Employee Experience with Dr Adam Hall


Host, Nathan Luker, talks to Dr. Adam Hall, a strategic employee experience expert at global risk and people firm, WTW. In this illuminating conversation (35 mins) Nathan and Adam discuss the impact of conduct & culture issues on the employee experience.

Topics covered include:

  • What are the pressing issues for People & Culture leaders in 2023 in terms of delivering an exceptional employee experience?
  • How are People & Culture leaders using data to assess their culture and identifying ways to improve the employee experience?
  • What happens when the employee’s lived experience of the workplace doesn’t match the promises made?
  • What is the link between people, purpose and performance?
  • Why are People & Culture teams lagging when it comes to using technology to do the grunt work, so they can focus on strategic priorities?

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Podcast Transcript

Nathan Luker: [00:00:01] Welcome to the RelyOn Podcast, a show that delivers practical insights for leaders to build better organisations where people can live, work and study. I’m Nathan Luker, co-founder at Rely, where we help some of the best-known brands prevent, detect and respond to culture and conduct issues via our intelligent platform. Welcome back to the show. Today’s conversation is with Dr. Adam Hall, who is a strategic employee experience expert at global risk and people firm, WTW. Adam is curious about culture and delivering a rewarding employee experience for his clients. Hey, Adam, welcome to the show.

Adam Hall: [00:00:41] Hi, Nathan. Great to be here.

Nathan Luker: [00:00:43] Adam, you have a PhD in psychology from Melbourne University. You’ve built your career around people and helping build better cultures. I’d love to start at what drives you.

Adam Hall: [00:00:54] I have a long interest in performance I think is probably where I started. And so my background, I started dancing classical ballet at the age of four and continued that for a long time and then gradually picked up sort of every other sport I could get my hands on, including playing AFL and athletics at pretty high levels. And that sort of led me into interest in my career in the sports space. And so I actually started my career in sport psychology and that was what my PhD was in looking at the ability of athletes to cope with long-term injuries. And as I progressed through that work and started working with more athletes and working with them in their work performance environment, I soon became more interested in the system around them and how that system that was created enabled them to perform. And so that then led me out of sport psychology and into working with organisations and really looking at the same lens how do we create the optimal environment for performance inside an organisation? And so for me that’s I guess where I came to this space.

Nathan Luker: [00:02:19] It’s fascinating. What similarities did you pick up on at a young age between the different codes?

Adam Hall: [00:02:25] Yeah, so super different, right? So, you know, classical ballet and AFL could not be culturally more different environments. And you know, it’s unfortunate to say that there was a lot of bullying inside AFL towards me as a ballet dancer during my early career and actually really that was what caused me to leave AFL and switch to athletics because the cultural elements I saw inside those football clubs, I just couldn’t reconcile with my experience as a dancer and the world that I’d grown up with. And going to an individual sport like athletics allowed me to not have to be in that environment. And obviously, you know, we’re talking 30 years ago now, give or take. So things have improved. But I think we can all see that within a lot of, you know, traditional male team sports we’ve still got a lot of work to do on culture and conduct issues.

Nathan Luker: [00:03:30] Taking that and probably many other learnings to today. You work with some of the largest brands on the planet. You’re the trusted advisor to hundreds of leaders if not thousands in the past. What are the current trends that leaders are dealing with, particularly people and culture leaders?

Adam Hall: [00:03:49] There are a lot, actually, and probably one of the biggest trends that I’ve seen across the, you know, 20 years or so that I’ve been working in this space is the elevation of these issues to a whole of executive and board level perspective. And so, you know, when I started consulting, you know, we’d have a Chief HR Officer if that’s what they were even called who was sitting on the executive, but probably wasn’t seen as a strategic player except for in a relatively few organisations. And that has changed really quite significantly now as people and culture issues are seen as incredibly strategically important both at the whole executive and at board level. And the reason for that is that the kinds of things that organisations need to enable people have leaders have finally recognised that they fundamentally rest on the ability of their people to manage and engage with those changes. So the things that we’re seeing now obviously are super hot topic is how do we redesign ways of working and sustain culture and performance in this hybrid world, right? So we’re, you know, for our organisation, how do we navigate that, particularly if we’re an organisation like many are, that are not office-based employees, right? So if we think that only 30% of people can actually work full time in an office or at home, then 70% of people have to be physically on-site.

Adam Hall: [00:05:27] And how do we design a way of working inside our organisation that provides the benefits of flexibility to everybody while still sustaining culture and driving performance? So that’s very much top of mind for a lot of organisations. Employee well-being was catapulted to front and centre during COVID and pleasingly has stayed there for a lot of organisations with a significant broadening of their interests around what they think of as employee well-being. So we have seen organisations evolve their thinking on what they think about. So even from a mental health perspective, we have seen a movement from a more mental illness, injury kind of safety view of the world to a more holistic mental health view, recognising that because you have a mental illness does not mean you have poor mental health and because you don’t have a mental illness does not mean you have good mental health. You can be anywhere along the two by two, depending on the situation that you find yourself in. And what is the organisation’s role and ability to respond to employees in that situation?

Nathan Luker: [00:06:42] Those two things seem really linked. Driving, performance and well-being and taking a holistic view of things make a more challenging. Some proactive organisations we saw were already embracing work-life integration. Work-life balance was, you know, that was obviously the vast majority were focused on that. How much complexity has that brought into the discussion with leaders achieving performance, work-life, integration, well-being? That’s a lot to handle.

Adam Hall: [00:07:09] Enormous complexity. And that’s, I think, why we’ve seen, you know, one of the reasons we’re elevated these people and culture leaders into more strategic players in the executive suite is because their ability, those who can and do a good job, the ability to support the objective of the organisation and the strategy of the organisation through enabling employees to perform. And so that can be, you know, how do we integrate AI into work? Are we reducing manual, you know, repetitive work through RPA, or are we augmenting performance through other kinds of technologies? What and where should we place those technology bets for the greatest benefit for the organisation, not just the greatest cost reduction? Then we see the integration of a broader lens. So and that’s where it starts to get very complex. So we’ve got what’s the relationship between these things around hybrid culture, well-being, diversity, equity, inclusion, automation. They’re all interlinked and require a really well-thought-out people strategy to get the best benefit from them.

Nathan Luker: [00:08:28] It’s interesting you raise technology and data. It seems as though HR is one of the last business units to get that proper focus and treatment and budget.

[00:08:35] I think there are. Yeah, that’s true. I think there’s been, there are a range of reasons for that. I think the system side is evolving quite rapidly, but of course we get into personal information and privacy issues really quickly on this data side, which perhaps not so much of an issue in other places. Obviously, it is on the customer side as well, but particularly on the employee side. And there are real challenges around how do we manage that and the conversations we have with a lot of clients is being very clear about the purpose for which data is collected and used. And just because you can doesn’t mean you should in how we use some of this data so we can use data to surveil people. We can use data to understand exactly what they’re doing. But should you do that in terms of the kinds of culture and organisation you’re looking to create?

Nathan Luker: [00:09:36] And it makes me think of the positive duty. That’s the new Australian law that puts the onus on employers to eliminate psychological hazard and hostile work environments. Pushing that forward, what data technology or steps of people and culture leaders taking to assess their conduct and culture risks in this space?

Adam Hall: [00:09:58] So it depends a bit on their maturity level in this space. So I think we see a curve, if you like, a maturity curve here. And there are some organisations that are focused on the traditional, what we might call lagging measures still and making sure, you know, that and collecting good data on conduct issues right? So have they got good access to actual data on reporting issues of bullying or harassment? And do they analyse that data in an effective way? So we did an interesting piece of work for a client a while ago, looking at both substantiated and unsubstantiated reporting. And the experience of people inside those parts of that organisation were really different. So we had organisational units that had a high number of reported issues that were unsubstantiated, and we had other units that had low unsubstantiated issues relative to the number of issues they were reporting. So, you know, most of the issues were substantiated. And what we could see once we looked across the rest of their data, you know, from employee surveys and other metrics, was there were some real conduct issues in the unit that had low unsubstantiated reporting, but very, you know, but so most of their issues were real conduct issues coming from somebody. The group that had a very high number of reports but a lot of them were unsubstantiated. They were just really, really unhappy people. There were a lot of just dysfunctional organisational things going on there that weren’t really conduct issues, but they were just the conduct reporting was the cry for help, to your point, that was where the insight that there’s something not working in this part of the business was coming from. And so the performance factors actually were there wasn’t a huge performance decrement in the first unit. We had behavioural issues that needed to be addressed. But in the second unit performance was poor across a whole range of areas and it was kind of showing up as this, I can’t get my voice heard any other way, so I’m going to make a report because this is how I express that something’s not right here. And so that was kind of even with the lagging data, there’s a kind of interesting way to look at some of that data to understand what is going on and work backwards. But increasingly, we’re seeing more broader views of the organisation in the data. So audits against psychosocial risk, so particularly aligned to ISO 45,003, where organisations are looking at their policies and practices and programs and to try and identify where they have opportunity to improve the way they work to reduce psychosocial risk.

Adam Hall: [00:12:56] And then the third group of organisations are those that view their people and culture strategy as one which should create employee well-being as an intended outcome. So, I guess, the most evolved organisations are ones who think, well, the whole point of having a people and culture strategy is to enable our employees to have a positive employee experience and to support their well-being. And that then very much changes the way you look at data, because suddenly a whole range of data comes into the question that can inform how well you’re doing that, that isn’t traditionally identified in this space. So obviously we start to look at absence and turnover, but we also start to look across broader employee experience measures coming from surveys or interaction data with Microsoft or other tools to say, well, what are people doing with their time? You know, how effective is the way that they’re experiencing work. And so this starts to build, again, a more complex but more holistic picture of the environment in which that person is working or those people are working.

Nathan Luker: [00:14:09] Higher up on the maturity curve for group three. Overlaying that lag information, so conduct a quantity of conduct reported would be illuminating. Once placed over the lead indicators, you start to build a bit of a tapestry around, okay, trust. Because when you only looking at lag indicators, we find it’s hard to know if high or low is good. You need to overlay it with other metrics because you could get a ton of reports to your point and that could be a great thing. You could also be tracking with a higher trust environment and your initiatives are working. Do you see that often?

Adam Hall: [00:14:43] Yeah, and I think that’s where we started. I’ve done a lot of work on safety. Traditional safety culture in my career as well. And it’s like near-miss reporting. So sometimes, as you say, near-miss reporting is either a great thing or a terrible thing depends on your context. And so that’s exactly right. So it is the alignment of these pieces of data, but it’s also the intentionality of the design of the work. And so I think if I think back to how do I see if I go back to my roots and think, well, what is it that you do when you’re developing an athlete to try and perform at their best, I think links between sporting organisations and organisations and business organisations are over made because they’re not that similar, because a business organisation or an operational organisation is far more complex and the employee is embedded into a much more intricate system of interactions with many more factors at play. But the same idea is essentially that what we should look to do is intentionally align the purpose of the organisation, the strategy and the culture with a view to creating experiences that reflect the kind of performance we’re trying to create. And so that’s what you do in a sporting environment and that’s exactly what we should be looking to do in an organisational environment. And so that is, you know, that clarity of purpose, the alignment of strategy and culture really do then create, identify the kinds of metrics that you want to be tracking to tell you whether those things are working because you can’t track everything. You shouldn’t try and track everything and not everything is important to every organisation. And so it is about doing that work and then identifying for us with this purpose and this strategy. These are the cultural elements that are critical and these are the things that tell us in people’s experiences about whether that alignment is in place.

Nathan Luker: [00:16:52] WTW is a tier-one firm, the vast majority of organisations don’t have the opportunity to work with you and your colleagues. So where do you feel the majority of organisations are on that maturity curve?

Adam Hall: [00:17:06] Yeah. I mean that’s right. We do see a very narrow slice of the world, although we have some small clients as well. And not everyone’s at the, you know, ASX20 end of the world. But I think there are a lot of organisations in the middle. So I think that most organisations are at least looking at the lagging, progressing to looking at some kind of audit now, particularly with the positive duty and there are very few organisations who have this view of designing human capital strategy for the creation of well-being. And so that is, I think, quite a new lens. And we see, you know, a couple of organisations that we work with both globally and locally, who are on that pathway, you know, think they would all say they’re not you know, there’s no end point to that journey. But so that is the framework that they’re starting to look at in terms of, you know, how do we design the ways of working? How do how does our strategy interact with that? What benefits do we offer employees? You know, and so questions like do you offer employees life insurance or salary continuance insurance outside of a super fund? You know, they’re not competitive questions in terms of the market because in Australia they’re very unusual, but they are philosophical questions about what support do you believe you should provide to your employees when things go wrong? And so we see organisations who think philosophically we should support our employees when things go as wrong as they could possibly go for somebody. And so we’re going to fund those things as a benefit. Often employees don’t value those things until they need to call on them. And so that’s a challenge for organisations that provide those things, which are a significant cost, to have employees fully value what they are doing in that space.

Nathan Luker: [00:19:09] It’s interesting for the listeners sitting in that vast majority who have just gotten through COVID, they’re adapting their culture and values and leadership style to hybrid work, hopefully highly likely or online. They’re dealing with psychosocial hazards. There’s the positive duty. They’re doing the best that they can. What should they do next? You know, what’s the next thing they should do? If you could speak to the whole group that those leaders should consider now to push the needle and get closer towards the third phase?

Adam Hall: [00:19:42] We would always start with listening to your people. And so if you’re not listening to your people in an open way around these kind of topics. And the challenge, of course, is, one, it will take time to really hear the truth, because establishing trust in the listening process, it takes time. So even if you have been running regular engagement-type surveys or pulse-type surveys of some kind, starting to introduce listening around these kinds of topics will be scary for people. So when we’re working with clients who are running surveys around DEI or conduct issues or asking about experiences of bullying, harassment, then we need to introduce that in a really considered way and be very clear about the purpose of the listening, how the data will be used and the assurances that we can provide the individual about their confidentiality. And even with all of that, we will still have a lot of people who won’t be confident until they have seen that data be collected and used in an appropriate way to inform strategy rather than target individuals. And so that for leaders is really important. So the commitment that you’re going to do it, the understanding of the questions that you should ask, but also being committed, it’s a bit like again, it’s very the links between this space and DEI are very strong. So the kind of strategy and process that we think about as we start to move along a maturity around DEI are very similar here, which is where we’re starting to be clear around what we’re trying to do, listen to employees about where they are but also do things that we know are important because we understand the broader context of the community.

Adam Hall: [00:21:50] So your point there about introducing a domestic and family violence policy is because we know regardless of what our own organisation data tells us, that this is going on and in an organisation of a thousand people, there will be people experiencing family and domestic violence and they might be on either side of that. And that piece is one of the harder things, I think, for organisations to come to terms with, is that you might have people who are committing acts of violence as well as experiencing acts of violence in your own workforce and what do you do about that? And it was very interesting to hear at a recent session run by the Corporate Mental Health Alliance of Australia, BHP, talking about their trauma-informed care approach and, you know, the way that they have thought about standing that up and think they would say they’re not finished or any of that, but they have moved a long way on that journey from where they started a couple of years ago. So listening is where you start and then you use that data to inform what you should focus on.

Nathan Luker: [00:22:58] That really resonates. Silence is deafening. I just had a conversation with Megan Reitz, who’s well-known for talking about listening first and the impact silence has. Have you seen any other great examples like that that you can think of that vast majority can do to signal there’s a listening environment here?

[00:23:17] Yeah, so elevating it onto a standing agenda item on executive and board agendas is important. That’s not necessarily something that’s visible to people, but you can tell them that that’s what you’re doing. Leadership role modelling here is the number one thing. So having leaders who are able to talk about it demonstrate the commitment that they have to it through how they can talk about it, particularly from stories, if they can tell stories around the importance of these issues or the way in which they have seen them responded to, that creates starts to create the permission structure for people to start talking in the organisation about it. And that’s what we need to do. It is, unfortunately, I think still too often the one brave person who speaks up from inside the organisation because they just can’t not. I’d love to get to the point where we don’t require courage to be a defining thing that people need to do in order to raise these issues. Right now, courage is still required.

Nathan Luker: [00:24:26] I see it all too often, having made a career around helping people find that courage, make it safe for them to take that leap, irrespective if the organisation has built it or not, unfortunately.

Adam Hall: [00:24:39] Yeah. It’s interesting. If you think about the permission structure that exists around reporting safety incidents in a lot of organisations, we need to create the same kind of environment on the conduct side. And so it is quite interesting when you look at organisations that have very strong safety cultures around physical safety. It isn’t replicated often into psychological safety. And so the challenges that they’re having is how do we take what we understand about how we did that here over a long period of time often and enable us on the other side?

Nathan Luker: [00:25:17] That’s one of the reasons I started Rely, was we all too often were meeting organisations that their people and culture team were operating off spreadsheets and those spreadsheets maybe weren’t complete. They were doing the best they could, but they were not bringing data to the surface. They were not creating courage or trauma-informed and human-centred approaches to receiving information and delivering a consistent, respectful process every time. And to your point, those things might not be substantiated. What happens if something goes wrong? The employee experience does not align with the lived experience. How does that affect the people, the bystanders and the culture? And it only takes one, right? It only takes one big issue.

Adam Hall: [00:25:58] Yeah, that’s right. And unfortunately for organisations, the damage is quite long-lasting and far-reaching. So often we see it’s a bit like radiation. It’s like an atomic bomb, right? There’s the initial thing that damages everyone who’s close to it in various ways. But the ripples that spread out from that event in terms of the way it is kind of mythologised into the organisation can last for a very long time. So people will remember what the organisation did or did not do and tell us in employee surveys about it for a long time afterwards, unless there is a corrective action of some kind that is symbolic and meaningful, right? So I think I work with my colleagues in our workplace risk side and our health and benefits advisory side and insurance side and say, well, you know, we need to put as much attention to what the employee experience is of what happens when something goes wrong as what we’re trying to do with building a great onboarding process that’s technology-enabled and seamless, because if you’re the person who has to make a report, maybe ends up claiming on insurance, you know, often those experiences end up being very alienating and isolating for people. And they’re not restorative at all in terms of being able to bring that person back into the organisation in an effective way. And so there’s a lot more attention, I think, we could put from an organisation perspective on how do we take people through that process, not handing it over to, you know, often WTW brokers who are involved or the insurer or in the claims process where particularly, you know, it can be very long, very drawn out, and it can be very stressful and unsatisfactory for people. And so, again, it is a re-traumatising experience rather than a restorative experience. So I think there’s a real opportunity there to relook at how that experience is designed and the way in which the organisation engages with those.

Nathan Luker: [00:28:18] Well said. And think back to your point about cost reduction only and broadening that focus to where it can add value and mitigate risk. I’ve got some great advice when starting the business, which was learn when to spend to win. And it’s a basic but wonderful philosophy here for people and culture teams to understand that AI, tech, of that jazz is not there just to make you more productive. That’s an output. It’s there to help you be more efficient amongst a really busy BAU, there’s a what is it? It’s 1.3 HR managers per 100 people or so. So that’s a big portfolio. What happens when it impacts performance? How does culture and conduct, because I think there’s a misunderstanding with how detrimental culture and conduct can be on performance. What are some real-life examples where culture and conduct issues or poor cultures have had a drastic impact on performance?

Adam Hall: [00:29:11] Oh, I mean, every organisational disaster, failure, that you can think of in recent memory is significantly contributed to by poor culture. So obviously, we’ve had the Financial Services Royal Commission here recently. The essence of the problems in those organisations were cultural. It was not that they didn’t have good risk policies, not that they didn’t know how to manage things, but the failure of alignment between purpose, strategy and culture and then the enabling systems, processes and behaviours were poor. And so people were allowed to get away with doing things that everyone knew was wrong. Everybody could see it and it became a permissive thing. And you can look at, you know, we did some work in North America a long time ago on the Texas City refinery accident and cultural problems and leadership failures were, were absolutely critical to the significant loss of life that occurred. There you can see the Deepwater Horizon, like Challenger. All of these things ultimately have come back to cultural failings where there’s, you know, not sufficient ability to challenge decisions that get made, an inability to work across the organisation in an effective way. And, you know, it does ultimately for us come down to the opportunity and the ability for employees to exercise voice in a safe way when they see something wrong. And so rather than have to go outside to use a whistleblower channel, ideally, there would be no need for that, not to undermine a business model. But, essentially we should be able to we should be able to work up through the organisation and get satisfactory responses to concerns within the way the organisation works rather than having to go outside when we see something that is so wrong. And that’s where all of these things have fallen down.

Nathan Luker: [00:31:23] You want them to work in tandem together and not be that organisation. At the start of the conversation where all the whistleblowing service and anonymous reports are just basic conduct issues. That’s not what that service is for. It was interesting, you mentioned Deepwater Horizon, and it’s we notice organisations slowly drift into this area because they’ve got performance pressures, poor leadership. They’re not using data to, I guess, look at the lead indicators. And I remember in the report reading in the Deepwater Horizon that they said there was a catastrophic failure because there was an imbalance between production and protection. And that was really interesting. And I think on that note, success leads to complacency in a safety culture and a culture, conduct or performance.

Adam Hall: [00:32:06] Yeah. Yeah, it is. You know, it’s a constant need to reinforce force and to stay mindful of what is going on in your environment. And I also think, you know, when we look at a lot of the survey data we see from organisations, we see very few leaders in organisations say don’t care about this stuff. They will express concern and they will say, you know, employee well-being is very important to me or, you know, creating a safe culture is very important. But it is that question that we then ask about, what is valued more – performance, production or safety and well-being and that’s where we see actually when the decisions get made about how work is designed or goes forward, the well-being conduct issues still don’t get the weight that they should. And so again, financial services has been a bit of a whipping boy in this space. But we continue to see people with poor conduct records being rewarded, being, you know, moved around, not having consequences that should apply to them. And that message that is sent then through the rest of the organisation is really easily received. Right? You can do this and you can get away with it. And so not just to call out financial services, we see it professional services, people who’ve been in bring in big business, you know, conduct issues are tolerated where they just would not be tolerated for people who are not as successful. And it’s culturally defining, it doesn’t matter what else you say in your culture, what values you have on the wall, none of that matters. The permission to let that behaviour go is your culture. Again, the balance, when I’m talking with clients about what is a performance culture versus what is a culture that performs well, are different things and sometimes in people who want to drive a performance culture, we see low tolerance. And in a culture that performs well, actually, it’s quite the opposite.

Nathan Luker: [00:34:24] This has been such a rich conversation and a privilege to have you on the show. The last question we ask everyone on the show is can you please complete the sentence, great cultures rely on…

Adam Hall: [00:34:38] Alignment between beliefs, values, expected behaviours, enabling systems and processes.

Nathan Luker: [00:34:53] It’s a long but wonderful t-shirt. Thanks Adam for the show. Hopefully we have a round two at some point soon.

Adam Hall: [00:34:59] Thanks so much.

Nathan Luker: [00:35:04] Thanks for listening to RelyOn. You can access the show notes from this episode, download resources and listen to other episodes at relyplatform.com. If you enjoyed the episode, we welcome you to submit a review or send an email to hello@relyplatform.com.

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