People, Pandemics and Platinum by Lindsey Sherar, 5th November 2020

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of potentially waving 3 years of hard work goodbye – and that’s precisely what happened to me, the moment lockdown was announced.

Anyone who has undertaken an Investors in People (IIP) process will tell you, it’s tough and I mean, really tough. When we first achieved Platinum, the pass rate was at an alarming 1%; a mere 3 years later, that number had crawled its way to just 2%. The bar is set understandably high (it has to be) but as a consequence, the odds of achieving Platinum are remarkably slim – achieving it twice and during a pandemic…let’s just say, is a lot slimmer.

If that wasn’t enough pressure, I remembered what it meant to the team when we moved from Silver to Platinum; I didn’t want to begin to imagine what it feels like to be at the centre of a business who are bumped down a notch, even with COVID as a potentially plausible cause.

Now, don’t get me wrong, IIP were pretty gracious. When the pandemic showed no signs of relenting, along with many businesses we were offered the opportunity to defer our evaluation until the world had its head back above water.

Did I consider postponing? For a moment, absolutely and I’m not ashamed to admit it either. With most Ark employees now working from home, my typical communication with the team was out the window. The chances of me getting the engagement we needed with everyone’s eyes diverted by world events, seemed pretty close to impossible.

Then something interesting happened. Whatever uncertainty I felt was quickly replaced by a strange optimism and here’s why. For all its faults, the pandemic had somehow shone a big, uncompromising light on what once passed as ‘business-as-usual’. If there was ever a time to get an authentic opinion about how people viewed their working life, it was now.

And with that, a life-changing 4 months into home-working the survey hit the inboxes of every Ark employee.

Initially, the response rate seemed staggeringly high under the circumstances but on reflection, these last 7 months have provided us with a fairly unique opportunity to radically reassess how we spend our time and work together. The feedback was both honest and equally a very healthy reflection of just how far we’d come.

Hearing that we’d achieved Platinum twice in a row, amidst extraordinary circumstances is something I’m not sure I’ll forget in a hurry. The accreditation itself is a significant endorsement of the remarkable accomplishments of our team but it also lays bare, what we need to do to move forward – and that’s where I think things get really interesting.

For some time, we’ve been working to see what we can do to encourage more women and young people into construction, engineering and tech but there is still a lot of work to be done. ‘Inclusion’ goes beyond just ticking a box, the focus needs to be on creating opportunities for everyone to progress into their chosen career.

And do you know what? So far, so good. We’re already seeing good progress by offering jobs to University students who have gone on to become Accountants and Solicitors within Ark – we also know, we can (and need to) do more.

Among our biggest challenges today, is the ongoing well-being of the whole team. Although many people have thrived by removing the commute from their working day, others have struggled to maintain a divide between work and home. When you spend your days inviting colleagues into your home office, kitchen and front room, switching off can be near-on impossible and we can’t pretend it doesn’t potentially affect the teams’ mental health.

We continue to promote a ‘Bring your whole self to work’ philosophy where we encourage the team to be open if they’re facing challenges. For those less likely to voice their feelings to myself or Line Managers, we’re introducing ‘Mental Health Champions’ – a programme where we are essentially training 10% of our staff to be available for anyone to talk to.

Mental Health doesn’t discriminate by ethnicity, gender or seniority and let’s be honest, most people wouldn’t necessarily open up to their boss if they were facing problems. So, it’s imperative that we create opportunities to speak freely and without judgement. The programme may be at its inception but it’s an incredibly important step in the right direction and the timing has never been better.

Where I hope we’re seen as a progressive company, I also believe that a ‘People-first’ approach is fast becoming ‘cards at the table’ and reflective of what most people are growing to expect (and demand) from a forward-thinking business. Salary may be an important number but it is none-the-less, just a number – it doesn’t create a culture.

And therein lies the next challenge. If you say that you put your people first, you had better really mean it. Along with social responsibility, the conversation for health, well-being and inclusivity are at the top of the agenda and only the progressive will survive.

Going through an IIP review during a pandemic may not have been the best timing but in many ways, it has set the stage for the conversations which could influence the next 3 years of our journey and it could even have set us on the path to Platinum for a third time – we shall see.


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