How the People and Culture function drives value by optimising the workforce with Maree Howard


Kath: So Maree Howard is a very dear friend of mine, who I met over 20 years ago when our daughters were in the same dancing class.

Maree has been an informal mentor to me over those years, humbly sharing stories of her many achievements as a human resource leader and strategic business partner across a range of large scale organizations.

I’m an awe of her ability to articulate strategies that deliver real impact. When I was planning this episode, I was really interested to explore how the challenges and opportunities in a private organization differed from government, where I’ve been focusing my attention. What I found intriguing is how similar our experiences are and I’m really looking forward to sharing Maree’s insights with you. I’ve always admired Maree’s ability to drive transformational change through the people strategies she leads her teams to implement. But what I love most though, is the humour Maree brings to any situation. She’s just lots of fun and I’m confident she will share some fascinating insights that we can all take away to inform our own work.

Maree, welcome to the Reimagined Workforce podcast.

[00:01:09] Maree: Hi, Kathryn. Fantastic to be here and thanks for including me, Maree,

[00:01:13] Kath: Maree, would you mind starting with sharing a little bit about you and your experiences to date?

[00:01:17] Maree: Yeah, sure. So I’ve been working in the people and culture space for gosh, probably longer than the 20 or so years that we’ve known each other much longer than that, but that will reveal my age.

I’ve actually been fortunate enough to work on the, the generalist or the consulting side and on the subject matter expert side of dealing with people in an organization. I’ve worked across virtually every sector that I can think of from financial services to retail, to construction, to investment, to telco and now for the very first time, finding myself working in one of Australia’s largest, not for profit organisations, Like Without Barriers. So it’s a great chance to see how can I apply craft into a very different type of organisation.

I think what’s also interesting for me is I always find myself in positions where I’m either involved in startups or turnarounds, or most importantly culture change and I think it’s around that transformation piece that’s kind of my, my sweet spot that I like to work.

[00:02:29] Kath: So, Maree, what is it about the culture space that you enjoy most?

[00:02:33] Maree: I think it’s actually for each different organisation, understanding that you have a culture, whether you like it or, or not and it’s whether or not that culture is actually going to be a hindrance or an advantage to you achieving your strategy.

And in my mind, there are probably only two or three levers that you get to pull to drive that culture into what you believe is going to be an advantage for you and it’s the challenge of the organisation being able to do that. I think I also like the fact that culture and culture transformation sit across the past and the future, and that’s never an easy journey to make.

So I think there’s something about that journey and what’s going to work for each organisation that  makes me curious.

[00:03:22] Kath: It is so integral to transformation because if we take culture out of the equation, we’re really doing ourselves a disservice and we’re making our lives a lot more difficult. Often we think culture change is hard, but knowing those levers that you’re talking about, knowing what you can do to change that culture in a possibly a slow and transformational way is where you can really deliver some great impact in an organisation.

So Maree, I’m really interested to hear what your reimagined workforce looks like.

[00:03:55] Maree: It’s interesting isn’t it? Even the term ‘reimagined’ makes you conjure up all sorts of fantastical ideas. I think for me, there’s something in the reimagined workforce that looks quite different to today and actually is a focus on the type of work that’s to be done and different ways that we can actually go about achieving that or doing that work.

We spoke probably 15 to 20 years ago, in our professional space around, you know, having a full workforce and then being able to flex in and out. And I don’t know if any of us ever achieved that. And we only ever talked about that in terms of like full-time and part-time work. That was as far as we went.

Whereas now I think with the gig economy with more focus and structure being put around casual workforce, even the opportunity to contract out work within your own area or within, you know, your own region that you live in the globe, I think creates all sorts of interesting opportunities for the way work is done.

So I then say around that, that the culture that you need to have to make that hang together is quite a challenge because it’s very easy with a committed permanent workforce to be able to take them on a journey as you just said. Very much more of a challenge when you are having to engage with stakeholders and partners and make them want to work with you to help you deliver on what you need to do.

[00:05:22] Kath: Yeah, absolutely and I think that holistic perspective is where we really need to take our sites and look towards the future and think about   what that might look like so we can get an understanding of what the needs of those different subcultures are and how we address more specifically, so as then we can bring it all together to have that holistic perspective.

[00:05:44] Maree: Exactly Kathryn and one of the things that occurs to me is this kind of concept of especially when we’re talking about culture and communicating and driving behavioral change with our leaders and our employees is that often we focus on the, the headcount of the, the workforce or the full-time equivalent of the workforce those as numbers. Where I am at the moment, if we are doing communications, we would actually say, we are communicating to say 8,000 people. Actually it’s 12,000 people who the majority of them are working part-time that make up our workforce. And that’s a very different way of communicating than to say an 8,000 permanent full-time workforce.

So it requires you to just think a little bit differently.

[00:06:29] Kath: And it actually means a lot in terms of just operationally, just in terms of the number of interactions you’re going to need, because if you have, two part-time staff members making up one full-time equivalent, then you still have to have twice as many interactions and there’s a lot of things that have to happen twice that when you really need to factor those numbers into our decision making and our planning to understand what the capacity requirements are because of that differentiation.

[00:07:00] Maree: And I think you’re absolutely right. But I think as well, it’s rather than thinking of that as a barrier saying, well, that means I have to do two lots of goal setting, two lots of feedback, two lots of performance reviews, two lots of development planning, et cetera, is to try and be clever and think about, so how can I take this and really make it work so that it feels more effortless than, than it could appear to be?

[00:07:25] Kath: Yeah. So what do you think the key drivers are that are forcing us to reimagine our workforces?

[00:07:32] Maree: I think we’re in a really unique time in our universe. And we will look back in years to come and probably look at a fondly and with rose coloured glasses, see everything that we did wrong. I think that COVID actually allowed us and we all know this to find different ways of working and drove that transition of the hybrid work far more quickly than we realised we all talked about it, but it never came along and did that.

The slowing of immigration into various countries around the world has really impacted the way that we access skills and that we get work done.

I also think the external supply chain issues have made us all very concerned with where we get work done and how do we get more control so that we can speed up the supply, not only of labor, but of, of other goods and, and services.

I think technology has taken us to a point and rushed us there far more quickly than we, we realised. I remember hearing a lot of talk about people not being digitally literate. I don’t know how you could come through the last two years and not say that like at least 95% of the workforce is, is digitally literate.

So I think there’s been a lot of things that have forced us to have to think more differently.

In some way, we used to talk two years ago about the ambiguity that people leaders had to lead through and leaders of businesses had to lead through and how do we create certainty out of that ambiguity?

I think now it’s actually trying to make the work that is complex effortless, and I think that’s probably where we’ve arrived at.

[00:09:15] Kath: So Maree on that point about work, becoming effortless organizations are increasingly seeing that the alignment between the organizational purpose and an individual’s purpose is where we can really generate some engagement that helps work to become effortless, because we are really passionate about what we’re doing and we’re enjoying what we’re doing at the time and, and we get that state of flow that we talk about. Is that something that you are trying to promote in your organisation?

[00:09:46] Maree: Definitely Kathryn. I think one of the things I look back is 15 to 20 years ago, it was all about values alignment, and whether or not people either needed to arrive at your workplace, holding a set of values or whether or not you could create those set of values once they had, they had joined you, or they should not be, be with you.

Now we’ve very much seen actually pre COVID I’d say probably the last four or five years, organisations have really understood the point of purpose, even more than just straight vision. So the why do we need to exist? And what is it that we do? And there’s been far more push to kind of take values and purpose and try and smash together part of your personal and professional way of working or way of viewing the world.

I’m finding that fascinating, because I think if you come from the generation where work and private life are kept separate that must be quite a mental gymnastics for you to actually think about no. Now they’re actually needing to come together to make sure that, that I bring the most to the work that I do.

Some of that we hear reflected in the topics of things, like be your whole self, bring your whole self to work and I think that’s certainly kind of a new framing of how to, to do that as well, because to bring your whole self to work, you need to align with the purpose of the organisation and that has to be more than just making money.

[00:11:13] Kath: Exactly. And I’m going to jump ahead in my questions here, if that’s okay, because we had a question planned around, ideally, we want to recruit people who align with the purpose and values of our organisations, but we do also have this challenge in the tight talent market that we are seeing that sometimes that’s a real difficulty.

Yet, we really need the workforce to be available, to deliver on the organisational priorities. So what advice would you have for addressing that dilemma?

[00:11:41] Maree: I was reading an article, I think it was Friday or Saturday of last week. And it actually talked about the fact that we are shifting from where we could recruit those skills and so we would go to market and, you know, put them in our job ads and that’s what we’ll use to select who actually got a position.

Now what actually saying to organisations, including very small organisations is you now need to think about how you are going to train or develop those skills because you may not be able to get access to them in the market for the foreseeable future.

And that’s forcing a very different type of investment than we’ve done for the last probably five to seven years for organizations and they are going down to think about almost like in the days of the crafts about how are we going to bring people rather than just go out and buy them, you know, buy them and put them in our organisation.

[00:12:33] Kath: And do you think that there’s a role there for approaching education providers and talking to the people who are developing the pipeline workforce around what role we can have in shaping the curriculum?

[00:12:51] Maree: Absolutely. I’ve seen this done in two. In my previous lives, I’ve actually done work on emerging technologies and how do we partner with education bodies from schools through to influencing the agendas of the university curriculum?

What I am seeing now though, and especially in the organization that I’m in, that it’s actually work that’s on the very frontline caring workis where we’re actually needing to build those pipelines and make those jobs attractive and there just aren’t enough people to go around to do that work.

One of the things I find really interesting about that is that that work has previously not been recognised, not necessarily seen as a profession. And so not given the, the kudos to make it attractive for people to want to go into.

On the flip side, I actually look in the amount of compliance training and the amount of understanding that we want these people to have in the way they perform their work, it’s certainly not work that we should disregard. And so I think there’s a rethinking that needs to be done very much around frontline work.

It’s a little similar in a way, and this is going back by the way to nursing where nursing was very much the caring profession of And then what we actually found is, as we went along, we needed to professionalise the nursing profession. It turned into a university degree. It had a fair amount of practical work that was attached to it. There was career progression for nurses who now do a lot of the work that doctors had done in the past.

It seems to me that there’s some of these frontline, especially positions in the caring area that we need to stop and take another look at and, and revisit how we value them.

[00:14:36] Kath: Yeah. And I think that’s where we can really support our future workforce too, because if we can bring them in and, and coming from health, I can give you some reassurance that that is happening and especially was accelerated over COVID where we needed these assistant roles to be supporting quite a few of our professions.

What I think you’ve said there is one of the things is around the expectations we have. So we are really wanting, or historically we’ve wanted people to come in job ready and maybe we need to reshape our thinking a little that we bring people in, who maybe aren’t as proficient, but we are prepared to develop them. And there’s maybe there’s a role for enhanced coaching or supervision in the workplace so as we can help people to develop those skills in the flow of work.

[00:15:25] Maree: I think there has to be, if we looked at the availability of skills is just not there. And if you have those skills in your, there is no guarantee you’re going to hold onto them.

15 mins

Those people can move to the job down the road that might pay them $2 an hour or more. Your best effort is to actually start investing in your own people rather than paying the cost of having to go and find them, then bring them up to speed. And it’s far more worthwhile to actually show that pride you’re going to taking your own workforce. That’s easier. Yeah. And that becomes.

[00:16:01] Kath: And a lot less expensive to the cost of recruiting and training and bringing people up to speed is extensive compared to the alternative, which is caring for your workforce and showing that you’re committed to them by developing them and understanding where they want to take their careers and helping to have those conversations with them as to how you can support them in doing that.

[00:16:25] Maree: I was just going to say, the other thing that I see is. There was always a lot of,  attention paid to people understanding your systems or your bespoke ways of working the way that the workforce is moving at the moment, organisations also need to look at the way work is done so that they can have people kind of coming in, either people are going to stay for the long term or gig work or whatever, but we need to make the work to be done. Far more simple or streamlined so that we can have people at different times coming in to do that work.

[00:17:02] Kath: And being able to perform it at a higher standard quickly. Yes. Yes, absolutely.

So where do you think we should be focusing our attention to ensure we optimize the workforce that we have and deliver that in the future?

[00:17:18] Maree: I’m a great believer in the power of leadership and I do abide by the power of leadership, people leave leaders, not necessarily organizations. Absolutely. Although at the moment, I think we’re some of the ethics issues we are saying that could think could be a bit different.

I believe we can actually open up the eyes of our people leaders and allow them to focus more broadly on what they can do to attract and retain the right people in the right structures that is the, the best investment we can make at this stage.

So create people, leaders who care about their own staff. Are always thinking, how am I going to get future pipelines of people in, how am I going to invest in my own teams? How am I going to simplify the work that we have to do? How can I represent my people so that this becomes a, a good place that people want to work and want to recommend to other people work? I think that’s where the investment lies. I also think there is a role for senior people in organizations, especially the C suite to really do a lot more marketing of how holistic organisations need to be. We spoke about purpose before CEOs, et cetera, Chairmans of Boards need to talk about what the workforce really looks like now, what they need that workforce to look like. We’ve spoken for so long about needing to be inclusive, needing to be diverse, needing to make our workforce reflect the people that we.

They can open the doors to make people feel that their workplaces are a lot more open and agile than they were say 10 years ago.

[00:18:54] Kath: So Maree, as a people and culture leader, how do you support your teams to ensure those initiatives are implemented? 

[00:19:05] Maree: I think there’s a few key things that I found work for me.

The first one is about setting a shared vision of where it is. We are trying to go to and how that links to the organisation. People need to feel they’re contributing to the organisation. I then think it’s about understanding what are the foundations that need to be in place for you to be able to deliver on this.

And those foundations are often more than platforms or frameworks quite often, they are, but often measurement tools as well in terms of knowing where you are and where you need to. Make sure those foundations are in place and then actually build the journey that needs to take the organisation from where it is to where it needs to be looking at those levers that you have in place.

So very much, I look down the role of people leaders and how do we align our people leaders with where we need to go in the organisation. I look at measurement in terms of making sure that we’re able to track, set a course, put ourselves back on course et cetera. Communication and awareness consistent that actually goes through that journey I think is really important.

And the other thing is making sure that people are aware of this new environment or new world or change that it is that you’re trying to create. So they know that it’s okay to get on board.

[00:20:25] Kath: And you mentioned measurement in there. How do you utilise data to drive your decision making and demonstrate the value of your function?

[00:20:33] Maree: It’s really interesting. You say that because we’ve been doing a lot of talk about personas in the workplace that I’m at at the moment and I kind of have two views on that.

I like to really understand. The people in the organization and the people I’m dealing with. So what’s our current state? And I like to really understand all of the demographics about those people. How long have they been here? Where do they live? Where did they come to before us? What do they bring with them? What have their experiences been since they’ve been here and you need to understand your baseline data, especially how do they feel about being here? And quite often, then you’ll see an organization will build a persona.

I have a concern that a persona can actually just be your current biases, formalized that you can continue to do so I’ll leave that piece there, but it is good to get a view of what does your current workforce look like now?

More importantly though, as we go forward and especially with the challenges in the internal marketplace, we need to understand our data and our people to know how do we personalize the experiences we want them to have with us.

Personalisation is very different to a persona. Persona is putting everybody in one box. Personalisation is you and I and 12 other people who come from different backgrounds, different life experiences, all feeling like the organisation is talking to them and what it is they’re looking for. So you really need that data to be able to understand how are people reacting to that? Is it actually heading you into the direction you want? Do you need to change course? And unless you actually understand that you’ll never know of what you’re doing is creating that experience that you want.

[00:22:14] Kath: So that personalisation piece is really interesting. Do you think that through personalisation, we can utilise that to build agility?

[00:22:24] Maree: I think agility is actually one of the things we are going to need in our workforce to keep on meeting the changing external environment and the challenges that, that brings. I think what that means as well, is that broader than an organization having one EVP that it may want to offer and attract people is actually now going to need to be quite different.

You’re no longer just attracting permanent employees to your workforce. You want to make sure that in this gig economy as well, that you are the preferred place to provide your services or that people want to provide their services. And so you need to speak to the strength that those people are going to bring to your organisation, and then use those strengths.

Both within the people you have is the, the core part of your organisation. But even more importantly, in terms of those people that you either want to partner with, or you want to come and work with you, or you want to provide services to your organisation for a period of time. So it’s a far different way of thinking about the workforce than I think we’ve seen before.

In my career in people in culture or human resources, whatever we choose to call it, personnel, whatever we choose to call it. I I’ve actually seen this fantastic change where it was always about the, it started off being about the, you know, the full-time worker, then it became about the full-time and part-time and casual if they were on your payroll worker.

We’ve now moved into an environment where in people and culture, we can no longer say, well, they don’t work for us. That doesn’t matter. We’re truly looking at organisation strategy. We need to be looking at who are the organisations or the people we need to partner with to get particular pieces of work done?

How do we attract those organisations? How do we pay the right dollars that are sustainable for. It’s, it’s a very different way of thinking and I, and I think if we look at how we need to engage those people as well and reward them, it’s quite different to where the profession has come from over the last 15, 20 years.

[00:24:20] Kath: So I think the critical thinking skills that people and culture leaders need now is really driving that value in organisations.

Do you think that the people in culture function evolved during the pandemic and what do you think we can leverage moving forward out of that scenario?

[00:24:46] Maree: I think the function evolved quite quickly and in a few different ways, first of all, I think the function was very much about keeping our people safe and organisations responded to that.

Then it became about economic viability and sustainability and different organisations responded in different ways to that. Some organisations chose to downsize their organisations permanently and then decide they would rebuild. Others had learned, I think from the GFC have actually thought, no, we need to hold onto our good talent. How do we do that? That’ll create that other businesses then looked very much at the work that they did and what they did. If you think of even remember the gin manufacturers who were turning around and making hand sanitizers things like that. People really started to think in very different ways about how they could respond to the changes needed in their organisation.

We saw that drive towards digital happen so much more quickly. We were talking a lot about resilience and then now we’ve realised we need to come out of talking about resilience and start talking about exactly what you are saying, that kind of agility and sustainability that we need in the workforce.

I think organisations that are now able to take what they learn from that and the advantages that they gained and not look back, I think will be the ones who take us forward to the next big lot of changes that we’ll see in the workforce.

I hear a lot of people talking about how they want to go back to how it was, know if it was that great. Not all aspects of it. I think some, some things were, but there were a lot of changes that need to be made. And, I think the saying necessity as a mother of invention is probably what we saw play out.

[00:26:33] Kath: Yeah. And I think that we’ve got a bit of nostalgia about the past, but I, I actually don’t want the elastic band effect.

I don’t want to revert to how it was before. And I’m really seeing that drive innovation in organisations. So what do you think the critical capabilities are that organizations need to continually drive that innovation in the future?

[00:26:55] Maree: I think it’s interesting that the term care started popping up in values.

In the last couple of years, I found that absolutely fascinating. It hadn’t been used a lot before, but a lot of very large public leaders organisations now include care as one of their, their values. I think to drive the innovation, we’ve actually learned that our people leaders need to empower their own teams.

We need to be slightly less risk averse. Yes. We need governance, but governance over the right things. And I think if we can kind of harness those capabilities then we’ll actually be in a far more flexible way, I think, to respond to any other changes that come our way.

There’s a big piece around trusting your workforce and that’s what we had to do for the last two, three years and those leaders in those organisations that we’re able to trust their workforce, trust them to work from home, trust them, to still treat the customer correctly, trust that they would still find better and different ways to get work done, they were the ones who seemed to have done well.

[00:27:57] Kath: And I think that taking away those boundaries, that people had to work in really demonstrated that people were capable. So what I like about what’s happened over the last couple of years is that organisations were forced to trust their people and people became empowered and we really did see evidence that productivity and performance increased.

Where do you think we can take that in the people and culture space, moving forward to deliver greater impact in our organisations?

[00:28:27] Maree: I kind of see it playing out in two ways.

One part of me thinks that you can implement initiatives, that you can tick the box in people and culture and say that we’ve done that. Say for example, I’m about to launch an employee survey. I can tick that box. I can get low participation. I can take low action on that. But I can say I’ve done the survey and I can report those numbers and move on where I think the new side of people and culture is very much around rather than driving.

Just for results. Say the outcome of an engagement survey. How do I really drive participation to show trust in the work? People are not going to participate in organisation activities, especially people in culture activities, if they don’t believe it’s being done for the right higher order purpose.

Another example we are looking at at the moment is we know that with the new government, there’s going to be a push, probably more into targets around different groups. So for example, employing people with a disability. There are two ways you can look at that. One is how do I say what’s that target? What’s that number? How do I measure that? How am I just going to say that I’ve done tha?

The second part is actually take your employees on that journey to believe that this is the right thing your organisation is doing and how it makes the world a better place. And if people believe that, then you’ll start to see the outcomes.

[00:29:53] Kath: the.

And I think it comes back to that organisational purpose and alignment of your people and your comment around that employee engagement survey, and that’s just one example where we choose what discretionary effort we will invest. And when you have that sense of purpose and meaning that discretionary effort does become effortless, as you alluded to before.

And I think, gives you that sense of ownership that, you know, it is on me to add value. I have a responsibility to this organisation. What I do does matter, and I can make a positive impact and I can choose to do that or not. And it’s not necessarily about whether or not there’ll be negative consequences, but it’s about that desire to make a positive contribution to the world, I think.

And that’s where I think we it’s really a positive future that we are heading toward.

[00:30:44] Maree: You are absolutely right. And the words, as you were saying, that that kept coming to my mind were authenticity. Yeah. We previously talked about authenticity of our leaders, but when people see authentic leaders, they bring their authentic selves to work and I think that’s then where we said, we will see the innovation. People will feel trusted and they’ll feel that their views or their imports or their desire to make their workplace better and impact on society will be seen. So I think absolutely where we’re going.

[00:31:14] Kath: Yeah. And that has really positive repercussions throughout society as a whole, I think.

So, just to finish off your vision for the future, how do you share that with others and gain support from others to come along the journey with you?

[00:31:30] Maree: I have found my whole career that I need to talk a lot and, and fortunately I seem a bit pretty good at pretty good at it. I, I really believe it is that in the space that I work and we’re senior influential players in organizations telling your story and continually telling your story, and then showing that your actions actually line up to that’s where you want the organisation to be and the type of workforce that you want to be at the same time.

The flip side of that is you need to listen because you need to know yourself when to be able to adapt and adjust your approach to still meet, meet that same outcome or that same desire that you’ve got. So I find, I spend a lot of my time talking up and down the organisation and to my peers and try to make my actions match up with the words that I’m telling them.

[00:32:22] Kath: And I think knowing the right time to either listen or tell your story is critical to whether or not it has the desired effect, Maree, sadly, we have run out of time, but thank you so much for sharing your story with us today and all of those amazing insights. I have learned a lot in this conversation and in our previous conversations, and I look forward to learning so much more from you in the.

It’s been great to have you on the reimagined workforce podcast. Thanks so much for sharing your time with us.

[00:32:53] Maree: Thanks for the opportunity, Kathryn.

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