MEETING (by Zoom) 09.10.2020 with GRAHAM ATKINSON of Atkinson HR Consulting.
We are in mid-Covid – over half way through a year which has seen more disruption to business, health and economics that in anyone’s entire lifetime. Our rapid networking at the start of the meeting revealed that some of our members are now “extremely busy”: everybody’s IT needs mending or upgrading, while retailing household basics like vacuum cleaners has moved to 80% online. It was going to happen anyway, but at this month’s guest Graham Atkinson said, “We have had ten years squashed into 6 months – so far.”
Atkinson HR Consulting is based in Whaley Bridge, but with a UK wide reach. “In London we’d be called a boutique business,” Graham said. Graham was Director of People Governance and Performance at the National Union of Students, whose office was in Macclesfield. He and Laura his wife had often talked about having their own business, and got cracking four years ago.
Their unique selling points? Twofold. Firstly, they work with a wide range of organisations from The Scouts to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, all of which are “value based clients,” who genuinely want to be great employers. That could be anybody, but the basic principles are the same.
Secondly, their core product is the “Virtual HR Director”: the client pays a monthly retainer for three days per month, and gains regular coaching, training, and some project work. “The best employers avoid trouble by training their management to spot it and deal with it. That’s a continuous process, not a one-off, and we can do it for them.” Other projects can be tailor-made. It seems to work; many clients who came for one-off advice return for more.
An award-winning case study shows how they function. Durham Students’ Union represents 18,700 students at Durham University and had undergone a turbulent period over the last decade. Its financial position was unstable and it had been through three significant staffing restructures in the space of five years. A new Chief Executive was appointed, who engaged Atkinson HR Consulting to provide a Virtual HR Director service and bring a more proactive approach to people management and culture. The results: overall staff engagement rocketed from 46% to 90% and a large majority of staff (90%) said they believed the organisation cares about its employees – up from just 28%. Huge improvements were also seen in scores for communication, dignity at work and confidence in the organisation’s leadership.
So the project was submitted for last year’s CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) awards, made the short list, and somewhat to their surprise, became national winners. “Yes, it has certainly helped with credibility and reach,” he smiled.
Over the next few years they’re aiming to double turnover, so now they’re seeking to work with more sector bodies, like Hospices UK and the National Council for Voluntary Organisations (NCVO), which can recommend them to member organisations.
Then we got into some of how it’s done… how to keep your people happy and productive.
The first question to ask is, “WHY?” – why bother..? Well.. if employees are happy, they will go the extra mile for the business; they’ll bring added value to the operation. That’s widely understood now, but it was revolutionary not long ago. People are not just motivated by money or by fear; the secret is engagement. In Graham’s view the best text is by Dan Pink (Daniel L Pink’s DRIVE: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, published in 2009) in which is described “the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and the world”.
In order to do a good job, we all need three things: Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose.
Autonomy is the freedom and ability to do great work. That needs delegation, but also clear boundaries. Bosses should avoid micro-managing; that involves trust, but also giving employees a voice, and listening to them.
Mastery is at the heart of this model. To do a job well we need the right skills and competencies. The given is that most of us WANT to do good work, and with the right encouragement, we can learn how. Perhaps this is why so many employers express frustration with young graduates who over-estimate their skills and abilities. But they can learn, fast.
Purpose is the Golden Thread.. when President Jack Kennedy asked a janitor mopping the floor at NASA what he did, the man answered proudly, “I’m helping to put a man on the moon.” And of course he did; the man felt connected to the organisation’s ultimate purpose. To get to that mindset requires vision, leadership and clear goals for everyone.
It occurred to me that the opposites of these three magic words are frustration, incompetence and disengagement – “Nothing to do with me, mate.” If only Atkinson HR could be let loose on Track and Trace and a few other contributing parts of the fight against Covid. But that’s a personal viewpoint.
We discussed other challenges during the pandemic, such as the mental health crisis, with high levels of mental stress being exacerbated right now. “These problems were there before, but have been turbo-charged. It’s a hygiene problem – the question is how to keep the workforce safe, AND thriving,” was how our guest put it.
And finally – Graham repeated the offer made in the spring, and circulated to you all, that he is happy to offer some free advice. And I am happy to share the offer, and the firm’s details:
“There is a lot of uncertainty at the moment, and as a leader of a small organisation, you may have a number of questions and concerns about how to support your staff during this challenging period. We know what it’s like for small organisations facing challenges (we are one!) and recognise that at times like these, we need to pull together and help others wherever we can. Therefore, if you’re a small organisation and would like to discuss any concerns or questions with us relating to supporting staff during the pandemic, we’re happy to help, free of charge.
This could include signposting to some existing useful resources, sharing tools and templates, or simply providing you with advice and reassurance around home-working, communicating plans, maintaining performance, supporting absence, or ensuring staff wellbeing in the current context. We promise no follow-up marketing, email lists or sales pitches – just a free chat aimed around your organisation and how you can ensure your people continue to feel valued and supported through this difficult period. Please drop us a message if you’d like us to help, and feel free to share with others that you think might find this useful.”