The extremely rapid developments in the workspace have required everybody to act quickly. Especially People departments have been put in the spotlight to come up with viable solutions to maintain engagement and mental wellbeing. Luckily, the world is full of amazing People Heroes, and with pride, we present you Emma Knight, Director of People & Development at Nest.
Since 2010, The National Employment Savings Trust, strives to deliver a high quality, low-cost pension scheme to also help low to moderate earners save for their retirement.
We talked to Emma about the importance of Learning & Development and mental health and what it means to take these and other HR initiatives virtual.
Could you tell us a bit more about your role at Nest and the People department in general?
Yes, Nest is a 10-year-old company with currently 300 employees. We have a really open and friendly environment. Due to the strong social purpose of Nest, we are all very driven to deliver a great service!
At Nest, I hold the Director of People & Development position. Our department is responsible for the whole spectrum of people support, from paying people to a robust learning and development offering. Our company’s mission is to provide a workplace pension for people who wouldn't have been able to save for retirement otherwise.
You mentioned a robust Learning & Development offering. Could you expand on that?
Of course. So, it obviously changed a bit over the last year. A lot of it had to be virtual, but we've got an internal management development program. Besides that, we offer a catalogue of courses from third party contracts, supporting soft skills development but also more technical learning. At Nest, there is a high level of investment in people and their development, but we make sure the courses align with our culture and values. It obviously has to have a positive impact on Nest as an organisation to deliver better services. Overall, we've seen an increase in learning engagement while people have been in lockdown, which is fantastic.
Over the years, you've held various senior People functions. How do these differ from your current function at Nest?
It has been interesting. For the longest part of my career, I worked for a larger company, which exposed me to many aspects of a people function, especially organisational change and organisational design. After that, I worked in the university sector, which had very different requirements for a people function.
When I eventually came to Nest, I initially thought, "Oh, it's only 300 people. It will be easy to launch some things," but it has taken a bit more time to do it right and really well. This also meant spending time understanding the business, the vision, and the people strategy. At Nest, our chief executive cares as much about our people as she does about our members. In other organisations, people are not always on top of the agenda. Yet ultimately, people are a company's greatest asset and resource. They keep the wheel going.
What interested you (personally) to start a career in People Ops?
My People Ops career started by accident through a temp job I had at the age of 19. It started as a part-time role that was a mix of HR and communications. Within a few weeks, they offered me a permanent job doing the HR admin. In that role, I could develop myself and gain my qualifications. They supported me in getting my CIPD. Generally, I like dealing with people, talking to people, and aspects of the employment law.
Over the years, I've worked in various roles and organisations (all with a social purpose) and started to look more into people data and how it can influence conversations. Eventually, I found a genuine interest in employee relations and the focus on doing the right thing. I'm not too fond of environments where it's all about the bottom line and the financials. That is not the kind of HR person I want to be.
What is the biggest challenge your team faced at work over the last 12 months?
We had to act fast when the pandemic hit, making sure people had laptops, suitable office spaces, etc. But I think the biggest challenge is not seeing each other face-to-face. I recall on our Friday afternoons. The noise level in our part of the office always used to increase because the end of the week was nearing. I miss that. I've got a real mix of people across my team, and we really struggled with that lack of personal engagement.
Besides that, HR has really been put into the spotlight recently. The whole company is looking at us for answers, and we have to admit that we don't have all the answers. We have to work together to find the best solution for the company, the teams, and the individuals. We had developed a wellbeing strategy that we needed to launch whilst working remotely.
We understand the pressures team members are under while home schooling, caring for other, being by themselves, or the stress caused by lockdowns. Still, it taught everybody the importance of talking about mental health and wellbeing. Years ago, it was more of a stigma, whereas now it's accepted. And that is good! Luckily, our executive team and our leaders at Nest have always had an interest in people, making it great to work here.
What achievement are you as a team most proud of this year?
The most significant achievement is that we kept all of our services going. We hadn't had any problems with our payroll. We switched that remotely straight away. We've still been able to train and develop people, launch our wellbeing program with our staff engagement team. Honestly, I don't think there has been any aspect of the services we deliver that has been negated. As a team, we've just carried on, which is great.
Concerning learning, engagement has actually gone up. I think people got a bit more time for learning, especially if it's a quick 90-minute session, instead of taking a day out of the office for classroom-based training. That is down to my Learning & Development team responding really well. And that's not without a significant increase in workload.
Additionally, we've done mindfulness sessions, yoga sessions, or even things like holiday wreathmaking sessions — all virtually. We definitely have seen an increase in engagement by doing things virtually. This has to do with convenience, I think.
What do you foresee as a major change in HR?
Honestly, it's hard to predict. I think the people function will be seen as more than policy or paying the people. That was already shifting. Flexible working hours wasn't really a thing ten years ago, and aspects such as parental leave have improved in the last 20 to 25 years.
I would be interested to see what a working week potentially looks like in the near future. There are challenges around going down to four-day-weeks or increased flexibility. I don't foresee us going back to five days per week in the office. There will be a shift in work outside of the UK and changes in attracting and recruiting people.
What are you looking forward to most in 2021 professionally?
Such a good question! I think seeing my team go from strength to strength. We have some exciting things in the pipeline for more automation around our processes and changing the way we deliver our service. Overall, I get motivated by launching and delivering initiatives and seeing how that lands and the resulting positive impact it has.
And what do you look forward to personally?
And personally… I think we've come to the fact that we won't have a holiday this year. But last year, we started to do a lot of gardening. We're looking forward to growing stuff from the seeds of last year. Also, we’re redecorating our house, which is a nice project. And actually having time for myself and my husband. The kids are grown up and not living with us but just having more time with the family, really.
Thank you, Emma! It was very interesting. Keep up the great work, and good luck with what the future brings.