Embracing digital solutions to improve human connections through Covid

  • How has coronavirus changed the world of work?

    Sync NI caught up with Danske Bank’s Human Resources Director, Caroline van der Feltz, to talk about the Covid challenges currently facing employers and how the bank has overcome those challenges to ensure it is offering the service its customers need. 

    Hi Caroline. Taking stock of the last three or four months, how would you sum up the current environment from a HR perspective?

    Where do you begin? There’s no doubt it has been incredibly challenging for our people, both personally but also in terms of how they have had to adapt in order to do their jobs to serve our customers. We have a lot of colleagues whose roles are customer facing and it could have been difficult, but we’ve been so proud of how they have responded and embraced the new normal. I think a lot of people have been buoyed by being classed as key workers and getting that recognition for how important their roles are in society. 

    You might think that in the middle of pandemic staff absence would have gone up, but in fact we’ve seen a 41% reduction in absence, a 29% reduction in the number of days lost to stress and our highest ever employee engagement scores, so  something has worked . Maintaining these levels of engagement requires strong leadership and we really want to harness the benefits of creating better ways of working to ensure sustained high engagement. 

    Was working from home something the bank previously allowed?

    Yes, it’s something we would always have ranked quite highly in terms of flexibility of working hours and independence. But the number of people working from home now is unlike anything we could have imagined and that has required a big change in mindset, greater use of technology and a lot more focus on internal communications. Working from home relies on trust and trust is easier to maintain when communication is good. 

    The overriding lesson of Covid19 from workforce perspective is that for most of us, work is an activity, not a place. Trusting people to work from home means trusting them to look after the company. I think we will be very careful not to go back to a situation where you have presenteeism and people feel obliged to be in the workplace for more hours than is needed. 

    As well as the health concerns of the virus it has taken a big mental toll on people. What measures have you brought in to look after wellbeing?

    Again, it comes back to communication. We have established a dedicated resource and coronavirus testing support and guidance for our people, particularly those on the front line. But we are also aware of the need for contact with those working at home and that has been a focus for managers at all levels. Lots of people are keen to get back to the office but others are anxious about this, which we understand. As we return to normal we will be keep discussing all of this in a positive way with those who are vulnerable, shielding or who have childcare issues. 

    We have aimed to be collaborative and connected and embraced a virtual and video first approach. That has enabled our people to get a real window into colleagues’ lives and maybe get to know them better than before. It is a situation where embracing digital solutions has enabled us to have better human connections.

    How important has it been that the organisation has had strong leadership through this?

    I think when you look at the employers who have done well through this, empathetic human leadership has shone through. We already focused on the sense of community in Danske Bank, but it’s now something we are having to do differently and which we are doing much more intentionally.

    But illness and health concerns are a real leveller. We are all at risk and most of us have had to leave the office or put in extensive measures for those physically on site. That has required improved communications and changed the sorts of conversations we are having by flattening the structure and enabling people who maybe wouldn’t have been so vocal in a normal setting to have an equal say. Extensive engagement with colleagues has been vital.

    Would you say Danske Bank has learned a lot from the pandemic?

    Definitely. We have done more learning than we ever would have done in such a short space of time. For example, we’ve brought in new systems to allow for virtual call centres. We have about 600 people doing different roles or taking on different responsibilities to their normal job. And by the start of June we had logged 1500 hours of training on systems or roles, across 900 different learning events for our colleagues. 

    It has been a big learning experience and we have had to think about things differently. We feel like we have done a good job, but as we go forward we will also look closely at what hasn’t worked.

    As well as retraining you have been recruiting. What has it been like hiring during lockdown?

    We’ve conducted over 200 interviews for roles during lockdown and we’ve actually had more than 70 people starting with the organisation who have never been in our building. Our graduates were recruited physically but inducted virtually, as were a number of senior specialist hires. 

    The feedback has been that the induction experience has been really positive and is working. We wouldn’t have considered a remote interview before or signing digital contracts, but the uniqueness of the situation has forced the adoption of innovation. And it means the market for skills can become truly international.

    I think in all of this it has been important that we kept branches open and didn’t furlough staff, not just for our customers but for our employer brand. People have been confident to come to us and to move in a situation like this takes trust in the organisation you’re moving to and in the recruitment process. 

    A lot of your staff are working in branches but hundreds are working remotely. How are you preparing them for coming back?

    Our frontline staff have been amazing in working through what were initially very worrying conditions and we’re very proud that all of our branches stayed open. 

    We are really seeking people’s opinions, engaging with them to get their views on different ways of working and what they feel has worked and not worked during the crisis. 

    We won’t bring non-essential staff back into the office until it is safe to do so but we’re also conscious that people need the sense of community that comes with being around other people.  

    What do you think will be the future for offices and physical workspaces?

    I’ve heard people speculate that there will be a need for less square footage in offices but I think the more pertinent question is what are you going to use the office for? We have to make sure we are using physical space in the right way and ensure there’s a clear understanding of what is of value. 

    Why are you meeting in person? Do you need to be in the office or would it be more productive to maximise your time at home? And from a sustainability point of view can we be part of the greater good by having fewer people in at the same time and reducing travel to the workplace?

    In the short-term employers are going to have to work hard to maintain employee confidence, which might mean making returning on a voluntary basis or putting teams on split shifts. When people can safely come back the shape of offices will need to change and they will be used differently. That could mean more collaboration space, fewer closed off small rooms. 

    I think there will be other practical challenges too. For example if people don’t want to get public transport but are prepared to cycle or run into work. Do you have showers? Do you have storage for bikes? These are questions a lot of employers will need to answer quickly as they adjust to new ways of working.

    This article first appeared in the summer edition of the Sync NI magazine and it can be found here.

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