An interview with...Ann Pickering, Chief HR Officer & Chief of Staff at O2

An interview with...Ann Pickering, Chief HR Officer & Chief of Staff at O2

We were delighted to interview Ann Pickering, Chief HR Officer and Chief of Staff at O2, who launched a highly successful career returners programme along with a number of other initiatives aimed at both attracting, supporting and retaining women.  

CP:You’re now CHRO and Chief of Staff at O2, having worked in HR for most of your career. What decisions or experiences have most helped you progress to your executive position today?

AP: When I worked in IT services I stepped out of a traditional HR role and worked as part of a commercial team working on multi-million pound major outsourcing deals. This really helped develop my commercial skills. I strongly believe you must have a good commercial brain and really understand your business if you are to be an effective HR practitioner.

CP: What advice you would give your younger self?

AP: Ask more questions, get involved in initiatives outside your ‘world’ and work on your self-confidence.

CP: We understand that the Career Returners programme at O2 has been very successful in speeding up progress towards gender balance in your workforce. What do you attribute this success to?

AP: First and foremost, this programme was created to meet a real business need. There was, and still is, a need to find great people to address skill shortages in our business, particularly operations, and this challenge is what the Career Returners programme has helped us address. There is an untapped pool of talented women who have taken career breaks, typically to raise a family or to care for ageing relatives. These women previously held roles in business and have vast experience but lack the confidence to return to the workplace. The O2 Returners programme runs for 12 weeks and is designed to provide participants with support, mentoring and the self-confidence to return to work.

The success of the programme has been evident since it launched. The first cohort joined in 2016 and improved gender representation in our technical area by 3% in three months – this would normally take us two years under ‘normal’ recruitment cycles.

But this programme is one element of a wider programme. In recent years we’ve introduced a number of initiatives aimed at both attracting, supporting and retaining women; these include our Women in Leadership programme, phased return to work after maternity leave and our flexible working policies.

CP: What are the main elements needed for a great flexible working model - both from the employer's point of view and from the employees'?

AP: For me, having a flexible working culture is key to having an engaged and motivated workforce. After all, we’re only going to see the best from people who are actively engaged and excited about their work. Trust is also critical, as well as ensuring you have the support and buy-in from across the business and ongoing engagement with employees.

You also need to ensure your office premises are set up for flexible working. You need tech that enables people to work remotely but keep in touch; you need hot desking areas where people can drop in as required; and informal meeting spaces that allow people to work together productively.

Our flexible working programme promotes a more diverse, balanced and inclusive culture, enabling our people to work in a way that suits them.

CP: What’s your view on presenteeism vs productivity? How can organisations encourage a greater degree of mutual trust around flexible working?

AP: I believe a culture of ‘presenteeism’ is unproductive and ineffective. I just don’t understand why employees should feel pressurised to be ‘seen’ in an office. A high performing culture is one where people are judged on output and behaviours, not the number of hours they sit at a desk. Judge people on the quality of their work, not the number of hours spent in the office.

Flexibility runs through every part of our business. I don’t mind if team members choose to leave the office early to pick up their children from school and work later in the evenings if it’s easier for them to work this way.

CP: In high pressure working environments, such as in the City, workloads can be intense and feel unsustainable even if flexible working options are available. How can we help people achieve a healthier balance between work and home lives?

AP: Most smart employers understand that employees need balance in their lives.  Encouraging this not only benefits employees but also the business performance. It has a direct impact on motivating and retaining the best people, as well as attracting new talent.

CP: What do you think are the essential skills of the future for City professionals, bearing in mind the changing nature of work and the increasing impact of digital and AI technologies?

AP: We’ve seen the traditional definition of a job evolve in recent years, particularly among the younger generation, and businesses need to continue adapting to this. There is no longer a typical 9-5 job. Technology has played a key role in this evolution as it has become easier to connect and share information with people all over the world.

As AI continues to develop and integrate in the workplace, it’s important that HR teams equip our people with the right skills to ensure they are able to continue to perform in the workplace.  While AI does provide opportunity to drive efficiency in some sectors, we can’t forget to focus on the importance of human touch and continuing to provide some customer sectors with the personalised experiences that they have come to expect.


Released On 21st Jan 2019

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