As soon as we heard about NatWest’s hybrid framework, we knew we had to find out more about this. We’ve previously spoken to the Group Managing Director of Capital Business Media about their transition towards a hybrid working model. Seeing a media company transition to a flexible way of working seemed almost logical, but a financial institution was much more of a surprise.
Sam Bowerman is a People Director and has been with NatWest since 2003. Throughout most of her career, she has been working in HR roles and has a wealth of experience in managing teams. She shared some insights with us at Othership.
Anybody who has ever managed a team knows how hard it can be; hybrid work adds another layer of complexity, and many companies use this as an excuse to avoid flexible working policies. Not NatWest! The bank has approximately 60,000 employees, with the biggest populations in the UK and India. And yet, the way Sam Bowerman talks about their hybrid working reality and the transition towards this modern way of working, makes it all sound like a walk in the park.
Sam is rightly proud to tell us in the interview that NatWest has always had flexible working policies and she is convinced that the current ways we work would have happened eventually. The pandemic was merely an accelerator.
When the first lockdown came, the main focus was to enable their teams to work from home. Once everybody and everything was set up, NatWest used the lockdown times to carefully think about opportunities and the best model for a post-pandemic work environment.
How to transition towards a hybrid working model
In a truly agile way, Sam talked us through the different iterations and the first one was to place everybody in the organization into a group depending on their circumstances and requirements in the workplace. The result was the following 5 groups:
- Contact centres
- Operations teams
- Front-facing roles
- Knowledge workers
The latter would have been the most challenging one when it comes to flexible work because these employees were usually required in a specific location, for example, a branch or a data centre. Video banking introduced a lot more flexibility to a number of branch roles, but it did not remove the need for other roles to always be in a specific place.
One thing was also clear for NatWest right from the start: Their scaled, agile ways of working, regular get-togethers, culture and collaboration were not to suffer from a new working policy. In order to achieve that, the workplace had to become attractive enough for employees to want to come in regularly. At first, it might seem unachievable to combine flexibility with the requirement for collaboration and this is how “Freedom in a Framework” was born.
Freedom in a Framework
There are three core values Sam Bowerman mentions regularly throughout the interview: freedom, flexibility and social connection. All three come together in “Freedom in a Framework” where NatWest offers its employees not one, but multiple ways of working to balance the needs of customers with the needs of colleagues.
Once they had identified the 5 groups of employees, it was time to create personas. The job dictates where somebody would sit in the framework, but there are also personal circumstances. Somebody who can’t work from home well has the option to come to the office. Somebody who prefers to work from home can do so. Instead of one, there are three working policies: remote first, hybrid first and office first.
To ensure collaboration and social connection, there is a minimum number of days for everybody to be in the office. And it is, the team collaboration and social connection that is bringing people back to the office.
The employees that follow this approach are mostly in the group of knowledge workers. It is those people that can work from home and don’t need access to a specific workstation. Their laptop is enough to fulfil their jobs. In the office, they have a hot desk to work from.
Most of the employees in this group, spend up to 50% of their time in the office and 50% remote, but not necessarily at home. The remote time also includes client meetings in several locations. In the office, they have access to fixed desktops so they can access bank and customer systems.
The employees within the office first approach are mostly in the group of specialists whose job can’t be done anywhere else. In reality, they are not in an office, but in data centres, cash centres, trading centres or branches. Approximately 13% of NatWest employees are in this group.
Even in the office first approach, the definition of the workplace is hugely flexible. NatWest has regional offices with the main hubs in London, Edinburgh and Manchester and some community hubs, for example in Bristol and Cambridge. These are similar to a bank branch, but also form a place for employees to connect and for customers and the local community too. Sam Bowerman emphasizes how important it is for people to be a part of local networks. That’s why they hire event managers for their local hubs.
What Sam and NatWest noticed is that some employees are working more remotely than originally intended, this has driven a need to double the efforts in dialling up social connections. They also do staff surveys twice per year and the latest showed that 91% of staff believe they have the flexibility they need to manage their work and personal circumstances. Sam is proud of that result, but also says that it is not yet perfect, and they will continue to test, learn and iterate to refine “Freedom in a Framework”.
The benefits of a truly flexible approach
Sam Bowerman not only shared with us how they established their hybrid work model at NatWest, but she also talked us through the benefits the hybrid approach has brought.
NatWest has an above-average employee retention rate, even in a volatile market. Flexible working policies are a competitive advantage to hire the best talent and make their staff base even more inclusive and diverse.
The bank is committed to ensuring that flexibility and freedom are mentioned in their job descriptions. A flexible approach to work widens the pool of candidates and makes it more attractive for candidates with restrictive circumstances which in turn leads to more diversity.
Sam Bowerman also knows that many companies use productivity as an argument against hybrid work: “There are lots of chats about productivity. It is hard to measure in quite a lot of roles. Where we can measure, we’ve seen it hold up or increase.”
Limitations to flexibility
Employees at NatWest can work flexibly according to their job requirements and personal circumstances. They will always be connected to a regional hub as their “office” and the company provides the framework and guidance.
Sam Bowerman also mentioned the difficulties that flexibility brings for managers: “We’re still working through that, and we are still focusing on ensuring the right collaboration tools and support for our leaders is in place. The flexible framework will continue to adapt as this is the future of work.”
Sam is People Director for Retail, Wealth, Ulster, Learning and Engagement within NatWest Group.
In her role, Sam is responsible for the development and execution of the People Strategies in the three franchises of Retail Banking, Wealth Businesses and Ulster Bank Ireland DAC. To help her do this, Sam leads a team of HR Business Partners who are based in Edinburgh, London, and Dublin. Sam also has accountability for leading the Bank’s HR Consultancy Practice, its Learning and Development function and a Colleague Strategy & Insights Team, collectively c200 HR and Learning Professionals. Sam is also the Lead for Ways of Working which is NatWest’s Group programme to move to a Hybrid model of work.
Sam has been with NatWest since 2003, having started her career with Sainsbury’s, she joined the Group as part of the Churchill Insurance acquisition. Prior to her current role, Sam has held the roles of HR Director for NWH Customer Businesses, HR Director for Personal Banking, HR Director, Functions, Head of HR for Capital Resolution and Head of HR for Business and Commercial Banking. Prior to that Sam undertook a number of senior HR Business Partner roles across the Bank.
Sam graduated in Economics and Management studies and is a Fellow of the CIPD. Sam is married to Andy and they have 2 daughters, Phoebe and Jessica. Sam is also a Trustee for KIDS, a charity focused on supporting children and young adults with disabilities.