‘Lockdown has been a great leveller’: How Capita has established genuine equality for remote workers

by HRD Connect | Report

Will Serle was into remote working long before it went mainstream. Before joining Capita, he spent 20 years running virtual teams across 16 different timezones. But as a senior people leader he never enjoyed the advantages himself: twice a week, he was forced to undertake gruelling eight-hour commutes to London from his home in Aberdeen.

Now, in the wake of Covid-19, Will’s schedule is perfectly inverted. He spends most of his time in Aberdeen, but is able to travel elsewhere for meetings and other essential purposes. As well as enjoying the convenience of this new arrangement, he feels there are wider benefits. The pandemic, despite all its turmoil and anxiety, can create genuine equality for those working remotely, and Will is determined to achieve it. 

“People talk about the privilege of remote working,” Will says. “But this isn’t about privilege. It’s about involvement. If you’ve got a smartphone or tablet, there’s something quite engaging about everyone working in the same way.

“The pandemic has been a great leveller in terms of inclusion. We’ve seen that maybe people don’t need to find ways to work in London to progress their career. If they’re sitting in, say, north-east England or Scotland, their career doesn’t have to be limited by location.”

Initial progress

Prior to the pandemic at least 90% of Capita employees worked on-premise, either in a customer’s workplace or the company’s own. But Will, who joined the company in 2018, says he had already started to make significant changes to how people were managed within the business.

“One of the first things I did was to distil a purpose for Capita. We involved hundreds of employees and asked them to help define that purpose. Then we put in place a series of commitments around managing people, which has included giving constructive feedback and creating a positive environment.”

Lockdown provided a pretext to go even further. Within a month of the restrictions, Will had put together a team of people to look long-term, and begun undertaking surveys of the entire Capita workforce. The Shaping Tomorrow Together survey garnered 20,000 responses; a further 24,000 responded to the Future Ways of Working questionnaire. A Yammer site gained 4,000 sign-ups.

Colleagues have been asked whether they are enjoying remote working, and how they want to proceed long term. Do they want to move to remote working five days a week, do they want to go back into the office, or are they looking for something in between?

“There is a minority of our colleagues, who were classified as key workers during the pandemic, that had no choice to work flexibly,” Will says. “They had to continue travelling to and working in customer or Capita locations around the world and we are hugely grateful to those people who continued to deliver to our clients throughout the pandemic, despite the challenges.

“When we surveyed those who were in roles which could be performed flexibly, two clear camps of people have emerged. While the vast majority want to work remotely at least three days a week, we have a few thousand people who will prefer not to work remotely – it might be physical surroundings, caring responsibilities or just personality type – and this is absolutely fine.”

The surveys also showed that staff have been thinking closely about their own working arrangements. While 83% of people felt positive at work, and a similar number felt motivated (“I thought it would be much more mixed”, Will says), many wanted to use the office differently, moving from a place where work is done, to a training and collaborative space. And there was a huge concern for one another’s wellbeing.

“Above all, there was a very, very strong view that this [distance-based, flexible working] was not for all. So don’t assume it’s best to look for a one-size-fits-all solution. That’s been at the core of all of our changes.” 

New, personal contract 

Drawing on the feedback, Capita’s people team have created new contracts for their employees, which can be adapted to each person and place remote and in-office work on an equal footing.

As a first stage, the people leaders identified those jobs which couldn’t be done in a flexible way – the roles with a physical presence, like health assessors, or projects which have to be carried out on-site. Around 10% of roles fell into that category.

Then Will and his team set about creating tailored agreements for the remaining employees. Thousands of Capita staff have received a brand-new individual contract which reflects changes in both work location and number of days working from home, offering employees increased flexibility where possible.

To facilitate this flexibility, Capita has embarked on a major programme of technology investment, responding to the specific requests lodged by employees during the surveys.

Company policy now dictates that every employee is entitled to receive equipment to work from home, or an allowance, whichever they prefer. And to help staff get used to the new arrangements, Capita’s new SHAPE platform provides instructions on how to use their equipment and allows them to log issues which are then fed back to their line managers.

In parallel, a ‘book a space’ app has been built that allows employees to book desks for their visit to the offices and prevent desk-hoarding. Capita has six ‘hub’ offices around the UK (Belfast, Edinburgh, Leeds-Hepworth, London, Manchester, Sheffield) with 18 further ‘spoke’ offices; the company’s vision is for these offices to be places of permanent movement, enabling pop-up collaboration rather than tying employees to a particular spot. 

Using the app, colleagues can reserve an agile desk up to 30 days in advance. They can even search for a colleague and book a desk nearby.

Cultural baggage

But beyond these technological changes, the biggest priority is cultural: to create an environment in which remote work is genuinely valued. Drawing on his own experience of leading virtual teams, Will has long railed against the notion that remote work is somehow inferior. 

“Some employees still look down their nose at remote workers. They say, ‘oh so and so’s working from home is he, they’re just going to do nothing and watch TV.’”

To create a lasting shift in this mentality, Will and his team have created a New Ways of Working group, which has yielded a behavioural guide for employees to help them adapt to the new normal.

The guide makes a number of headline statements. It vows to “take a ‘virtual first’ approach to focused work, regular catch ups and routine meetings and use our offices to deliver, cooperate and collaborate.” It recognises that “there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach” and pledges to allow people to determine their optimal work routines where possible. 

Perhaps most significantly, it pledges to “recognise the different dynamics that exist within our teams and support both office and virtual working to make sure everyone can succeed.”

The nuts and bolts

Beneath these headline statements, there is a raft of flagship policies designed to enshrine equality for remote workers. 

Performance is now measured by outcomes, not inputs; each team is challenged to create deliverables and use these as the benchmark, rather than physical location. Team leaders are required to establish regular 1-2-1s and virtual meetings, to keep everyone connected. And teammates are encouraged to hold virtual coffees and other catch-ups to ensure everyone has the social contact they need.

When hosting meetings, everyone is encouraged to arrive on time and turn their camera on, at least at the start. Attendees are advised to raise their (virtual) hand when they want to make their point and mute themselves when they want to speak. And managers are urged to create an agenda before the meeting, to maximise everyone’s time. 

Although regular office attendance is still very much encouraged, the nuts and bolts of Capita’s working practices are now attuned to remote working. 

“In my team,” Will says,” the default position is that all our meetings will be done by video rather than physically in person unless there’s a particular reason why we have to do it in person, and in that case we would plan in advance.”

The full effect of these changes will become clearer over the next few months, as Britain’s economy emerges from the pandemic and Capita continues its well-publicised transition towards becoming a specialist management consultancy. And so far, the company’s top-line results are extremely promising: in its first-half results for 2021, Capita’s adjusted revenue, profit and free cash flow were all up on the year (in fact the adjusted profit was over four times higher than the figure for H1 2020).

Beyond that, however, Will believes it’s about laying down a work pattern that will work over the long term and ensure that every single employee feels both included and engaged.

“This is evolving all the time. I’m starting to hear about people replicating brainstorms via videoconferencing, for example. And we’ll continue to see this as people find new ways of connecting virtually.

“Ultimately, it’s about trust and understanding. Understanding that people want to work in different ways and that people want to communicate – and be communicated with – differently. That’s proved particularly true during the pandemic but it will continue to be a major factor as we move forward.”

Positive environment

But no amount of bold headlines and progressive policies will amount to anything unless Capita’s leaders create a positive environment for those working in isolation. 

As a litany of bad-news stories has already illustrated, many remote workers have suffered from stress and loneliness during the pandemic; another problem, slightly less well-covered, is the bullying that some people have experienced via Slack and other digital channels. 

To minimise the potential for these problems, Will and his colleagues have spent time educating their people in online etiquette and appropriate communication. However, Will says this has been largely self-policing. 

“We had one incident on Yammer where someone said something inappropriate and, while I was thinking how to address it, a load of other people jumped in and said it was out of order. That’s always been there.” 

A much bigger priority has been the provision of wellbeing support. Capita has built its own online portal, a hive of links to resources from both third parties and the company itself. Built with feedback from experts and charitable organisations, the portal covers the entire sweep of wellbeing: physical, mental and financial.

In parallel, managers have been encouraged to “check-in, not check-up” and received dedicated training. “We offer a bunch of different things. Around inclusion, we launched anti-racism training, which offers some subtle changes. It could be a mixture of video clips, stories and interactive stuff, so rather than being forced to watch a video for an hour, people can learn in a more hands-on way.

“People like to communicate differently, and they like to receive communication differently. That’s been a big part of our efforts, and we’ve had plenty of positive feedback to reflect that.”

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