Placing people at the heart of NatCen

Our People Approach is the HR, learning and development plan that supports the delivery of NatCen’s strategic vision.

As an HR professional, I am conscious of how important people are in the delivery of any organisational strategy and it is central to the implementation of our People Approach. I joined the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) in 2019 with a very clear remit of strengthening and supporting our workforce through a period of transformation as we grow and diversify over the next few years.

Whilst the workforce has always remained at the heart of NatCen, there had not been such a dedicated focus and investment in its people until now. We have ambitious plans for NatCen’s strategic growth and development and with that, we recognise we need to attract, develop and retain the right people to deliver it.

NatCen’s HR team was very different and a lot smaller when I started at NatCen, as were the number of staff we were supporting. Since 2020, we have grown from some 275 colleagues to over 425. To support that increase in headcount means we needed a different kind of HR team, so my focus quickly turned to resourcing within my own team to deliver our HR plans. 

Our People Approach is the HR, learning and development plan that supports the delivery of NatCen’s strategic vision. This plan is centred around ensuring we provide a stimulating and rewarding environment, focusing on leadership development to create a high-performance culture, providing a diverse range of learning opportunities, supporting employee wellbeing and promoting and prioritising equality, diversity and inclusion issues.

Like many HR professionals and colleagues, navigating the impact of a global pandemic was a huge challenge. We were thrust into situations and issues that were unprecedented and unanticipated. The multiple layers of challenges for the workforce and organisation meant we had to be quick, responsive and provide real-time solutions to issues as they developed. For this reason, my plans, intentions and approach had to be agile in response to how we deliver and implement key people issues and how we would work with our colleagues during this period of change. This included practical technological considerations in how we get everyone to successfully work online, navigating the possibility of some jobs being put on furlough and, crucially, how we could support the staff’s health and wellbeing at this time.

In response to COVID-19 and during the lockdown period, one of our original streams of activities was accelerated to deliver an employee wellbeing programme. We introduced NatCen Thrive, and our Wellbeing Champions. The NatCen Thrive programme provides staff with a range of resources, benefits, tools, guidance and wellbeing events to support their health and wellness. As well as our employee assistance programme, colleagues can also join our health care cash plan, providing help with health screening and cashback on a variety of wellbeing treatments.

Our Wellbeing Champions are volunteer staff members who provide peer support and organise events and activities to promote wellbeing across our workforce in London, Essex and Edinburgh. This initiative is supported by a wellness partner, We Are Wellbeing, who have trained our colleagues to provide the support needed across the staff team. During the pandemic, these Wellbeing Champions helped to promote connectedness across the organisation by checking in with colleagues, hosting virtual coffee mornings, leading mindfulness sessions and low impact stretching exercises.

Since then, as we have returned to office a few days a week, these activities have transferred to more in-person group walks at lunchtime, as well as continuing some of the online mindfulness sessions. The Wellbeing Champions have also delivered a series of informal events to discuss and explore a variety of topics, including Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), neurodiversity at work, and sleep and insomnia. In addition to these activities, we have hosted organisation-wide events, such as inviting guest speakers to discuss Understanding the Menopause, providing healthy heart checks and guidance on your posture to support your back and spine at work.

In May 2023, we launched NatCen Prime, our coaching and mentoring programme for providing blended learning and developmental opportunities for NatCen colleagues. As well as a series of internal training courses and bespoke training opportunities, we have developed our coaching and mentoring initiative. We are proud of the brilliance we have working across all of our offices, in a variety of roles, and this programme serves as a key succession-planning tool to help NatCen develop its future leaders. To date, we have placed a number of  colleagues with mentors, some of whom are mentored by other senior colleagues within NatCen, as well as our Trustees or likeminded individuals and partners we work with on a regular basis.

I am very mindful that there is still so much more we want to achieve. At NatCen we have great ambitions and, at times, there are some aspects we can’t get done either in the way we want or that they get delayed. Business, finances or global challenges can often get in the way. One such challenge has been the implementation of our pay review. In the last 18 months, we have undertaken an extensive pay review by an independent consultant. Salaries play a crucial role in attraction and retention and so it’s important we’re paying and rewarding our colleagues. This has been an example of where some aspects of our People Approach have been delayed. It is frustrating for all involved but it’s a clear objective for us which we remain committed to delivering.

NatCen is not a perfect organisation. We have challenges and we are open about facing them and working as a team to be ever evolving. We are also a diverse workforce, the majority of which are women, and we recognise that there is more we can do to support a positive balance of equality, diversity and inclusion. NatCen is very much on a journey, both in terms of its growth and how we deliver our work for the benefit of wider society. We look forward to continuing to engage and work with our colleagues on the path ahead.