Strategy & LeadershipHR StrategyApproaching Brexit at KPMG

Approaching Brexit at KPMG

With Brexit looming, change is inevitable within all organisations but what is the best way to lead and manage teams through this?

The end of March deadline was looming. When the project began, the 2 years to that deadline had seemed such a vast expanse of time but suddenly – how had this happened – there were only months to go. And although we’d spent perhaps too much time trying to negotiate our own perfect arrangement, as time pressed on it became clear that maybe we couldn’t have our own way on everything after all. And even if we could, it would take us well beyond the March deadline. And we’d already committed that March deadline to our people.

This is where I was this time last year. Implementing one of the major cloud based HR management systems within KPMG.

Whenever I talk to other HR directors about their experiences of implementing such systems, I often get nods of recognition when I reflect that one of our initial problems was we approached it, like so many tech solutions of the past, trying to customise it to our processes.  As most know, often through experience, cloud-based systems don’t work that way. You customise your processes to them. That allows you to benefit from their regular updates without costly configurations. But the many years of customising off the shelf systems to internal processes, was, in the words of Midwestern rock band Chicago ‘A Hard Habit to Break’.

Luckily we learnt quickly enough to meet that March deadline and we have now been live for almost a year.

But as I cheekily suggest, the parallels with Brexit weren’t lost on me. And it’s here another Chicago hit, ‘If You Leave Me Now’ comes to mind. Because whilst that HRM implementation was taking place, it would have been all too easy to take our eye off a spectacularly large ball. Supporting our people through the uncertainty of Brexit – and our EU nationals in particular. Luckily we appointed one of our seasoned HR Leads, Susan Miller-Jones, to take the reins on all HR related aspects of Brexit. And as a result we’ve had very positive feedback in terms of how this has been managed.

‘The key thing our people wanted to know was that KPMG was prepared,’ Susan tells me, ‘no matter the outcome.’ Like many, if not most, organisations we of course have contingency plans. But more importantly, all of our people wanted to know that we were supporting our EU nationals and were doing all we could to retain them, regardless. These are, after all, colleagues and friends.

‘It was important not to be too reserved about it,’ says Susan. ‘We had to speak openly with our EU nationals – even if we didn’t have all the answers.’  Hence we communicated with them regularly, on well attended conference calls.  ‘We wanted to ensure they knew we cared about them and were here for them,’ adds Susan.

Furthermore, we worked closely with those leaders with EU nationals in their teams. We ensured they knew who their EU nationals were (aided of course by our new HR management system) and involved them in supporting our firm wide approach. We also offered free individual training to our EU colleagues to help them understand how to make the choices that were best suited to their personal situations.  Our experience was that as we started talking to our EU nationals, they felt the firm wide messaging was useful but only when supported by those they worked with and for.

We also ensured we were fully conversant with the implications of all the various Brexit options – Deal (and its various iterations) or No Deal. Our people appreciated it when we used jargon-free language which our own expert employment lawyers helped us decipher.

‘Within every EU national group, we found people who had genuinely complicated situations that they wanted help to navigate,’ explains Susan. ‘For example the employee who’s Italian, has a Cuban wife, parents from Spain and children born in the US.’ As a firm we’ve created a tool that allows EU nationals to upload their specific circumstances and get a response as to the best route for them. Backed up by support from our internal immigration team.

So what has all this talk of March deadlines taught me? In all my years as a HR Director, the most fulfilling, but most critical, activities I’ve undertaken have always been those that directly support people. It’s very easy to get distracted by shiny new toys such as a new HRM but at the end of the day our businesses have always been about our people and always will be. Continuously communicating and engaging with people in a straight-dealing way. Admitting when we don’t know the answers but also involving our people in those answers. And okay, I’m really pleased we implemented a new HRM. We have further modules to add but as a result our employee experience is continuously improving.

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