We’ve all lived through two years of the Covid-19 pandemic. Undoubtedly it has done untold amounts of damage to people’s lives and to many businesses. That said, some organisations seized the opportunity to make changes – and as we’ve seen in other podcast episodes, the pandemic has been used as a catalyst for that change. For some organisations, the pandemic allowed them to implement things within a year that might otherwise have taken many years.
Market intelligence agency Mintel (a much valued AWA client for many years) is one such organisation. They have pursued not one but six major initiatives over the last two years – reacting to what their staff and clients needed (clear communication, more flexibility and a focus on wellness) , but also responding to major events such as the death of George Floyd in the US, which sparked a major push to develop a clear global diversity strategy.
A general approach to test, learn and refine seems to serve Mintel well, with a consistent focus on the fundamentals – communication, asking for feedback, listening and seeking expert advice to address new challenges.
AWA Host: Karen Plum
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00:00:00 Karen Plum
Hello everyone. As I hear more stories about how organisations have weathered two years of COVID-19, I'm inspired by how people have seized opportunities and thrived against what you might have expected to be unreasonable odds. It seems that the pandemic has been a catalyst for change, even for an organization that was already quite agile and flexible. Let's find out what they did.
INTRO: Welcome to the Changing the World of Work Podcast where we provide insightful, practical content to untangle and demystify workplace change. I'm Karen Plum, director at Advanced Workplace Associates, where we combine science with nearly 30 years’ experience, helping organizations change the way they work, for the better.
00:00:48 Karen Plum
In this episode, we have the opportunity to learn about how one global organization changed its world of work in many ways, including a focus on wellbeing, diversity and an increase in the level of flexibility available to its people.
Mintel is a people centric business and here to explain what that means in practice is Liz Westcott, Managing Director of the EMEA region of Mintel. Hello Liz.
00:01:14 Liz Westcott
Hi Karen, nice to meet you.
00:01:15 Karen Plum
It's very good to see you, thank you for taking the time today. I wonder if you could start by telling us something that you'd like people to know about your organization Mintel.
00:01:25 Liz Westcott
Sure, absolutely. So Mintel is a leading market intelligence agency. We focus on the consumer working across all areas of consumer goods and brands that many of you will be very familiar with on a daily basis. In terms of our office locations and we're based in 14 offices around the world, with the majority of our people being here in London and also in Chicago. There’s about 1,200 of us around the world.
Our business is all about helping our clients, who sell to consumers. We’re experts in what consumers want and why, and what we do is analyze consumers’ markets - new products, competitive landscapes and really provide a unique perspective on the global and local marketplace. We've been in business now for just 50 years.
00:02:16 Karen Plum
So looking back over the last couple of years, how would you describe the way people worked before the pandemic hit us in March 2020? What was normal?
00:02:28 Liz Westcott
Well, our culture at Mintel has always been very people centric. We really embraced our offices, the officers pre March 2020 were really the heart and the center of all our activity and the place where all our employees, our clients, our partners all got together and collaborated.
If you look up Mintel.com you'll see our offices and the cool design and the open floor plans that we have and fun things in the office space, like our red bus kitchen, London bus in Chicago, and our sushi rail in London that's used to display the latest innovations from round the world. So it's really fun place, interactive, collaborative place to work.
Back in 2011, we really transformed our business and started working in a much more agile way. So actually we introduced back then, hot desking and moving around the office, all in that great spirit of collaboration.
We also had introduced lots of new tech into our business over the years. So technology like Zoom had been introduced to our way of working because we needed to collaborate globally, over the years, pre pandemic as well. Our teams worked from home pre 2020 one day a week. Some teams worked two days a week from home.
But our commercial organization traveled an awful lot, traveled a lot to be with clients here across the EMEA region. And also out visiting new potential clients as well. So again, quite used to working in quite a flexible way, but certainly not to the extent that we work today. And with all the changes that have come about.
Collaboration has been absolutely key to our culture and it's been part of our success of our business as well.
00:04:21 Karen Plum
So looking back over the last couple of years, what sort of impact do you think the pandemic’s had on the business? Has it been a catalyst for change, in a positive way, or have you struggled through it?
00:04:36 Liz Westcott
Gosh, when I look back and think back to March 2020, absolutely it has been a catalyst for change. Going back then, our big priority obviously, back in March 2020, was getting everybody safely working from home first and foremost. But also how we worked with our clients was absolutely critical because as a market intelligence agency, we're really, really conscious of the big changes that were going on in our clients’ marketplace. And our clients place a huge amount of trust in Mintel and they obviously depend on us as their trusted advisor to help guide and navigate through the tremendous changes that were going on in their world.
Our clients’ worlds changed so much during that time and our analysts had to work very, very closely in partnership with clients to continue to support them and continue to deliver the research they needed, looking at the short term, the medium term and the longer term impact of the pandemic on our clients world.
So our teams worked tremendously hard as well as dealing with all of the uncertainty at the time. Everybody came together and collaborated and worked really, really well. And thankfully, our business continued to grow during that time too.
00:05:51 Karen Plum
Yeah, how you're trying to guide organisations or help them to decide on their strategies during a pandemic when nobody knew how long this was going to last, that must have been really challenging.
00:06:03 Liz Westcott
It was really intense and as well as doing that and supporting our clients, all of our teams everywhere in the world were dealing with the personal challenges that were going on, so our other priority was making sure that all our teams and our colleagues could continue to operate in a safe way and collaborate.
We had to also dial up the conversation about employee wellness - that became absolutely critical and really, really important to make sure that everybody was keeping well and safe, given that everybody was working so hard during that time as well.
As a research agency we needed to make sure we were researching within our own teams of people around the world as well. So we initiated comprehensive regular employee surveys asking people how are you doing? What's happening? How are you feeling? Are you managing OK? Do you need more support? Really making sure that we're giving everybody an opportunity to give that feedback in to us and it was really interesting, actually, we learned that people were working hard, but they were actually also enjoying the flexibility of working from home too.
We were getting really true feedback from people that they were enjoying it, enjoying working from home, although at the same time it wasn't all bad, but they were also missing the opportunity to meet with people. So we quickly learned that we had to work really, really hard to make sure that we were giving people opportunities to collaborate and spend time with each other as well.
And so we saw that we had to be really careful 'cause we could potentially lose that culture, because people were missing seeing each other whilst working very hard and also working flexibly as well.
So actually, the big thing, the initiative we kicked off pretty early on in 2020, was our future of work initiative. And that again, believing in the importance of expertise ourselves, we began a project with AWA to help support the future of work initiative.
Now this involved setting up several work streams to really support the ever-changing world we found ourselves in. If you're interested, I can talk you through those six different work streams and share that because they really brought about big changes in the business and the way we were operating as a global business.
00:08:28 Karen Plum
Yes absolutely. And when was all this kicking off Liz?
00:08:32 Liz Westcott
It was after we’d got everybody working from home settled into the new world, and realizing this was here to stay for quite some time, we began the future of work project in June 2020.
00:08:44 Karen Plum
Right, OK, so a few months into the pandemic then yeah. No grass growing under your feet then!
00:08:49 Liz Westcott
No there was no, none whatsoever, no, absolutely. So I think yeah, there were six key areas, so communication was a really important part. Communicating to everybody around the business on a fortnightly basis, actually running company presentations and town halls, giving people the opportunities to submit questions and just keep that communication flowing throughout the whole business, was really important.
And we also launched a brand new Intranet during that time. So Mintel Connect was set up - something that we didn't actually have in the business before - and again providing that communication hub for all of our employees to be able to get access to all of the resources. Being at home and not being able to ask your neighbor in the office where to find certain documentation or resource.
00:09:38 Karen Plum
So it gave people much easier access to that information, yeah?
00:09:41 Liz Westcott
Yes, absolutely. Technology, I guess, was another area, another key workstream for us and we were lucky in that we were pretty agile pre pandemic with everybody set up with laptops. We had Zoom already as a tool that we used but our IT team worked extremely hard to make sure everybody could collaborate. So we brought in some new tools into the business again to help with collaboration as well.
00:10:06 Karen Plum
But into a community who were already quite used to using those sorts of tools, so it wasn't a big shift for them.
00:10:14 Liz Westcott
No, no, absolutely. I think the third area of focus - I've touched on earlier on - was all around wellness. The early days of the pandemic were really focused on connection and making sure that people were looking after themselves.
So we put more resources into our employee wellness and kind of expanded that ownership for wellness outside of the HR function in the organization. It was an initiative that had started off actually over in America in 2019, and a small committee had set up to support wellness over in our Americas business and with our future of work working group, we were talking through how can we provide extra support to all of our 1,200 people?
We decided that Mintel Wellness was an important part of the business that we really need to put focus on. So we set up global Wellness committee, with leaders in each region of the world. Very much employee driven with our support.
Rick Miller, who is our Director of Specialist Nutrition here in London, is going to tell you a little bit more about what we did with Mintel Wellness and how that helped to support all of our teams around the world during the pandemic.
00:11:33 Rick Miller
The focus of wellness was to be a central information hub to empower employees on wellness events, tips, social groups and more. All centered around the four core pillars that reflected wellness - mindfulness, nutrition, fitness and work life balance.
I was privileged to lead the Wellness Committee as its chair in its inception, and I took the opportunity to gather up a committee of champions to lead the four pillars individually.
The Wellness team led all sorts of exciting remote events during the lockdown era of 2020, such as a Europe and Middle East and Africa wide step-challenge that we used smartphones or fitness and wearable watches to track steps in collaboration with our life insurance partner New Life.
Now this really brought out a friendly competitive spirit amongst our employees. As teams got together and they attempted to collectively complete walking trails from around the world by logging their individual step count. And by the end of 21 days the winning team had amassed a colossal 1.75 million steps, which is an average of about 25,000 steps per day - so double the Chief Medical Officer's recommendation of around 10,000 steps per day.
Now as the restrictions started to ease both hybrid and in person events became an option again, and we took this opportunity to springboard into more hybrid events - a combination of in person and live Zoom broadcasts. We had all sorts of things - there were hugely popular talks delivered by a mental health advocate and performance coach and former employee at Mintel, a Mr James Pickles.
We took the bold step to allow anonymized comments to be posted throughout those talks by James, using an instant messaging platform called Slido.
We had such hugely positive feedback on James’s involvement that we've now actually integrated James’s expertise into our mental health improvement program. And now we have plans to revitalize our mental health first aiders team, as well as promote a more inclusive culture of just talking about mental health at Mintel, with employees from day one when they come in.
But Wellness has done so much more than just put on fun and thought provoking events. It’s really sparked a total revision of, you know, Mintel’s approach to mental wellbeing, and this actually created a panel of mental health first aiders who are familiar faces from all across the company at all different levels.
But the crucial part is that they've all completed training in mental health first aid, and this acts as a vital conduit for helping employees to get help, either individually, or as a group, or just have a conversation with someone trained to listen, which is very important.
The Committee for the wellbeing initiative now collaborates with other global offices at Mintel around the world such as Asia Pacific and also the US. And they also have their own Wellness committees. And there are plans to do much more global events.
So I can say really with hand on heart that despite the difficulties and the trauma of the pandemic, Mintel Wellness really has made wellbeing even more of a priority for us, and we're already seeing the benefits.
00:15:06 Karen Plum
It's become such an important aspect, hasn't it? I mean, this two years of really difficult times for people has really put a focus particularly on mental wellbeing, and I wonder whether you feel it's a differentiator for you as a business now, in terms of your employee proposition and a demonstration of the way you look after people.
00:15:28 Liz Westcott
We've got many new people joining our business and it's a fabulous way for those new people joining us, that don't have the relationships that we've all benefited from for many, many years in the organization, it's a fabulous way for them to come in, know that wellness is on our agenda, know that it's really important, and also an opportunity for them to get to know other people within the business as well.
So the things that we would have expected to naturally happen with relationship building pre pandemic, we now have to put much greater emphasis on enabling that, and Mintel Wellness has certainly allowed us to do that.
00:16:08 Karen Plum
And it demonstrates when you say you're a people centric business, it's a, it's a big flag, isn't it, to say - and this is how it manifests itself.
So what's next?
00:16:18 Liz Westcott
OK, so what's next? So big fourth area all around flexible working. So going back to those surveys that we ran around the world, the benefits we could see coming from all of our teams, around the benefits of flexible working. So we of course began introducing more and more flexibility into the way we operated throughout those two years that have just gone by.
This has been a real catalyst actually, has really pushed us forward. And again, thinking of new people joining the business, speaking to our recruiters, these are questions that talented people are asking about. the way life is at Mintel. People want to know what the flexible setup is.
In the summer last year we tested ‘weekend jumpstarts’ and what weekend jumpstarts are is, if you would like to start your weekend earlier, you could choose to work that extra hour Monday to Thursday and finish your day on Friday lunchtime. You don't have to do it the option is simply there.
We've seen that our businesses continue to thrive during the pandemic, and we see how amazing and wonderful all of our teams are around the world and that trust in allowing people to have those choices about the hours they work, as long as we're achieving our results, that's fabulous. And giving people that power to run those days as they need to.
00:17:42 Karen Plum
Super, so what's the next on your list?
00:17:45 Liz Westcott
Next on the list, thinking about big changes that happened in our world over the last two years, I think there has been an increased awareness and understanding around the importance of a clear diversity strategy in organisations.
We actually introduced our new diversity strategy during the pandemic and created a new role in our organization, Global Diversity Manager, and I've asked Adiat Baker who is our Global Diversity Manager, just to talk a little bit more about what we did.
00:18:21 Adiat Baker
It's pretty safe to say that the pandemic has had a tremendous impact on the business over the last two years. Needless to say, the pandemic brought the lives of so many of us to complete halt, we were forced to stop in our tracks. It was definitely a time of introspection and reflection.
Now, with that being said, George Floyd's murder in the US and the aftermath resulting in civil unrest, was just the beginning of a chain reaction of events to occur across the globe. At that time, what started as an organization genuinely being concerned about the welfare of their employees needs, as Liz mentioned earlier, Mintel has always been a people centric business. But that genuine concern turned into a full-fledged effort and strategy from Mintel to become more diverse, equitable and inclusive.
I would say that ultimately being at home sans of normal activities and distractions forced a lot of us to think about the place our world had become, to think about our place in the world and how we could make a difference.
People talked more. People listened more. People were more thoughtful and ready to come up with solutions. And Mintel leveraged that opportunity to not only look inward as an organization, but we encouraged our employees to do the same.
So in October 2020, we launched the idea of creating employee resource groups [ERGs] which are voluntary, employee led groups, to really serve primarily as safe spaces and professional or personal resources for underrepresented employees throughout the organization.
Secondarily, Mintel intended to leverage those voices from those groups to make recommendations to the business, to enable us to be a more inclusive place to work. Now this was a very large undertaking in a virtual environment, but by February 2021 we had three ERGs globally, one in each region - the Americas, EMEA, and the Asia Pacific. And within a year we now have a total of 6 ERGs globally.
Again, in this mostly virtual or hybrid environment, depending on where you are in the world, the creation of these ERGs has been imperative in fostering a genuine sense of community within our business. The groups host a combination of virtual and in person meetings, events, professional development workshops and fund-raising activities to support those in need.
So not only have we become a better, or an even better Mintel, as individuals, we've become better people and closer to one another in the process.
00:21:11 Liz Westcott
Thank you Adiat, amazing changes through Mintel diversity. One of the things we've just celebrated as business recently is International Women's Day, as it's the anniversary of our women in business ERG, here in the European region. And some of the wins that we've seen from the ERG, has been the fact that we've created a community of women in business at Mintel, who worked on areas such as creating personal development plans to help them with their career growth and development.
And I know many, many of our colleagues are really, really proud of that and are taking it to help them and support them as they develop their careers.
00:21:45 Karen Plum
And very encouraging that all of this has been done in such a trying period. It sends a very clear message to people, doesn't it, about how important they are and how important their voices are?
00:21:56 Liz Westcott
Absolutely, and we're running our business at the same time, whilst all of this is happening as well! So it has made it a very, very intense couple of years but has really brought us forward as a business as well.
00:22:08 Karen Plum
Liz, would you like to tell us your final initiative?
00:22:11 Liz Westcott
Yes, absolutely, so really preparing for the future and coming out of a 100% remote virtual way of working and preparing for our hybrid way of working. As a business, we always felt strongly about the fact that we didn't want to be 100% remote, because of the importance of people, relationships, collaboration and innovation within our organization.
So we’re really taking that blended approach under this workstream, that combination of working from home, working from the office, potentially working from third spaces as well, to enable people to collaborate.
We began working through it slowly and carefully and made sure everybody felt safe and comfortable. So we’d introduced flexible start times, we staggered that return to the office for people, helping people kind of ease their way back into coming into the office again. All sorts of things.
We actually installed a new state of the art air conditioning filtration system in our head office in London. Took advantage of people being away from the office to be able to make those renovations, which again was very very reassuring for people coming in. And then all of the different sanitization initiatives - temperature checks and controls so people felt it was a safe place to be.
We started off with skeleton staff and then built up from there and what that workstream ended up designing was a system that we trialed initially last year but actually seems to be working really well.
It's a system of anchor days enabling people to have one anchor day in the office, that's your fixed anchor day with your team, to make sure people can connect directly with the team, with those direct colleagues they work with. And then to choose the other days that work for them when they wish to come into the office.
We brought in some new tech to enable people to see who's in the office on different days so they can book their desks near the teams they need to collaborate with. But rather than force people in on certain days, just give them that anchor. And it worked really well. Again, we checked in with people, we got feedback from people. People adapted to it really really well and kind of that anchor day principle seems to be going really well still and then giving people that freedom and flexibility to choose the other days that they do come into the office.
Interestingly enough, an awful lot of our new starters want to be in the office more than one or two days a week. We're finding that they like to be in three days a week, 'cause they're building relationships with people, they're getting to know the business. So that flexibility is there for people to choose how often they want to be physically in the office or work from home.
It's a lot to monitor. It's a lot to plan for, but I think going in with the test it, try it, listen to feedback and continue to develop and evolve I think that's been our approach, constantly communicating around that as well.
00:25:09 Karen Plum
Sounds like you've come a long way, and maybe from a different starting point than a lot of organisations. But if you were advising somebody who perhaps hasn't grappled with some of the issues that you have, or has been ducking them, how would you advise people on ways to get started?
00:25:26 Liz Westcott
OK, in my view the future, it's all about your people and the talent you attract into your business and the talent you retain in your business so that human element is absolutely important to make sure that your business performs.
There are probably three big things to keep in mind in my view.
Communication. Communication is so, so important. It feels intense, but it's so important that people know what's happening, they understand what decisions are being taken, that they understand what changes are happening and that they know that we're listening to them, and we're giving that feedback back to the business as well.
I think our teams have valued that so much and you can never communicate enough in my mind. I think the listening is absolutely important as well. Employees all over the world have been fantastic through the pandemic. Keep asking for feedback. Keep listening and keep communicating, you know what actions you're taking on the back of that feedback as well.
So gather that research. We carried out our own research internally during the pandemic, but we've also used an external survey company to help us benchmark ourselves against the industry and really keep ourselves straight and understand how are we performing as an employer.
And that's really important to make sure that we're doing the right things, to keep attracting the right talent into the organization as well.
And finally, I guess the last bit is - seek expertise. You can't have all the answers. We partnered with AWA during the pandemic to help us set up our working groups. This was new to us as well, so seeking that expertise to help you get those frameworks in place and get those working groups and those initiatives in place like that was really valuable as well.
So absolutely I would say communication, listening and seeking expertise and involvement is really important.
00:27:20 Karen Plum
Fantastic, well, I think that's excellent advice and Liz, thank you very much for sharing your journey, how you've changed your world of work over the last couple of years and even before that, it's fascinating to hear about it from you. Thank you for taking the time to come on the podcast.
00:27:36 Liz Westcott
Thank you Karen, it's been a pleasure.
00:27:39 Karen Plum
And that's it for this episode. My thanks to Liz and to Rick and Adiat for contributing their perspectives on wellness and diversity.
Each organization was in a different position before the pandemic, but there's plenty we can learn to help us create a better future of work in our business.
CLOSE: Thank you for listening to this episode of the Changing the World of Work podcast. Please follow or like the show so you don't miss any of our content. You can find more information on this episode in our show notes, including a link to the AWA website, if you'd like to know more about us. Hope to see you next time. Goodbye.