The head, heart and brain of Brexit: HR’s role in managing uncertainty

Leadership expert Jan Hills chaired the first panel session in IRN’s Brexit HR series. Four companies offered delegates insight into responding to current ambiguity.

EU flag image with heartbeat trace
Kicking off the conversation, Jan Hills invited the audience to share in a quick-fire poll their experiences to date of responding to Brexit. Close to a quarter of delegates reported being at a loss of what to do (23%).Around six in ten were more upbeat, reporting a belief “it is possible to respond to the present circumstances” and are looking to the discussion for ideas. 

The brain's response to change

With this in mind, Jan Hills, who draws on neuroscience heavily in her work with companies as a partner at consultancy Head, Heart + Brain, described the psychological response people are likely to be experiencing to Brexit.“The brain likes certainty and some would call it a ‘pattern-spotting machine.’ If the pattern is broken, then we get a threat response. The trouble is though with a threat response is we tend to generalise it to everything. We think everything is uncertain and ambiguous.“To counteract it, we should get people to focus on what isn’t changing and what is certain to negate the threat imbalance. Having a clear sense of purpose is one way of redirecting this.”

Taking heart - transforming uncertainty into certainty

As discussion chair, Ms Hills inquired of the panel what their companies were doing to prepare employees for Brexit and to establish certainty during these ambiguous times.What became clear from the experiences shared by four speakers was how no single approach prevailed. Each example was as unique as the business and its employee profile.However, a clear sense of purpose, informed and calm communication with employees, and preparation for Brexit through upskilling managers and workforce planning were common threads in the discussion.
Read more from the IRN's Brexit HR series:

Sense of purpose drives clarity and decisiveness

Perhaps by necessity the company furthest down the line and most affected in the short term is insurer and quasi-statutory body, Lloyd’s of London. It passports £11bn of business to the EU through London. Here, leaders had to start conversations with regulators in the immediate aftermath of the referendum while most of us were still coming to terms with the outcome.Philip Edwards, the specialist insurer’s head of employee relations and policies, explained the company could not wait and act given the proportion of its EU-facing business. It had to act decisively to maintain the continuity of the business.Lloyd’s of London company is currently preparing to open its Brussels office – a city selected for its location close to the heart of EU decision-making and the Eurostar train service – in July 2018 and ahead of the two-year negotiation period set out in Article 50.“This will have a big impact on our employee population,” said Mr Edwards. “Some senior roles will relocate out of London.”Commuting is already a reality out of choice for some of the leadership team. Mr Edwards expects cross-border commuting to increase after the move, which the company will carefully monitor for tax and compliance purposes. It is also reducing its business travel budget by a fifth as global teleconferencing technology becomes more reliable.

Opportunity through challenge 

For Mr Edwards, “the interesting part” is also governance, which means the number of people the company anticipates to move is now “significantly greater” than the 20 employees first envisaged.With a footprint in Europe already to start the journey from, Lloyd's of London is now looking at how it can embrace the opportunities of having a greater European presence to expand the business here, perhaps digitally.As well as creating certainty with the multi-million-pound investment in the new Brussels operation, Lloyd’s of London has worked with its employees and some of its third-party suppliers, like caterers, to prepare them and offer clarity around their situation after 2019.“We worked with our immigration lawyers to offer sessions for all our employees to inform them of what we do know about Brexit and how to prepare,” said Mr Edwards. “There was great interest in this and lots of interest about family members.“For us, this was all about being open to questions and communicating, even when no one has the answers.”

How to lead and communicate through uncertainty

Petra Wilton, director of strategy and external affairs at the Chartered Management Institute, underlined the critical role of leaders who “set the tone from the top.”Noting the government’s approach to Brexit before the summer and the change of approach now with the publication of a series of papers, Ms Wilton commented: “The government is waking up to the importance of transparency and communication with businesses. Over the summer, the doors seemed to open and they brought the views of business in. There has to be somewhere for people to go to communicate, engage, learn and share.” Beverley Vince, head of HR and operations at sector representative body the Association for Financial Markets in Europe (AFME), concurred with the importance of confident communication when there are no clear answers: “It is ok to say you don’t know, especially at the moment when we don’t even really know what the exam questions are. But that we are together.”Here, Dimitris Tsouroplis, group head of HR of global conglomerate Libra Group, which operates across the transport, hotels, real estate and energy industries, balanced this view with the need for leaders to communicate calmness and consistency. “As we understand more around where the threat is to our businesses, then we can tailor and respond.”Mr Tsouroplis also warned of the dangers of over-communicating, which might lead to irrational decisions. “For now, we reassure, we follow up and then communicate. We want to keep our good employees – knowing the situation is part of that.”

Planning, talent management and upskilling – and a question for us all

For the CMI’s Petra Wilson, successfully navigating through uncertainty is also about equipping managers with the skills to manage change and the links to boosting productivity.Ms Wilson suggested that the UK’s Brexit bill could be obliterated by the boost to output if employers invested in management training. “People become ‘accidental managers’ all too often,” she said, leaving people underprepared and underperforming.This is one element of an holistic view taken on-board by AFME, where staff engagement, communication, visa sponsorship, talent and retention are combining to help fill the skills gaps. "A third of our workforce is from the EU and we are proud of that,” said Beverley Vince, explaining how AFME had looked at the issue of Brexit from a number of angles and conducted a gap analysis. In response to its findings, the body has joined up to the City of London apprenticeship scheme and is looking at succession planning, engagement and our talent pipeline.In bringing the interactive panel discussion to a close, Jan Hills summarised the key point, then posed a question to us all: “The more you can have communication that are discussions and debates about what is going on, the more people will trust you.“If you aren’t sure if you are doing this effectively, check your own response: is uncertainty making you less open?”

Look out for more Brexit planning news and features in the upcoming Autumn 2017 issue of Relocate Global magazine. Reserve your copy here.

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