Collaborate to innovate: the HR team driving cross-functional change at NatWest

Elin Willemse, a consultant at NatWest’s HR consultancy practice, describes the strategy and lessons learned when transforming the business to a flexible, hybrid working model

Many organisations seized the opportunity presented by the global pandemic to remodel their businesses, but not all of them are collaborating cross-function – or being led by HR – which is how NatWest’s new programme is being run.

When the pandemic hit, Sam Bowerman, HR Director for Customer Franchises at NatWest, was asked by CHRO Helen Cook to lead a Ways of Working project. Bowerman says: ‘From the outset I was keen to take a collaborative, one-bank approach, using scaled agile methodology,  to co-create an approach to our future ways of working which would meet the needs of our customers and our colleagues.’

Internal change is a key trend for the future, one of five identified in the CIPD’s People Profession 2030 report. And a key to success in this new era will be to remain agile, give teams more autonomy, and lead on strategic developments, it suggests.

Managing internal change

The bank’s Ways of Working transformation relied on different functions working collaboratively and in an agile way. It was created and structured by NatWest’s HR consultancy practice. Bowerman took the role of sponsor, appointing Willemse as Product Lead for the transformation, which is jointly executed by a wider team, including services (property and colleague platforms (technology)), communications, dedicated business resources and HR. People from across these functions make up the core Ways of Working team, with some 200 business representatives across all jurisdictions.

The team was built around those who would be affected by the outcome of the project, directly or indirectly. ‘You’ve then got a team that’s multi-disciplined, understands the multiple impacts and brings different thinking. You don’t get the right answer if you don’t have that diversity of thought,’ says Willemse.

‘If you think of the bank as a cake, we would normally look at one slice of the cake at a time. For Ways of Working, we are looking at the horizontal layers of the cake – the buttercream layer, the jam layer, the sponge layer,’ says Willemse. ‘So this work has brought different businesses together where they see similar challenges and opportunities.’

To research views on flexible working, colleagues were segmented into customer contact, high-volume operations processing, frontline (branch network or relationship managers), knowledge workers, and specialist teams with colleagues whose roles make remote working difficult, such as trading teams. Following quantitative surveys, qualitative focus groups and business leader insight, they found that more than 70% of people wanted to work more flexibly in the future. ‘The question then became: what are the big strategic rocks we need to move out of the way? And how might we do this?’ says Willemse.

The bank finally produced a framework around three ways of working: remote-first, hybrid and office-first, with the respective breakdown of colleagues working each way as 32%, 55% and 13%.

An agile approach

Willemse says that taking an agile approach has been key to enabling the transformation. The team used the SAFe (scaled agile framework) method – a set of workflow practices that guide organisations in scaling lean and agile practices.

‘You start with an operating rhythm and every two weeks after every sprint you ask: How did that feel? What did we learn? What would we do differently next time? And so you change as you go. Empowering the team really works because then everybody feels like they're owning it and there's no: “Oh, we have to go to HR to go and do this thing.” Everybody is an equal partner and a team working together,’ she says.  

They used scrums to develop ideas, such as a seamless workplace experience, which was shown as important. This involved a core team of people, including property, colleague platforms and business representatives. ‘We started with the top ten considerations – what we would need to do to make the workplace seamless – and we've ended up with diagnostics across the group about what kit is needed and what our proposition for the future workplace experience would be,’ says Willemse. ‘Now we're delivering against those considerations. So it's iterations over time that have led us to where we are today.’

Removing the obstacles

The biggest challenge in the transformation has been shifting cultural and behavioural mindsets and overcoming anxiety.

‘You might think it's quite straightforward – you just give people the equipment they need and off they go. But it’s not that at all, because our culture is predicated on physical proximity,’ says Willemse. ‘There’s that need for leaders to see what their teams are doing; to know they're doing a good job. In a hybrid model that just gets thrown out of the window.

It's more outcomes-based performance management. It's more about a leader picking up on the nuances of their colleagues in a remote world – not just the visible things, but the non-visible things that you need to have the empathy to deal with.’

Instead of the usual programme delivery with prescribed steps to follow, the NatWest business department leaders were empowered to decide the best way of working. Interventions were there to help move mindsets away from thinking about what could go wrong. The Ways of Working team worked with HR Centres of Expertise and business leaders to create events to support a growth mindset. To that end, some 11,000 people leaders  were invited to attend ‘mindset events’ to hear about latest research, gain a theoretical perspective and hear practical tips from other leaders about the things they should be thinking about and doing as NatWest implemented a hybrid model.

The Ways of Working team also introduced a colleague hub to address anxieties about new ways of working, which identified an early concern about policies and wellbeing, closely followed by equipment and leadership.  

‘We're trying to get a one-bank ethos going,’ says Willemse. ‘The Ways of Working team offers support with mindset events, helping the leaders have one-to-one conversations to understand how their teams are feeling and what they need to do to make this a success for them.

'We need to continually test, learn and iterate based on feedback. All leaders must be very open-minded and share that with others.’

Showing the way through success

NatWest has been able to combine the new strategy with lessons from its COVID-19 experience. For example, in pre-pandemic times, fewer than 1% of the bank’s customer-contact population worked from home. This pivoted quickly to nearly 100%, showing leaders that previously unimagined ways of working could not only happen, but work successfully. From fewer than 200 video banking appointments a week, it’s now reached almost 18,000.  Organically it has proved that, for some jobs, flexibility in working hours outside of the 9-5 traditional structure is working well. And early signs are that productivity has gone up or remained net neutral, says Willemse.

Through the process, leaders also started to make better connections on ideas, solutions and sharing of best practice. For example, sharing information on a pilot of a new digital workforce scheduling system in one business area has led to other business areas scoping out wider applicability of the same system in other teams.

‘In a crisis, people have permission to do things differently. It's almost like normal rules don't apply. Ways of Working isn't a silver bullet, but it has shown people the power of collective thinking and that an agile way of working helps you build a cohesive strategy that you can deliver on very quickly. People are really seeing the possibilities in that.’

Lessons learned

  • Agile principles enable collaboration. It’s interactions over processes, says Willemse: ‘It's about the conversations. It's about saying we have this approach to learning about opportunities – we really need your input – and then setting up a rhythm that brings people together.’
  • Daily interactions accelerate collaboration and ensure pace.
  • Create multiple feedback loops and data points in the form of people or data.
  • Don’t make it just leader-led. Combine leader-led points of view with a bottom-up perspective from colleagues at the coalface.
  • When problem solving, build a map of who will be directly and indirectly affected. Use that to form a multi-disciplined team that understands the impacts and brings together different thinking.
  • The team may not be the right team to start with, but as long as it is diverse, you can start the journey. You don't get the right answer if you don't have that diversity of thought.
  • Be brave enough to try things differently. You may not see the benefit of inviting a property person into an HR conversation – but why not?
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