The DNA of Work

Where are you going?

January 11, 2022 Season 1 Episode 18
The DNA of Work
Where are you going?
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

To kick off 2022, we share one organisation’s ongoing journey to establish a hybrid way of working. The British Heart Foundation (BHF) is a major UK charity and has been a much valued AWA client over the years. Executive Director of People & Organisational Development Kerry Smith and Head of Organisational Change Sarah Cousins share their story – from before the pandemic hit in 2020, to their plans and expectations for 2022. 

Covid-19 has, as for many organisations, changed the way BHF operates, how it raises funding to support its research and how it runs its retail operations. Mirroring these changes, its way of working has also significantly changed – fundamentally through embracing transparency, honesty and involving staff in planning the future way of working. The challenges of the pandemic to people’s wellbeing, mental health and sense of certainty have created a much greater awareness of what their community need. People are at the heart of everything – even more so than before. 

 Our guests discuss their “flexibly connected” programme; the creation of working together agreements; how they are supporting managers to consolidate the skills they need to manage hybrid teams; the evolution of blended location employment contracts; and their move into a new, smaller office, which has 50% less desks and is organised around activities, not neighbourhoods. 

So much has changed since March 2020 - so much of it for the better!

AWA Host: Karen Plum

Featured guests: 

 British Heart Foundation website: 

BHF’s new office: A “walk-through” was commissioned to help colleagues feel part of it, to understand the space and find their way around. It’s generating excitement about the new modern, cutting edge office and encouraging people to come back when the time is right. 



AWA contact: Andrew Mawson  

Advanced Workplace Associates:     


AWI contact:  Brad Taylor 

Advanced Workplace Institute

Music: courtesy of  

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00:00:03 Karen Plum

Hello everyone and welcome to our first episode of 2022, where we explore how one organization is adapting to the challenges of operating in a COVID world and is changing their world of work through adopting a collaborative, transparent, honest approach with their people - setting frameworks within which they can agree and commit to ways of working that work for them and their teams. It's an inspiring story and it's still unfolding, so let's get started. 

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. 

00:00:59 Karen Plum

In this episode I'm joined by two guests from the British Heart Foundation to talk about their journey to change the way they work. I'm delighted to welcome Kerry Smith, Executive Director of People and Organizational Development - hello Kerry. 

00:01:13 Kerry Smith

Hello Karen, nice to be here. 

00:01:16 Karen Plum

And Head of Organizational Change, Sarah Cousins - hello Sarah. 

00:01:20 Sarah Cousins

Hi Karen, thanks so much for having me here today. 

00:01:22 Karen Plum

It's great to see you both. To start us off, could you tell us a little about the British Heart Foundation, Kerry? 

00:01:29 Kerry Smith

Yes! British Heart Foundation is the largest independent funder of heart and circulatory disease research in the UK. We fund science and research on all aspects of the heart, including other impacting conditions like diabetes, stroke and vascular dementia. It is in the region of £100 million each year that we fund into conditions to save and improve the lives of the 7 million people suffering with heart and circulatory diseases in the UK.

We’re entirely independently funded, which means that we have to raise our own money to fund our research through fund raising activities and events, things like London to Brighton cycle ride, we are going to be the headline charity for the London Marathon this year. 

But it's also our retail operations. We are the largest charity retailer in the UK - actually, the second largest in the world. So we have virtually a shop on every UK High Street and we take pride in this and we take pride in the fact that we save 75 tons of waste going into landfill every year and rely very much on our customers to support the BHF by buying pre-loved goods. 

So we're very proud of what we're doing within our retail. We employ around 4,000 staff and we are supported by up to 20,000 volunteers. And we have different offices in different cities, Birmingham, Northampton, we have an office in Surrey and our largest office is our central office in London, which happens to be in Camden. 

00:03:11 Karen Plum

So this is a big operation, isn't it? And I know your shops very well. I've donated to them and bought from them and they're very well run and have fantastic stock! So as you say, it stops things from ending up in landfill, so that's wonderful.

So as a result of the pandemic, it must have had an impact on your ability to fundraise in the way that you were doing before and in the way you talk about the London to Brighton cycle ride and whatever. Has your fundraising changed in a fundamental way as a result of what's been going on the last couple of years?

00:03:48 Kerry Smith

Absolutely. The pandemic has had a huge impact on us. Traditional ways for us to fundraise have been really directly affected. Our shops and stores, for example, were closed for over 3 months. This time last year we were in lockdown and in 2020 many months about the year where our shops and stores were closed.

And our income was badly affected and we had to make quite a lot of changes in 2020 in order to survive. However, I believe we have come back with a bang, particularly as you mentioned our fundraising activities. We've really had to - I love this word - pivot our fundraising activities to be more digital and online, and we've relied very much on the generosity of the public to get behind some of these campaigns like “MyMarathon”, doing your own virtual exercise and runs to raise money, cycle rides and that sort of thing. 

But also within our shops and stores, we've been able to really enhance a digital first approach and enable our shops and stores to operate more effectively in a digital way. For example, we were already one of the largest online charity retailers through eBay. We really maximised this and been able to ensure that stock that comes through our shops and stores instead of being sent to our eBay warehouse can now be digitally uploaded from that individual shop and store. 

Which means that the items go directly to the customer much faster and we cut out some of those transportation costs as well. And I'm pleased to say that our fundraisers have been amazingly innovative and last year they were able to exceed their predicted income and our retail in 2021 has beaten its budget targets. 

I think the pandemic has accelerated our shift to being digital first, not only through our fundraising and income generating activities, but also the way that we operate, with our training and our learning and development opportunities, these have all pivoted to be e-learning, and it's been very well received and the take up has been really high. 

And like everyone, all our research meetings that we have where we decide where the money is spent, where we're going to fund cardiovascular, heart and circulatory disease research, that is usually held in big meeting rooms with researchers and professors from around the UK, sometimes around the globe and these are all now held virtually, and they're able to make those all important decisions without any impact on the research that we need to do. 

And that's been really important for us, because with COVID, we've needed to divert some of our research into the impacts of COVID on heart and circulatory disease. So it's been important we've been able to maintain that through digital means as well. 

00:06:51 Karen Plum

Yes, it is amazing how many positives you can take out of this period. It has accelerated so much, and particularly in terms of the ways of working, which we will talk about in a moment. 

For our listeners, if anyone is interested in learning more about the work of the British Heart Foundation, there is a link in our show notes to their website where you can find details of shops if you happen to be in the UK and all of the exciting research that they're doing and lots more besides - if you’re interested in helping them to raise more funds to support their operation. 

So let's talk about how you're working and to set the context, what was normal before March 2020? Where were people normally working? Were they in-office or were they already remote? What was going on? 

00:07:42 Kerry Smith

Well, we have a very diverse workforce at the British Heart Foundation in terms of what we do and how we work. As well as having about 3,000 staff in shops and stores, we also have field workers, home workers and of course office workers. Before 2020, our office workers were agile to varying degrees - some people tended to work from home, but the majority actually worked in our offices - spent all of their time there and that was the routine - the rhythm and routine of the BHF. 

00:08:17 Karen Plum

Right, OK. So when the balloon went up in March 2020 and everyone was sent home to work - there was no time or very little time to prepare and I was wondering whether you implemented any specific change management or support to help staff to adapt and to manage in the new way of working and how quickly you did that. 

00:08:39 Kerry Smith

We were fortunate in that we had already moved to Microsoft Teams - so laptops for everyone, shared desks, software for Office 365 already implemented and being used. So everyone had the ability to work from home who was office based. 

However, it was a huge change for people in this way, and without the usual connections and contacts, it directly impacted what really was a social fabric of the workplace. So we put our people very much at the heart of our concern. We put a lot of emphasis on our communications. 

We've had very regular COVID updates depending upon what was required at the time, and we've got great staff feedback about that, about how valued they felt themselves. We focused on staff wellbeing which included people’s mental health, such as employee assistance program and our mental health ambassadors as well as practical help in ensuring that people had the equipment they needed to work safely from home. 

We provided learning opportunities to help people cope with the changes that were happening, so - leading through change, coping with uncertainty, as well as resources to help people look at their whole wellbeing, such as, exercising regularly and eating well and avoiding burnout. 

We also ran something that we're really proud of and still runs today, which is what we call ‘random coffee’ chats. So this was a way to connect with people, talk to people you wouldn't ordinary talk to and really kind of replace in a virtual way, replace those water cooler moments where you bump into people serendipitously. So it was an opportunity to give that and they are very successful - still running today. 

00:10:28 Karen Plum

I remember you talking on a webinar that we ran last year about the lockdown period being a great leveler. Do you think you're still reaping the benefits of that time? 

00:10:39 Kerry Smith

Yes, I think COVID has made a permanent change for the better in that colleagues have got to know each other on a more personal level and that appreciation for our circumstances and our wellbeing has become top of mind. And it is this greater awareness and inclusivity that we have built on actually over the year, we've asked people how they want to work, what has worked well for them, and what has worked less well. 

And this told us that 83% of our people wanted to work in a hybrid way coming out of locked down situations. People, particularly with circumstances at home, caring, home, schooling, disabilities, or just personal preferences, people are telling us that they would prefer to work in a more hybrid way. This insight was key actually to introducing our Flexibly Connected program in 2021, which is our hybrid way of working, and allowed us to introduce much more flexible and inclusive way of working for all our office community.

Fundamental to Flexibly Connected is helping to support people’s work life balance and wellbeing and supporting them to do the best work for the BHF. One of the key building blocks of Flexibly Connected was introducing a new blended working style base for people to work both in an office and from home, allowing them to balance their work and home life. 

We have varied peoples’ terms and conditions now to offer dual locations as a result. It's been a great opportunity for us to respond to what our people have asked from us. 

00:12:21 Karen Plum

That's a really interesting development, and we're going to talk about it in some more depth after we've had a quick break for this message. 


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00:13:27 Karen Plum

Welcome back. Kerry, you mentioned last year that the leadership at BHF were feeling like they didn't have all the answers and of course leaders are usually in a position of being very decisive and very directive and providing leadership. 

But there was a lot of uncertainty and ambiguity because of the nature of how the pandemic was progressing. And I know that you spoke about the need for transparency about the decisions that were being considered, and I think that led to the questioning of staff about what they were looking for. 

We heard many leaders over last year saying similar things, but then they started to say, well, we can't keep saying that there's ambiguity and uncertainty - we've got to start making some decisions at some point. Did that happen at BHF? 

00:14:18 Kerry Smith

Well, we have continued to have ambiguity, and we've continued to be transparent about it. Monthly town halls with our senior leadership community, town halls with all our colleagues to share how we're doing, the challenges that we continue to face, responding to colleagues’ questions as best we can, and admitting when we don't know the answers, this has been really important, actually, as we have together navigated the COVID challenges and the impacts on the organization. 

But also, as we have celebrated our successes. This year, we've seen successes we've been rebuilding the organization together and following the massive impacts that we experienced last year to our income streams. So to be able to share that and talk about that and respond to questions around that, it's really been fundamental for us as we continue to lead and navigate through what's continued to be a challenging year.

We have been very keen to involve people - that's been critical for us. Engaging with our people, ensuring that they get every opportunity to share their views and insights, whether it's surveys or conversations, and most recently, our champions through the workplace redesign work, have been fundamental actually to giving us feedback, and it's a really good example of dealing with ambiguity whilst being transparent and helping us to make some important decisions.

We didn't know until June that there was a possibility that we were going to move offices and downsize. We were very transparent about the move, informing our people the minute it became a possibility. And we needed to move into the new space by November - so within six months. We invited people to work with us on the move, helping to design a new and inclusive space for our new way of working. 

We involved over 40 champions in the details and the design of our new hybrid office space and they've really worked with us to help through all the uncertainty that an office move presents, with people's anxieties and worries about what that might offer. 

As a result, we now feel really set up for a future focused workplace that sets us up for the new world of working, and I think pretty much sets us apart from others as a result of that high level of engagement that we've had from our people. 

00:16:50 Karen Plum

Yes, there's a lot more participation going on, and a lot more involvement. I guess people feel consulted and listened to which you know, we do a lot of consultation, we do a lot of surveys often, don't we, but we don't necessarily always demonstrate that we've listened to the answers. 

So Kerry mentioned the Flexibly Connected program. I know she talked to us last year about dual location contracts, which is an interesting one for me - something that I hadn't heard about before. Have you actually implemented those contracts yet and if so, how did that go? Has it gone smoothly? 

00:17:28 Sarah Cousins

Yes, absolutely. So yes we have issued those contract change letters now - we issued those towards the end of last year and they've just come into effect on the 1st of January this year. We’re at about 97% acceptance so we've got now nearly total acceptance of those new terms and conditions. 

In terms of how we introduced that change, I think for us it wasn't just about those new contracts it was about introducing all of the new hybrid ways of working because of the kind of fundamental nature of where and how people are working, we wanted to deliver change through our managers. So we actually asked our managers to be responsible for leading that change with their teams. 

So we've supported them to hold conversations with their teams about the benefits of Flexibly Connected - the working styles, including that new blended working style, and now they're working through how that might actually work in practice, within their team, and between the different teams, and they're bringing that together in what we're calling a team agreement, so that's the sort of documentation of what their new ways of working will be. 

So we have left that for teams to work out for themselves, giving them that responsibility. We have given them some guidance - we worked on a working together charter with our champions and that's given us some principles, but then each team is working out what's best for the individuals in their team, what's best for the team overall and what's best for BHF within that framework?

And I would say it has gone incredibly smoothly. We hadn't done this before, and so we didn't know entirely what to expect. But the vast majority of our office workers, so around 95% were able to move quickly onto that blended working style and then we worked through other, more complicated situations where maybe people needed to go onto a different type of contract, but we've had fewer of those really than we could have done and the overall shape of working styles for us was as we were expecting and hoping for. So we have over 70% of our staff outside shops and stores who are now on that blended working style. The only people we have remaining on office contracts which is less than 4% of our staff, they are only on those office contracts 'cause they do physically need to be in the office to do their job. 

So I think people have really understood that blended working style. We've had a lot of positive feedback and it has been really welcomed by our people. And we do still need to test it, and so we'll be working with our champions over the coming months to sort of test and learn. We know it's not job done yet. We actually have to make this change in practice, so we've obviously had all these restrictions that we still haven't been able to completely get back into the office and test that hybrid way of working, but that's kind of where the hard work really starts this year when we start testing it out. 

00:20:47 Karen Plum

Yes, interesting - clearly you didn't make a unilateral change at people's terms and conditions, you were doing it on a person by person basis. 

We had an employment lawyer on the podcast at the back end of last year who was talking about when it's right to make changes to terms and conditions and the importance of perhaps not rushing into that. And without implying it in any way that you rushed into it, I was interested - what drove you down that particular road? 

00:21:16 Sarah Cousins

So I think that was about ensuring it was very clear that people were located both in their home and the office, so it is still very important to us at BHF that people do meet in person and come into the office and get the benefits that we know people get from that around connecting, collaborating, socializing and all of that, and we really kind of wanted to make that statement. 

But at the same time we know people have got a lot of benefits from working from home - the benefits to their work life balance and their wellbeing, and even kind of focused working at home. So it was just a kind of clear marker and gave people that kind of clarity and certainty that they were looking for. 

I think people were really asking for that certainty, and in this time of uncertainty we were able to give them that and I think we were really keen that we gave them that towards the back end of last year - but having given them time to really digest and discuss first, but then kind of give them that - and I think people have appreciated that it's kind of in their terms and conditions now that they will have that flexibility. 

00:22:25 Karen Plum

Yeah, and that's important to them, that's really interesting. 

Kerry mentioned your plans about the new office space. You've downsized, based on all this great information that you got from the staff who expressed their desire to spend more time working away from the office. So was that move straightforward, and what change management did you put in place? 

00:22:48 Sarah Cousins

Well, I think Karen for us this piece of work has been transformational. So you know, we started the year, we were reimagining our workplaces, we were using this feedback to developing this approach to hybrid working, which was kind of mutually beneficial for individuals and teams and the organization, we weren't gonna have this set numbers of days to be in the office.

And then this opportunity came along too to move offices. And I think not only was it an opportunity to save money and downsize and not be paying so much for our property, but it also gave us this opportunity to create this innovative and physical space that demonstrated hybrid working in action. So we've been able to take out over 50% of our desks, we've created innovative hybrid working areas, we've created collaboration spaces, virtual meeting booths and we’ve done all that with the involvement and buy-in of our people. 

So of course yes there was lots of change management that was wrapped around all of that. So we've talked about our champion group and they were really fundamental to the whole of the process. 

They helped us come up initially with some space design principles. So for example, they promoted the use of the space to collaborate and connect, or to promote our wellbeing. And those principles have guided us all the way through. They've helped us make design decisions, so for example, they were very keen on a cafe area and they told us that was essential and we have indeed 

00:24:29 Karen Plum

Good coffee. 

00:24:30 Sarah Cousins

Yeah, put some good coffee in, and a café area in there. They've also given us lots of practical help around clearing the office - so we have what we call ‘cut the clutter’ campaign and they have really helped us with that 'cause we didn't have lots of people in the office, but we were able to cut all of our paperwork, etc., and we've actually been able to reduce our storage needs by 66 percent which is huge for us. 

I think the biggest change that we've been working through is a move from neighborhoods where we grouped our teams together in the office, and now we've moved to activity zones, which means people choose where they're going to work in the office based on the type of work that they're going to do. So they might go and collaborate in a booth, or they might do focused work in a quiet zone. 

So I think that's one of the things that we will need to be testing out so we are moved in now - we're into the office, which is fantastic, but again, with the restrictions that are still there, we haven't really had the opportunity to make full use of it. 

So again, we will be doing lots of testing and learning in that space as we do get back into the office to make sure that we're getting the most from it. 

00:25:46 Karen Plum

Right, so when you say you've moved away from a neighborhood approach to an activity approach, does that mean that each team no longer has a spiritual home, or somewhere where they congregate? They literally will come in and go to an activity zone with other colleagues, perhaps from their team, if they're doing something together? Is that the way it works?

00:26:06 Sarah Cousins

Yes exactly yeah, so they will base it totally around the activity. But having said that, we're currently looking at a new booking, or in fact even with our current booking system you can see where your team are. So if you're working with another team, you could go and sit nearer them or you might see where your team are and decide you're going to sit with them that day, so it gives you much more flexibility to collaborate with whoever you need to. 

00:26:31 Karen Plum

Yes, and just going back to something that you said about supporting managers through those discussions they were having around terms and conditions and working together agreements and whatever, I remember Kerry speaking last year about the managers’ world being turned upside down. All the techniques that they'd relied on for years - now having to do things differently and then needing a lot of support. Where do you think you are on that journey now? Is that something that you're still having to work quite hard out? 

00:26:59 Kerry Smith

Yes, Karen, you're absolutely right and we very much focused on our managers and our leaders over the last 12 months or more. We've really listened to them and asked them what support they will need to lead and develop people in this very much changing world of work. 

We have development programs in place called for example, leading your Flexibly Connected team where we go into detail about the factors that might get in the way of hybrid working, what to be aware of and how to overcome them. Things like proximity bias and other unconscious biases. Also how to create an inclusive and collaborative team culture, virtual communication skills, how to plan and conduct effective blended meetings and how to create a high performing, Flexibly Connected team. 

But we're taking this a step further actually, and having defined what a modern BHF leader looks like, one that demonstrates our values, is comfortable with ambiguity, develops talent, and creates social cohesion. We're now providing a leadership development program starting in the spring and we’ll start actually with our executive team first and cascade through all our senior leadership community. And it's going to be fundamental 'cause we're taking a very holistic approach to this change, this new way of working. 

When we recruit people to be people managers, we recruit for a particular mindset. We look for people who recognize our values, are comfortable with change, comfortable with ambiguity, are agile, are prepared to experiment and try out new things and who want to create social cohesion through collaborative working. 

Because this is the world we are now living in and we need to embrace it. Managers who are inclusive and self-aware and probably managers who themselves are either wanting to work flexibly or demonstrate the value of flexible working, is what we need to have. 

00:29:05 Karen Plum

Yeah, I guess the pandemic has given us all of this new approach, which we probably would have evolved into over a period of time, but it's again back to something you said earlier Kerry, it's accelerated all of that. So, now we're at the start of a new year 2022, where do you think you're heading? 

00:29:24 Sarah Cousins

So I think for us it's going to be about landing Flexibly Connected if you like. So we talked about what we've already done this year and we’ve put a lot of the building blocks in place, a lot of the foundations, but as I've mentioned, we haven't actually had an opportunity to fully embrace Flexibly Connected yet.

We're still working in the main virtually. So I think this year it's about really embedding that and then, as we've talked about, experimenting, seeing how it goes, adapting and continuing with that agile approach that we've had to have over the last couple of years.

I really want to see us getting the benefits from that, working out how to best collaborate, how to innovate, how to work together and hopefully having a bit more in person connection that a lot of us have been craving. 

00:30:23 Karen Plum

Once COVID permits, yeah, indeed. Kerry, what about you? 

00:30:24 Sarah Cousins

Absolutely, absolutely. 

00:30:27 Kerry Smith

Yeah, 2022, well this way of working for me is here to stay and it will evolve in this increasingly challenging market for talent - I see flexibility as being the differentiator. It's highly prized, always has been, and will be the differentiator between employers. 

Working for an organization that gives flexibility, is working for an organization that is likely to be more supportive likely to be more inclusive and likely to care for its people, which all are the factors that generate high level satisfaction and productivity. 

So I would really like to have BHF demonstrating this USP on flexibility with leaders that know how to lead, nurture and develop people in this new hybrid world. Greater levels of collaboration as Sarah has discussed and thereby continuing to attract and retain top talent - talent that enables the BHF to not only generate millions of pounds in income each year, but enable that income to go to powering up our science that is saving the lives of millions of people around the world, not just the UK.

So 2022 - it's going to be a challenging yet exciting year ahead of us I reckon. 

00:31:42 Karen Plum

Well, absolutely, and it's been great to hear about your plans and about the journey. I think the word that comes to my mind is partnership. What you seem to be creating and really sustaining there is a partnership between all of those people that participated within the British Heart Foundation, which is a very inspiring story to hear and I look forward to hearing how things progress during 2022. Perhaps you'll come back later in the year and tell us how things are going. 

00:32:09 Kerry Smith

Very happy to. 

00:32:11 Karen Plum

So thank you very much to my guests Kerry and Sarah. Thank you for sharing everything with us today. 

00:32:17 Sarah Cousins

Great thanks Karen. 

00:32:18 Kerry Smith

Thanks very much Karen. 

00:32:20 Karen Plum

I hope you were inspired by Kerry and Sarah’s story. The pandemic has certainly changed our working lives. In some ways those changes have been negative, but many have been positive. It has certainly accelerated change and British Heart Foundation have put people at the heart of everything, where they belong. 

As we mentioned earlier, there are details about BHF in our show notes, including a link to a walkthrough of their office space which you might find interesting. 

We look forward to hearing more about BHF’s journey later in 2022, but for now that's it for this episode. 


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. 

Flexibly connected
Employment contracts - dual location
New, smaller office
Hybrid management skills