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“By demonstrating we care, colleagues have paid us back ten-fold with their passion and commitment” – Orlagh Hunt, YBS

11 June 2020

Story by
Sarah Rice


Banks and building societies have been at a different kind of frontline dealing with the national response to C-19 – but what has that meant for employees, and how is HR supporting the process?

Here, in an exclusive Q&A with The HR World Orlagh Hunt, Chief People Officer at Yorkshire Building Society (YBS) outlines the strategy, delivery and impact of efforts to keep their people well and come out the other side of lockdown stronger, with customer service intact. The actions taken have resulted in employee engagement levels increasing significantly and stronger bonds between leaders and their people and between employees and customers. 

The HR World (HRW): Orlagh, thanks very much for taking the time to speak with us as we head out of lockdown – the start of which may feel a long time ago now. Can you take us back to the beginning of your own experience at YBS and run though what happened in the organisation?

Orlagh Hunt (OH): As the situation started to unfold, we, like all organisations, were shaken by the experience. It just felt like a nightmare and it raised so many questions for our people, for our customers, for our business and for society as a whole. Looking back, I think the most impactful decision we took as a leadership team at YBS was to set out two clear priorities, which went on to act as a lens through which we made our business decisions:

  • 1) To protect colleague and customer wellbeing
  • 2) To maintain critical customer services. There is no question in my mind that this priority helped steer us through the challenges that lay ahead. It’s not always easy to have such a laser-like focus in business and to get everyone aligned quickly, but we achieved that in this instance and it’s a learning we will take forward for sure.

HRW: What did this mean in practical terms and how quickly did you manage to put things in place?

OH: As you’d imagine, the initial vital changes we made were around social distancing and protecting vulnerable colleagues. We adapted branch opening hours and introduced restrictions on travel in early March. We moved from working across three sites to across seven sites and to help with that and we made working from home the norm for non-key workers. Due to the increased requirement for colleagues to work from home, we increased our investment in our wide area network (WAN). Our people have adapted so well, and we’ve seen productivity actually increase in many cases. We’ve always been keen to promote flexible working at YBS, but this experience has accelerated the whole thing beyond recognition. Helping more colleagues maximise the benefits of flexible working is going to be an ongoing priority for us and is definitely one of the silver linings to come from this whole experience. 

HRW: There can be no question that the most immediate fear after health concerns is job security. How did you manage that?

OH: Yes, this was one of the first conversations we had. Due to our strong financial position and care for our people, we were able to confirm there were no plans to furlough any of our teams, and no redundancies anticipated as a result of the impact of Covid-19. Taking away this immediate worry for our people meant a lot to our employees and the other advantage was that they were then better placed to focus on helping customers, many of whom were clearly experiencing significant financial difficulties and worries themselves.

HRW: Which leads on to the bigger picture of mental health and wellbeing. How has this featured in your thinking?

OH: This has been front and centre of our thinking and communications right from day one. For example, we have set up a Coronavirus hub jam-packed with wellbeing and engagement resources we’ve created to help them, and their teams, stay centred.  Working with BUPA and Unmind, we have shared lots of cool stuff such as podcasts on managing stress, improving sleep along with Covid-19 and your finances. One nice touch was we got one of our employees in Bradford who is a qualified yoga instructor to create an exercise video for our people to follow.

We leveraged our team of in-house mental health first aiders and we offered every single one of our 3,500 employees the chance to have a confidential ‘Covid drop-in’ session with an expert coach to help them process their thoughts and feelings and move forward. We know how helpful it is to talk and we appreciate that sometimes it’s easier to chat to someone you don’t know as you might be able to open up a bit more.

HRW: How has communication played a role in this programme?

OH: We seriously upped the ante on communications with people leaders as we see them as the most powerful communication channel we have. We held regular calls with them to check in and share with them what was going on and through our engagement masterclasses, we showcased what different leaders were doing to engage their teams through Covid. In terms of all-employee communications, we kept things human and engaging, sharing personal videos of how people were dealing with the crisis, including a great one from our team in Scotland called #Spreadlovenotgerms. We created personal blogs that reflected colleague sentiment and we made it ok for people to say when they were not feeling ok. We treated people like human beings not ‘human doings’ and we faced into the difficulties they were grappling with rather than sweep them under the carpet. We were flexible to help them juggle work with their home lives and we showed compassion at all times without losing sight of what needed to get done. By demonstrating trust and that we care, they’ve paid us back ten-fold with their passion and commitment.

HRW: Impressive work. What has the impact been?

OH: We carried out an engagement survey temperature check opened for two weeks from 23rd March to 3rd April and we have managed to increase engagement by 0.7 from 7.4 to 8.1. It has moved us from below average within Financial Services to Upper Quartile in six months. The next challenge is to sustain that of course but, for me, what’s amazing is that despite all the disruption and challenges C-19 has brought, we’ve actually managed to pull together and radically improve engagement. I think that’s pretty phenomenal really.

HRW: And what has your own experience been during this time?

OH:  Like everyone who is juggling a busy job with home schooling, life has been a rollercoaster, or a ‘Coronacoaster’ as I think they now call it!  I noticed that when the sun was shining, my ability to deal with the lockdown challenges increased and it decreased when the clouds and rain came along. What I did though was step up my self-care regime to help me stay sane – things like exercise and mindfulness. I focused on being in the moment and not looking too far ahead and I reduced my intake of social media as all that negativity and scaremongering wasn’t doing anything for my own personal mental health.

On a work front, I can’t begin to tell you just how proud I am of all our colleagues, who have been working tirelessly to provide the very best service possible under incredible stress and fast-moving problems to solve.

I am a huge advocate of employee engagement and I have a bit of an allergic reaction to companies who see engagement as a survey followed by some token actions. What we managed to do here was apply the principles of engagement – things like showing trust, compassion, giving people a voice… and we applied them to how we tackled arguably the biggest challenge we’re ever going to face in our working lifetimes. And it’s already showing positive results. That for me is the true power of engagement and I look forward to really building on this over the coming months and years. We’re a business with big ambitions and what this whole thing has shown me is that we have the people to help make them a reality.



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