Transforming the Modern Workplace: Strategies for Overcoming Today’s Challenges

Nigel Wright Group launched the results of its 2024 Modern Workplace Opportunities and Trends Survey at two exclusive events at Crowne Plaza Newcastle and Headingley  Stadium in Leeds.

Following an overview of the survey’s findings led by our Executive Director, Mark Simpson, over 100 delegates enjoyed presentations by senior leaders from Sage Group plc, Quorn Foods, Thirteen Group, Opencast Software, Flutter, Canal & River Trust, Benenden Health, and Greencore, who discussed challenges and initiatives at their organisations related to:

Executive Summary

Overall, these presentations highlighted the multifaceted approaches organisations are adopting to tackle skill shortages, enhance retention, and foster inclusive and dynamic workplaces in the face of evolving challenges.

Skill Shortages

Several organisations emphasised the importance of developing internal talent to combat skill shortages. For instance, Quorn Foods implemented leadership development programs and utilised LinkedIn Learning to provide on-demand training for their employees. This approach helps bridge current and future skills gaps by equipping existing staff with the necessary competencies. Similarly, Greencore adopted a strategic workforce planning model, focusing on proactive recruitment and internal development programs to address shortages in STEM fields.

Retention Strategies

Retaining top talent emerged as a critical theme. Sage demonstrated how a shift to people-centric strategies and the use of data analytics to monitor employee engagement could significantly boost retention rates. Their approach included regular pulse surveys and acting on feedback to create a supportive work environment. At Thirteen Group, the focus was on maintaining cultural alignment and clear communication of the organisation’s mission and vision, which are vital for employee satisfaction and retention.

Inclusivity and Diversity

Promoting inclusivity and diversity was another significant focus. Many organisations are prioritising these values but face challenges in measuring their effectiveness. Opencast Software integrated Essential Skills development into their recruitment and leadership programs, supporting social mobility and creating a more inclusive environment. Canal & River Trust emphasised flexible working arrangements and facilities improvements to cater to a diverse workforce. Flutter’s extensive engagement initiative, “People Expo,” ensured that employee voices were heard and integrated into the company’s value creation process.

Dynamic Workplaces

The evolution of work environments, particularly the shift to hybrid working, was discussed extensively. While hybrid working has become the norm, its impact on productivity is still debated. Sage’s approach to fostering team engagement through office events and remote collaboration highlights the effort to maintain a dynamic workplace. Additionally, Benenden Health’s initiatives, such as the Junior Board and Senior Leader Program, demonstrate innovative approaches to talent development and employee involvement in strategic decision-making.

Adapting to External Challenges

Organisations are also adapting to external challenges such as the cost of living and technological advancements. The Canal & River Trust, for example, addressed financial constraints by focusing on strategic resource management and leveraging technology to improve HR processes. Benenden Health’s community-focused programs aim to tackle social issues like youth unemployment, providing volunteering opportunities and mentorship to support local schools and disadvantaged individuals.

Proactive Leadership and Strategic Planning

Leadership played a crucial role in these presentations. Whether it was Quorn’s leadership development programs or Canal & River Trust’s purpose-driven leadership, the emphasis was on proactive efforts to navigate current challenges. Greencore’s “six Bs” framework for talent management illustrated a comprehensive approach to workforce planning, emphasising the importance of a cohesive strategy that includes buying, building, borrowing, binding, bouncing, and leveraging AI technology (bots).

You can view the presentation from the event here:


Introduction: Strategies for the Modern Workplace

Mark Simpson began by addressing the persistent issue of skill shortages. Initially concentrated in middle management, Nigel Wright Group’s survey reveals how this shortage has now spread to junior levels as well. Despite efforts to retain talent, the shortage has only intensified over the past year, complicating retention strategies.

Our survey results indeed emphasised the critical importance of retention strategies, particularly those centred on career development and fostering a positive work environment, considered essential for making employees feel valued. Mark acknowledged, however, the complexity of this task and the absence of a universal solution.

Hybrid working, once a novel concept, has now become the standard across various sectors. While it is no longer a major draw for candidates, the survey indicated how its absence can deter potential hires. The impact of hybrid working on organisational performance also remains a topic of debate. According to Mark, there are mixed opinions on hybrid working’s influence on productivity.

Despite a slight decrease in job vacancies, the survey suggests organisations continue to struggle with finding suitable candidates. Mark noted how this mismatch between candidate expectations and employer offerings, particularly around salaries, leads to unfilled roles and recruitment challenges.

Inclusivity has gained significant momentum in recent years, with many organisations prioritising it. However, Mark stressed how the survey revealed an ongoing lack of consensus on how to effectively promote inclusivity and measure its success, presenting another challenge for businesses.

Finally, on the topic of pay, the survey highlighted uncertainty between Bank of England statistics and actual salary increases in the North of England. While some organisations provided support during periods of high inflation, a general trend indicates a reduction of such support, which Mark emphasised, could impact future pay rates.

Engaging and Retaining Top Talent At Sage

Jenny Johnstone, Director of Engagement at Sage, spoke passionately about strategies for engaging and retaining top talent. According to Jenny, a gradual decline in Sage staff morale prompted a shift to more people-centric strategies, crucial for rebuilding trust — a process she says demands time and persistence. Regular pulse surveys are now conducted to gauge the impact of specific initiatives, with a strong emphasis on acting on feedback and communicating the steps being taken to address issues.

Sage also leverages data analytics to understand working patterns and provide the necessary support to employees. Monitoring working hours, whether in the office or remotely, and ensuring managers spend adequate one-on-one time with their teams are key actions taken. The data helps predict when an employee might be disengaging, enabling pre-emptive re-engagement efforts. These measures have led to a 30% improvement in retention rates in customer service.

Furthermore, Jenny highlighted how Sage allocates a budget to encourage staff presence in the office by creating employee events and enhancing office infrastructure. Events and activities are standardised and aligned with business objectives, values, and community partnerships to ensure positive colleague experiences. Remote workers are also encouraged to participate in regular Teams meetings to maintain collective team engagement.

According to Jenny, Sage’s listening strategy has matured from basic annual surveys to a holistic, agile design. The current approach integrates various feedback channels and aligns with business priorities. Leaders’ roles have also evolved to become more accountable and engaged, with a focus on regular, meaningful conversations about employee experiences.

In conclusion, Jenny emphasised how extraordinary teams lead to extraordinary outcomes, driven by data-informed decisions and a strong focus on employee engagement and retention.

Addressing Skills and Talent Shortages at Quorn Foods

Dominic James, L&D Lead at Quorn Foods, presented a comprehensive strategy to enhance workforce skills, leadership development, and talent management within the organisation.

According to Dominic, Quorn has focused on addressing current and future skills gaps by retaining and developing its existing workforce. Historically, engagement scores in annual surveys indicated room for improvement. Over the past twelve months, the company has concentrated efforts on specific strategic areas, yielding significant results.

A major focus has been on the development of leaders and managers, recognising the varied capabilities at this level. Two flagship programs were launched: a benchmarking tool to assess current leadership skills and a leadership development program for new and aspiring leaders.

LinkedIn Learning, introduced in February 2024, supports these programs and other training needs, offering an on-demand solution for skills and development identified through Performance and Development Reviews. Dominic says this platform allows Quorn’s HR team to have meaningful conversations with managers and leaders, aiding in the creation and support of development plans.

Quorn has also created opportunities for employees to transition into new roles or participate in projects aligning with their career aspirations. A people partner, for example, recently took on a six-month secondment as a manufacturing operations lead. This “gig approach” supports both individual growth and succession planning.

To further enhance talent management, Quorn has digitised the PDR (Performance Development Review) process. This allows for better tracking of individual skills and trends, facilitating more effective succession planning. Leaders and managers are coached to have more productive one-on-one discussions with their team members too, uncovering aspirations and development needs.

In his concluding remarks, Dominic noted how Quorn continues to invest in apprenticeships, internships, and university placements.

Enhancing Thirteen Group’s Culture

Thirteen is a not-for-profit housing association that provides homes for people on lower incomes, whether for rent or purchase, primarily in Teesside but extending as far as Hull and the Humber.

According to Deputy CEO, Chris Smith, Thirteen recently revisited its cultural values, realising the importance of maintaining focus on culture, especially after the disruptions caused by Covid-19.  Chris noted how the pandemic forced a rapid shift to remote working, creating challenges in managing performance and expectations.

One significant change under the previous CEO was the trial of a four-day working week, part of a broader international pilot. Although this idea was popular among employees, Chris says it proved impractical for a service-orientated organisation like Thirteen, leading to its cancellation and a subsequent drop in employee satisfaction as reflected in the eNPS score, which fell dramatically from fifty-five to seven.

Chris highlighted the inconsistency and confusion regarding work models and the need for clearer communication about Thirteen’s mission and vision. They engaged an external company, Journey Four, to help reassess and re-engage with all levels of the organisation, including the board, senior leadership, managers, colleagues, and customers. This effort aimed to realign Thirteen’s culture and mission, focusing on customer-centric values and a clear set of priorities.

The organisation is also focused on strategic workforce planning to address future skills needs, improving the apprenticeship experience to retain talent, and encouraging team cohesion through “team time” in the office once a week. Despite some setbacks, Chris is optimistic about the future, aiming for better employee engagement and satisfaction, and ultimately hoping to improve the perception of Thirteen as a great place to work.

Building Essential Skills at Opencast Software

Opencast, an IT consultancy, helps clients solve technology challenges by providing skilled personnel. The company has grown significantly since its inception in 2012, now boasting around 500 employees across five offices in the UK.

Chief People Officer, Cate Kalson, delved into the importance of Essential Skills, which she prefers to call transferable or leadership skills. Partnering with Skills Builder, Opencast has focused on these skills as foundational for achieving high technical competencies. Skills Builder, which started in the education sector, has shown that strong Essential Skills are crucial for individuals to reach their full potential, both professionally and personally.

Cate emphasised how social advantage often correlates with higher levels of Essential Skills, highlighting the need for businesses to foster these skills to support social mobility. At Opencast, they integrate Essential Skills into recruitment, development, and leadership programs, ensuring that these skills are recognised and nurtured at all levels of the organisation. This holistic approach ties into Opencast’s competency frameworks and transparency around roles and salaries.

To further embed these skills, the business aligns its values with Essential Skills, creating a consistent language and framework that supports employee development and organisational cohesion. Cate noted the importance of businesses taking a proactive role in skill-building, rather than relying on external education systems.

Finally, Cate discussed the broader implications of Essential Skills for the workforce of the future. With the rapid evolution of job roles, it’s vital to prepare young people with foundational skills that will allow them to adapt to new careers. She advocates for a unified approach to skill development, grounded in psychological research and evidence, to maximise the positive impact on both individuals and society.

Creating Flutter’s values

Head of Employer Brand for Flutter UK, Caroline Rispin, shared her journey and insights into a significant project: the creation of company values.

Flutter UK, a part of Flutter Entertainment, operates in the online sports betting and gaming industry globally. Caroline emphasised the need to align colleagues with the company’s ethos, especially after consolidating multiple well-known brands under the Flutter umbrella. This necessitated the creation of values that resonated with employees across different locations and roles.

To gather insights for this project, Flutter embarked on a comprehensive engagement initiative dubbed the “People Expo.” This involved travelling to different locations and engaging colleagues in various activities beyond traditional surveys and focus groups.

The project yielded a vast amount of data, over 50,000 points of insight, which was analysed with the help of an AI sentiment analysis tool. Caroline highlighted the importance of the testing and development phases, during which the values evolved based on feedback from colleagues. Leaders played a crucial role in championing the project and empowering employees to voice their opinions.

Four values were collaboratively approved and visually represented to reflect the company’s identity. Caroline stressed the significance of embedding these values into everyday practices, from hiring to performance management, to ensure they don’t remain mere words on a wall. This initiative received positive feedback from employees, demonstrating the values’ resonance within the organisation.

Caroline concluded with key takeaways, emphasising the importance of co-creation, building excitement, creating psychological safety for honest feedback, aligning values with business objectives, and thorough testing.

Overall, Caroline’s presentation highlighted the importance of employee engagement and involvement in shaping organisational culture, with tangible results in the form of well-received company values.

Embracing Purpose at Canal & River Trust

Karen Seth, People Director at Canal & River Trust, shared insights from the organisation, highlighting her values-driven approach and the importance of purpose in her career trajectory. With a passion for heritage and outdoor activities, Karen expressed enthusiasm for her role, which allows her to explore the unique engineering marvels of canals and reservoirs across the UK.

She delved into the challenges faced by the Trust, including financial constraints despite extensive assets, such as 2000 miles of towpaths and 80 reservoirs. The Trust’s reliance on fundraising and its role in supplying water to companies underscored the importance of strategic planning and resource management. Karen also touched on significant projects like the Toddbrook Reservoir repair, emphasising the financial burdens associated with infrastructure upkeep.

Regarding her position at Board level, Karen discussed the importance of purpose-driven leadership and the Trust’s efforts to maintain high employee engagement. She underscored the significance of positive colleague experiences and noted various initiatives aimed at enhancing employee well-being and satisfaction, including flexible working arrangements and facilities improvements.

According to Karen, there are demographic challenges within the Trust’s workforce, particularly in male-dominated construction teams. Inclusivity and equal opportunities become important in this environment. She discussed initiatives to empower employees through skill development and career progression, leveraging partnerships with external organisations for support.

The presentation also touched on the evolving role of technology, particularly in HR systems and analytics, highlighting the potential of AI to streamline processes and improve employee experiences. Karen emphasised the need for continuous adaptation to meet the changing needs of a diverse workforce, underlining the importance of flexibility and inclusivity in fostering a sense of belonging and driving organisational success.

Developing Benenden Health’s Future Workforce

Benenden Health, a not-for-profit mutual society based in York, serves over 870,000 individuals with private healthcare services. The organisation has evolved significantly since opening its membership to the general public in 2012, necessitating radical changes in sales and marketing strategies.

Director of Organisational Effectiveness, Naomi Thompson, discussed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the healthcare industry’s pace of change, emphasising the need for adaptive and innovative workforce leaders.

She outlined three problem statements regarding talent development: A lack of opportunities for talented individuals to advance into senior roles due to the company’s small size and stagnant senior positions. Limited talent mobility beyond the contact centre, with most employees staying within their discipline. Difficulty in recruiting for challenging roles, such as service advisors, who require specialised skills and empathy.

To address these challenges, Benenden Health has implemented several initiatives. They include establishing a Junior Board, a unique program where non-executive employees work alongside senior executives on strategic initiatives, providing diverse perspectives and contributing to various projects. The organisation also launched a Senior Leader Program designed to accelerate the development of potential senior leaders by focusing on emotional intelligence, resilience, and business skills through experiential learning.

Its Partnership with Your Cares initiative, a collaboration with a charity, is also aimed at addressing unemployment in the local community by providing volunteering opportunities, mentorship, and work experience to disadvantaged individuals.

Naomi stressed the importance of addressing social issues in the community, such as youth unemployment, by supporting local schools and volunteering opportunities. She underscored the benefits of these programs for both the business and its employees, highlighting the opportunities for skill development, diversity of thought, and community impact.

Greencore’s Road to Recovery and Growth

Greencore’s Chief People Officer, Guy Dullage, began by highlighting the company’s recent achievement of re-entering the FTSE 250 despite the setbacks caused by Covid-19. He highlighted the significance of Greencore’s strategy post-Covid, which involved stabilising the business, rebuilding operational efficiency and capacity, and ultimately focusing on growth. However, Gary noted that achieving growth required addressing the ongoing skills and talent shortages within the organisation, particularly in STEM subjects such as engineering and IT roles.

The presentation examined Greencore’s internal metrics, including vacancy rates and time to hire, which indicated challenges in recruiting talent. Externally, Gary highlighted the ongoing “war for talent” in the market, with a significant portion of organisations struggling to recruit, further exacerbated by visa restrictions and skills shortages in various areas.

Regarding workforce planning, Gary discussed how Greencore has transitioned from reactive recruitment practices to strategic workforce planning, which involves assessing current and future talent needs and implementing initiatives such as proactive recruitment, internal development programs, and utilising external resources strategically. He introduced the concept of the “six Bs” framework, which encompasses buying, building, borrowing, binding, bouncing, and bot (AI technology) strategies for talent management.

Furthermore, the presentation touched upon the importance of cultural cohesion within Greencore, ensuring the business enjoys consistency in values, policies, and strategies to attract and retain talent effectively.

Gary concluded by emphasising the multifaceted nature of talent retention and attraction, stating that there is no single solution but rather a combination of interconnected strategies. He urged other companies to embrace proactive efforts in addressing these challenges, likening it to planting an oak tree — the best time to start being now to reap the benefits in the future.

Conclusion: Transforming the Modern Workplace

In summary, these presentations showcased how organisations are employing a variety of strategies to address skill shortages, enhance retention, promote inclusivity, and create dynamic workplaces. By focusing on internal talent development, proactive leadership, and strategic planning, companies will be better equipped to meet the evolving challenges of the modern workplace.