Nebel Crowhurst, head of people experience, River Island

What will your session be discussing?

Agile working, what it has meant to us and how to best manage it. The focus will be on bringing real stories to life around some of the experiences [River Island has] had. I’ll be able to give some examples of where we’ve used the principles, where they have worked, what some of the successes are, what perhaps some of the pitfalls are, and just challenge some thinking.

A lot of people talk about agile working within the world of HR, but it’s just about challenging people’s views on what it actually means, taking that thread, being a bit thought-provoking and encouraging people to explore it.

I will give some information on us as a business, what our challenges are and what that then means to us as a people team and how we’re having to adapt our approach to things.

Why is this an important area for discussion? 

There’s a bit of a movement [towards agile working], and the key bit for me is, what does it actually mean? A lot of HR people are having conversations about this, but what they’re actually talking about is implementing a flexible working policy. 

I see [agile working] as something quite different. So, [I will be] talking about the principles of using a different approach to work and applying that in the context of the people team, rather than it being about who’s got a flexible working policy in their business.

What are the main takeaway messages for delegates from your session?

[The aim is] just to get people to be curious about what it might mean to them and how you can use different principles in what you deliver, rather than doing things quite traditionally. You kind of get stuck in a rut and do things so you can say you’ve done them in our world. People in HR don’t always internally challenge themselves. There’s a lot of HR teams that kind of make assumptions; also, often we think we know best. 

Trying to spark some interest and get people to think differently about their approaches to what they deliver to the business is my intention. I also want to provide an insight into what we’ve done and just show some real-life examples.

Is having real-life examples an important part of the journey towards having a more agile approach to work?

The only reason I get involved in doing anything like this is to be able to share our own experiences. That’s the beauty of these kind of events, just being able to talk openly about what you’ve tried, what’s been great, what’s not been great, and sharing some of those lessons. If people are a bit more open across the world of HR, I think that helps.

Why should HR and benefits professionals attend your session in particular?

Practical insight’s one thing. What’s happened in one business might not work in another, but you can use that as a tool to inspire you, or to [help you] think differently. If there’s opportunities for people to be signposted to stuff, that’s useful. Often, I’ll share where I might have got inspiration from, or connections I’ve got in particular topics, giving people other avenues with which to go off and do their research if it’s something that interests them.

Also, [it is about] just opening up connections. [I will be] giving a taster, there’s only so much you can cover, so just really just trying to highlight some pertinent points, and perhaps if people have got additional questions, then now they know somebody they can ask. 

It's to ‘connect’, it’s exactly that, you come along to these things to improve your network, learn new ideas, get a few things that are going to help you to think differently, hear what’s going on in other businesses. Sometimes, you come and listen to somebody and think ‘yeah we tried that, we’ve got a similar experience’ or ‘we’re going along that path as well’. And it reinforces what you’re doing, makes you confident. Or you listen and think ‘I’ve never even considered it that way’. It gets you thinking differently.

What do you think the future of reward looks like?

The bit for me that’s really important is very much around recognition, alongside reward. Something that’s worked really well for us over the last year is implementing a peer-to-peer recognition programme, having a platform to enable people to acknowledge others, to say thanks, well done or that someone’s done a great job. 

That landed really well and we want to develop that more and see what it can mean for overall employee engagement. So, the recognition piece is really important for us, finding the mechanisms to help people acknowledge one another. Sometimes it’s as simple as just saying thank you, [but] how does that feed into an overall reward strategy? 

You can get very easily stuck in a world where everyone is just getting on and being busy without just taking a moment to say ‘great job’ or ‘thank you’.

Is this part of a movement away from reward being just about compensation, and more toward the holistic, nuanced experience? 

Yes, I think so. You need to think about what works for the context of your business, rather than ‘everyone else does certain things so we should do it’. 

You should be thinking about what’s right for your people, and the type of business you’ve got and trying to be a little more flexible in your approach, so you can perhaps dial different things up and down at different points in the year or over a period of time.” 

What are the three top trends for the industry in 2019?

For everything, in different ways, technology is massive. Utilising technology in smart ways can enable things to work more efficiently. If we’re thinking specifically [about] rewards, then having really great technology platforms can help people access things more easily. 

Technology is massive, and what that means can vary in different businesses, what type of technology [they should use] and how it can enable. It’s about using it as an enabler and being smart about it, not just using technology for the sake of it. Keep things simple, but still recognise that technology can really have an impact. [It is important to] be open-minded to that, and to what new things are out there. 

[Second], it goes back to that recognition piece. The question here is: are businesses doing enough to recognise great work? In every industry, and definitely retail, everything’s really tough right now. We’re in a very uncertain world, Brexit is having an impact on people’s behaviour, so from a retailer perspective, customer habits are changing, people aren’t being quite so frivolous with spending. 

All of that impacts the way the business is working, so does pressure. People just have their heads down, trying to get stuff done, and then you forget the good stuff. It’s easy as a manager to forget the importance of recognition.

The third thing is that we should be reviewing a lot of the stuff that’s been very rigid over the years. For example, within our business, more than three years ago we scrapped the yearly appraisal approach because it just wasn’t working. We’re now in a position where we’re reviewing [the system of] yearly engagement surveys. But we’re still in a place where we’re doing yearly pay reviews and bonus reviews, and actually, if we’re not doing yearly appraisals and engagement surveys, where do we need to take pay and bonus reviews? Why is that still in a yearly cycle? Probably because it just happens to sit nicely with finance, but what does that mean from a people point of view, and how does that affect overall people experience. 

People that are ahead of the curve should be considering how that might change in the future, how you can work in a more agile way around pay and bonus structures, and how that cycle might change throughout the year.

Does that mindset link back to your point about agility and rethinking how we work?

Yes, [rather than] just doing things the way you’ve always done them. So often I get [comments saying] ‘but we’ve always done it this way, and it’s really hard to change’. I counter that with this: it’s our job to challenge that, it’s our job to keep influencing and shifting things in a new direction that’s going to, in turn, have a great impact on our people and the experience that they have.