2020 and 2021 have represented the dawning of a new age for human resources professionals, according to Joanne Wright, people and culture director at Specialist Risk Group (SRG). Where once HR was seen as quite transactional, the challenges and turmoil created by COVID-19 have shifted the dialogue around the value and importance of this critical function. How a business now relies on its HR department has completely changed, she said, as the crisis has shown first-hand the role of HR in creating stability, embedding culture and improving colleague experience.
“The shift in how much businesses have relied on HR to help them evolve their skillset has been remarkable,” Wright said. “We’ve seen a real shift in leadership, with a new need for leaders to lead with empathy, which has been incredible to see in the financial services space. It has brought HR into the spotlight – and though it’s for horrible reasons, we’ve almost been waiting for this shift for a number of years.”
HR professionals have been on the sidelines encouraging leaders to embed flexibility, adaptability and empathy into every level of their organisations for years, she said, and so it has been rewarding to see businesses across the financial services sector begin to embrace those lessons. Wright who has spent her career to date moving in between the insurance and banking arms of financial services, first joined SRG in January 2020, attracted by the business’s emphasis on a people-first ethos, even prior to COVID.
“When Warren [Downey, CEO] and Lee [Anderson, deputy CEO] were setting up SRG, they were looking to build a people and culture function,” she said. “So, when they came to me two years ago, they presented me with a business plan where a people-first ethos was threaded through the plan - and people and culture were at the top. It was so refreshing for me to see that, as I knew it was genuinely so important to their strategy.
“And here we are, two years later. We’ve almost doubled in headcount and acquired seven or eight businesses. It has been challenging, of course, but it’s brilliant to be in a space where a people-first ethos is genuine and HR really has a seat at the table. That’s refreshing for anybody in the HR profession, but particularly in an industry where that’s always been a bit of a challenge.”
SRG’s commitment to its people and culture function is exemplified by the fact that Wright is a member of the company’s executive committee and she highlighted that this is a topic that occupies a lot of the board’s time. Across financial services, HR has traditionally had quite a fight on its hands when it comes to representation at a board level, she said, and so it feels like a real step forward to be part of that decision-making process.
“It’s an agenda point for us, it's actually the first agenda point on each of our business unit exec committee meetings,” she said. “Before the meeting starts, the first topic of conversation is ‘how is everybody? What's morale like? What's engagement like? What's going on in the people and culture space?’ It’s all about making sure we’ve got our finger on that pulse.”
Collaboration is the key to entrenching people and culture initiatives across an organisation, Wright said, and nothing can ever happen in this space without consultation. In order to drive a progressive approach to change within a company, more businesses need to appreciate the experience and knowledge that their HR team can bring to the table, as this is the function constantly interacting and conversing with every member of a team.
“The pandemic has really changed the value that is placed on flexibility and it has helped businesses normalise discussions around mental health and wellbeing,” she said. “Those two things are now core to so many businesses and while they are both things that HR have always been able to help with, now they have been pushed to the forefront.
“The HR community have been sitting in the background thinking, ‘we know what to do here but you’re not using us as a partner’ for a long time but now businesses are embracing that. The HR function has been a real anchor for leaders and our counselling skills have been well-exercised this last 18 months. Leaders are now using us as a true partner to help them sail through what has been a really disruptive time. And it has been challenging but also incredibly rewarding as well.”