Reinventing HR – Making Work Good Again

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- 4 min read

There was a time when Aster Group realised that there must be a better way to deliver HR… and that probably wasn’t going to be by having anything called a HR team.  It was time for a change. So we explored how to use organisational design to make that change and create an alternative offer - one that puts people over process.

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Aster Group

Aster Group is a housing developer and social landlord. Though our history was rooted in the UK public sector we are now a thriving commercial entity with c£200m annual turnover, assets of £1.5bn and a workforce of 1400 colleagues. Our CEO Bjorn Howard is unapologetic about Aster’s drive for profit because all of that profit goes back into efforts to solve the UK housing crisis.

Why the need to change?

So we could be forgiven for asking the question, if our organisation is so successful, why the need to change? Well, like most businesses today we face an uncertain future and a rapidly changing context, so whilst we are thriving now, what we do delivers a real social benefit and we want to ensure that we can deliver that in a sustainable way in to the future. Crucial to that ambition is our ability to inspire and engage our colleagues.

So back to HR, because isn’t that team pivotal to that people effort? Absolutely, but the signs were that whilst the team were delivering a consistent service to business colleagues, the measure of quality was more related to following a process than anything else.

Even a simple analysis found that 80 to 85% of time was being spent on managing people through disciplinary, capability or grievance processes and we didn’t find any evidence that this approach resulted in shifting colleagues from perceived ‘poor performers’ to ‘must keeps’. That opened up an interesting debate around ‘so what is the value proposition of HR?’

With phrases such as ‘HR police’ and ‘blockers & stoppers’ being occasionally used to describe the team, they found themselves observing our cultural change efforts from the side-lines rather than being in the game.

We needed to rebel

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There had to be a better way – we needed to rebel. We asked some challenging questions. Does it really take a qualification in HR to drive a great employee experience? We didn’t think so. Is the biggest people risk being taken to an employment tribunal for unfair dismissal? Instead we concluded that the biggest risks are actually around having the wrong people in roles (or the right people in the wrong roles) and having a disengaged workforce.

This is where organisational design comes in. We pulled together IT, Communications, Research, Project and HR teams in to a single directorate and then challenged ourselves not to end up with the same old professional silos in the new team. We knew that if we created the right conditions to enable our colleagues to be the very best that they could be, we could change how work felt not just within our own teams, but across the wider business.

We then shared our idea of workstreams. These would be self-managing, cross-functional teams, with a range of experience and skills, focused on specific value streams: talent; employee experience; learning; research & innovation and projects. We even dared to ask people to choose what they wanted to work on!!! We trust them to use their judgement and discretion in testing new ideas!

It’s early days, but all teams are up and running. There are still core teams in all professional areas to take care of the day to day contractual, compliance based and reactive activity, but these are now smaller teams with a clear customer focus and again working to self-managing team principles.

A promising start

Have we got it right? We think so, but time will tell. The early signs are good with some previous HR colleagues telling us how great it is not to have to jump through five hoops just to get something done. One person told me ‘I got the Monday morning feeling and then realised that I didn’t have to anymore – work is good again’.

It’s a journey, with some people jumping on to the front of the bus straight away shouting ‘woohoo’ and others cautiously sitting near to the back, believing they are on the right bus but still a little uncertain. That’s okay too, because we all move at different paces.

It feels good to be a rebel.

Dawn Sowerby is passionate about helping others to fulfill their potential. At Aster she brings this passion to life in her role as Transformation Director. Together with her colleagues she is transforming the way Aster works from the inside out. You can find Dawn on LinkedIn.

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