responsibility to the team. So it went back to that kinda, the adult relationships, trusting people to do the right thing and then getting them to kind of shape the work. Shape work in a way that they would be most productive. So yeah, it was pretty different.

John O’Sullivan (11:58):

How’d you feel the team responded when that was implemented? You know, you had started designing that quite early in the process. April, I think many people were still scrambling. So, once you’d sort of been able to embed some of that, how did you feel the team responded?

Francis Lake (12:13):

Yeah, so we went through what we called a series of test and learn. So we went through sort of business area by business area. So we started with the HR function cause it was kind of easiest for us to mobilize. That was in March 21, I guess it would be. And in each case what we were trying to do with every area was take them through an exercise of work things out, put them in place and then go to another area.

So I think some of the things we found were in a lot of areas they could kind of get their heads around it, get going and really make sense of them. Some people would then struggle to turn it into what they were actually doing into their management practices. So if you agree you’re having a team meeting on Tuesday at 10:00 AM, maybe you want to diarize that, you know, and some might sort of almost treated it like an academic exercise.

Francis Lake (13:07):

We had some resistance from areas who, almost like had a very economic view of productivity. Like, you know, if I’ve got 50 people, I want 50 people working 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM and that’s it. There’s quite a funny story around our finance director, didn’t really buy into it. And we’d done some work looking at four day week and he was adamant that could never work. And then it turned out, one of the rather large teams in his area had been running a four day week for kind of six months. So you know, this sort of rollout approach gave us lots of proof points as we went along. But what we also found was that need to share and encourage people to be more creative.

Francis Lake (13:53):

So we had, we had one set of bank branches we worked with who struggled a bit. And were kind of going, well our time’s all fixed. But then we had another set who were really creative and it’s one of the greatest examples, I really like. There was one colleague who, so he was separated from his wife and his children lived with his ex-wife in a different town to where he worked in a branch. He would see them on a weekend, but it would mean at the end of the working day, driving something like two hours and then he could pick them up. And what they were able to work out was that if on a Friday he could work from the closest branch to where his kids lived, he could do the long journey in the morning and pick them up about two hours earlier.

Francis Lake (14:42):

And so that was one of these things where, thinking through the approach made the person’s life better. And it also, you’d then got this exchange of staff, exchange of ideas between two branches that was happening on a weekly basis. So those are the things we looked for and looked to amplify really. Cause I think early on people were almost so wedded to the way we’ve always done things. It was hard for them to stretch their imagination far enough. And that was one of the big things we had to encourage.

John O’Sullivan (15:17):

So Francis, if we fast forward to where we are now, and hybrid working has become, pretty much, well sort of a norm in business. And you hear of so many organizations where three, two has now become this sort of acceptable working format. Three days in the office, two at home for what people think are the organization, the employees. What do you feel about that and do you think that, you know, we’re too early to settle into this. What’s your observations on this area right now as we stand?

Francis Lake (15:54):

Yeah gosh, John. I think, you know some of my views on this so if I get too ranty you’ll have to stop me. I kind of think the three two model is so arbitrary. There’s no thought there really about what makes work effective. There’s maybe a sort of loose assumption that some people like to be at home and some people don’t. So we’ll do half and half. And there’s some benefit in connection and some benefit in working on your own. So we’ll do half and half. But I think the thing that sort of strikes me is firstly, the least efficient time to travel is rush hour. And so immediately you’re making people less productive by making them travel in rush hour. So it’s sort of a full day model impacts that.

Francis Lake (16:47):

So I think it’s a bit like an ill-fitting suit. You need to think more about what’s the work and how are you gonna deliver the work effectively rather than going for that. I’m sure you’ll have seen, I think it was, was it towards the end of the year and Microsoft had released some research they had done, which showed that a huge proportion of colleagues feel they could be more productive at home. But, roughly the same proportion of managers didn’t believe that people had been as productive at home.

So kind of right back to that point of trust, there’s a sort of trust deficit and, particularly when all of those people had to work at home five days a week for months and months on end. And companies were quite happy with that. To then say, we don’t trust you to carry on like that.

Francis Lake (17:41):

You need to operate in this way. I think it diminishes trust, it diminishes a sense of autonomy and so on. So I think there’s some really big kind of pieces in there. But there are things where I can really understand some of the concerns that companies have. So things like how do we onboard new people? How do we sustain relationships and of course culture. In those two spaces, I just think there’s work to be done and a bit of creative thinking. So if I give one of the examples, I hear lots of places who have said in order for junior staff to learn from senior staff. They need to be in the office. So we want people in three days a week.

Francis Lake (18:31):

But they can be in any three days. So that immediately means that in order for them to learn from senior staff, the senior staff have to be there five days a week, in order to be available whenever folks want. There’s a really simple fix there. If you took three or four teams and you say over the course of the week you will have access to one of these four managers, then you can immediately kind of adjust it.

So if you’re working at home, you can access these managers for help. If you’re working in the office, you can access these. So you’re immediately able to just manage those kind of things more. And then there are companies who have done a great job at onboarding people virtually. During Covid, my daughter had a job with H & M where the only time she ever went into one of their premises was to hand her laptop back.

Francis Lake (19:26):

But they did a great job of, simple things like she got a branded coffee cup and a branded water bottle. So all the time she saw their brand, they were sat in front of her, they were using the consumer website to help them understand the products. They created WhatsApp groups to build kind of teams. So they did this really nice job at kind of looking at what have we got and how do we use that. So I think there’s a need for a lot more creative thinking about how we organize and how we do things.

John O’Sullivan (19:57):

Great. And many of our clients are SMEs. Anything from four or five employees up to, three or 400. Do you think there’s any differences there in terms of how companies of that size need to sort of manage working practices now compared to their larger cousins?

Francis Lake (20:20):

That’s a great point. I think very often there’s almost this assumption that bigger companies have got more resources. So have worked it out, but I think that kind of size of SMEs have got much more flexibility of choice and the opportunity to make things much more personal. So for example, I guess if you’re fortunate, then there’s the potential to say. Let’s say once a month, everybody needs to be in the office and we’re gonna spend the day going through where are we on corporate plan, corporate goal, where are we on our objectives? You know get everybody aligned, because you can shout across a room when there’s that number of people, which you couldn’t, if it’s 6,000 sort of thing.

Francis Lake (21:15):

So there’s the opportunity to design work much more and really look at top to bottom in the organization. How can we make all these things work and how can we make all the parts interact? So, I think there’s a big opportunity for SMEs to really go after their productivity and I would urge them to not try and copy big companies cause they build a load of bureaucracy and waste into it.

John O’Sullivan (21:47):

Yeah. I mean we’ve loved seeing SMEs be so innovative in what they’re doing. And we did, a survey amongst some of our clients a couple of months ago just talking about, you know, in this environment, how do they recruit, how do they induct and how do they settle sort of flexible employees? And we saw some wonderfully inspiring things from them. So it’s really excellent that we’re seeing that coming through.

John O’Sullivan (22:14):

Francis, a few minutes ago, you talked about what you had been doing at Virgin and one of the things you talked about was team rhythms, which I think is really exciting and when we compare that to three days in the office, two days at home, and then you morph that into understanding the rhythms of a team and how that might work. Where do you see hybrid work going? What does the next 12 months or 18 months look like for you?

Francis Lake (22:42):

Yeah, I think it’s a great question, John. And actually there’s something that you said to me a few weeks ago that’s really got me thinking. Lots of people have settled on the kind of three and two, and now we’re finding all the things that people don’t like about it. Whether they’re getting around to annual appraisals and people will voice their views or they’re doing their surveys and people voice views. So lots of points where they’re seeing the kind of dissatisfaction.

I’m hopeful that we get lots of companies taking a longer and deeper look at how do we go after productivity. Just today actually I read a CIPD thing this morning and they showed a graph of kind of UK productivity and UK productivity growth and it is anemic.

Francis Lake (23:31):

And I think we’ve always kind of gone after it in this sort of almost like economic view. Have we got enough people? You know, it’s kinda like income divided by people and that’s it. Where actually, I think looking at can you get the working day more productive? Can you get more motivated, more aligned people? I think there’s a massive prize there. So I really hope we see people kind of connecting where and when we work with how we support, people to be well both mentally and physically and emotionally.

John O’Sullivan (24:03):

Of course.

Francis Lake (24:04):

And use that. Those two are then gonna allow you to get far greater performance. So that’s where I really hope it goes. I think what I’m encouraged by as well is seeing more people notice that the role of the manager is more critical than ever. And certainly one of the Gartner sort of themes for 23, there’s a lot emerging about manager skills and productivity. Which I think is one of the most fundamental things.

I always think there’s this crazy thing of, we all know that managers are utterly essential and yet you can ask pretty much any senior leader. What are your managers like? And the answer is always something along the lines of they’re a mixed bag and they’re just resigned to it.

Francis Lake (24:57):

So actually kind of going after management quality in order to enable those other things that’s where I really hope we see a lot more in this year.

John O’Sullivan (25:09):

Excellent. That was excellent, Francis. I could talk about this all day with you. It’s such a fascinating topic and maybe at some point, in a few months we might return to it and in fact we should probably come back in a year’s time and say, have we seen any change? But for now, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us today and just giving us a benefit of your experience and very best of luck with green juniper.

Francis Lake (25:33):

Brilliant. Thanks so much, John. And yeah, like you say, could talk about this stuff for hours and it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you.

John O’Sullivan (25:41):

You’re very welcome. This has been an expert podcast from Ten2Two, the flexible recruitment and Services business.

24 min read