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ZOE BRUNSWICK

THAT HUMAN PROGRESS HAS BEEN ACHIEVED AT THE EXPENSE OF THE PLANET IS A REALITY THAT WE ARE ONLY NOW COMING TO TERMS WITH. THE PARADOX IS, OUR MARK UPON THE EARTH IS IRREFUTABLE, YET OUR SURVIVAL RELIES UPON MOVING FORWARD. IT IS THE GREATEST CHALLENGE WE FACE. BUT WITHIN THE ENGINEERING SECTOR, RENOWNED IN THE PAST FOR ENDEAVOUR WITHOUT CONSEQUENCE, RSK HAS A SEEMINGLY UNIQUE PROPOSITION, ENVIRONMENTAL SOLUTIONS THROUGH ENGINEERING AND TECHNOLOGY. IT’S A COMPELLING AMBITION, BUT HOW DOES IT WORK?


ZOE, TAKE US BACK TO YOUR EARLY LIFE AND HOW YOU FOUND THE PATH TO A CAREER IN HR.  

I studied international business management at Manchester Metropolitan University and I always knew that I wanted a career in a commercial environment, having grown up watching The Apprentice. Like many people at that time, I felt really drawn to the city vibe, because it seemed so exciting, but I hadn’t really carved out a specific career path at that point. During my studies, I found the course was pretty eclectic, but I had a strong sense that people management was the area I was most interested in and it really played to my strengths. I have definitely always been a people person and I enjoyed working in the customer-facing retail and hospitality sectors and so it felt quite natural that when I finished my degree, I would combine these interests with a role in recruitment. My first job was in the hospitality sector with much of my recruitment responsibilities involving staff from European countries. It was a pretty hectic time and there was a great deal of pressure in understanding and responding to the recruitment challenges of supply and demand. My entire day was spent on the phone and, while I learned a lot, I knew that this wasn’t what I had in mind for my career long term. I took as much as I could from the experience – which is what I’d recommend to others as they build their careers – and sent my CV out in response to those job ads that I thought would move me closer to my real career path.

I joined The Big Food Group (Iceland Foods) for a temporary post, which was my first HR role and at the time of joining, the company was restructuring. I had no significant role in the restructuring strategy, but I learned a great deal from that experience. Then, as that temporary role came to a close, there was a vacancy for an HR and payroll post at a local grounds maintenance and landscape construction company, Vale Contract Services and I applied. My HR experience at The Big Food Group provided me with an attractive skill set and this really helped me land a great opportunity at Vale. At the time of joining, Vale was embarking on a massive growth plan and essentially, my work involved setting up an HR function from scratch and suddenly, I was having to punch way above my weight. On top of establishing an HR department, I was involved in a massive recruitment drive linked to a number of public sector contract awards, which saw the headcount double within a year. With the foundation of my HR plan in place, I then set about recruiting my first assistant to support me. This was all a big challenge, but it was also really rewarding. This was a lower-paid, long hours industry with a lot of churn and so recruitment took a great deal of the time, energy and resources from a small department that was just gaining a grip on day-to-day HR support. Working in this type of industry, employee relations matters are particularly prevalent and I was thrown into the world of grievance and discipline at scale, which was a steep learning curve, but an excellent way to gain a very broad HR experience. This exposure would go on to serve me well later in my career and gave me the opportunity to develop a good sense of people and this intuition has proven to be invaluable. With this experience under my belt, I began to think about my next move and I came across an opportunity with a company I knew nothing about and that is how, 16 years ago, I came to join RSK, initially in the post of Senior HR Assistant.



TELL US ABOUT RSK THE BUSINESS AND YOUR EARLY EXPERIENCES.  

RSK is a global leader in the delivery of sustainable solutions and we are a multi-sector group that works across engineering and technical services. Care for the environment is central to all our activities, regardless of the sector and we’re committed to advancing the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and this is reflected in our work in water, energy, food and drink, infrastructure, urban development, mining and  te. When I joined RSK, it was still a business that you could put your arms around – with around 700 employees – having grown significantly in the previous few years before I joined. My role was to develop the HR department and our HR strategy while supporting continued business growth – which was familiar territory for me – but equally offered that highly coveted blank canvas that allowed me to further develop my skills. The culture at RSK was already fantastic and, although we were across quite a few offices at that time anyway, there was very good synergy and it was a really friendly, fun and supportive environment. We work veryhard to ensure that this remains the case today. I started with the nuts and bolts, around policy implementation and putting principles in place. There were some definite red flag issues, such as absenteeism, which were not being managed effectively and which had knock-on effects on staff retention and attrition. I had developed a style of building relationships and winning trust by identifying people’s areas of concern or frustration and making some early improvements and I think this is crucial.

It means you can then move on to more complex issues and you can rely on some honest insight and input, which brings people along with a change programme. Fortunately, the culture at RSK was already very open and there was, above all else, real heart in the business, with people wanting to do a good job. Our Chief Executive Officer, Alan Ryder, is very entrepreneurial, which means there is always a sense of dynamism and movement and HR is there to provide some structure and continuity. It is critical for my department to hold that fine balance between maintaining stability and keeping motivation and momentum and embracing progress, not avoiding it. I look at RSK now and, although we are a much bigger organisation – with more than 15,000 people in 40 countries – there are many similarities, particularly in terms of values, culture and objectives. At the heart of this business is the fact that we started off as an environmental consultancy that began to acquire some businesses in the technical and engineering sectors, all the time maintaining the focus of working with the environment, not against it.



WHAT ARE THE ELEMENTS THAT HAVE INFORMED ON YOUR APPROACH TO PEOPLE MANAGEMENT STRATEGY AT RSK?  

There are trends and of course there is legislation, but above all, it is learning from experience. A case in point is when we started to focus more on the health and wellbeing of our people, because a senior colleague was diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Their experience made everyone more aware of the importance of both preventative wellbeing and that what we had in place to support people needed to improve in terms of preventative measures. This included better awareness around how we manage physical and mental health, with activities such as an annual pedometer challenge and guiding people to health checks. We placed particular emphasis on hidden conditions, as opposed to waiting until there are symptoms and then reacting after the fact. I can honestly say that we are an organisation that cares about our people and I have seen this in practice on many occasions. Before the pandemic, it was clear that across society in general, our sedentary lifestyles were having a big impact on health and wellbeing and lockdown brought that all into sharp focus. Mindful of the changing era of work – with home and remote working becoming more prevalent and remaining so – we had to examine how we approached health and wellbeing. It’s so important to set the tone and motivation correctly and I think you need to bring people on board at the earliest opportunity, so that they feel like stakeholders, otherwise it can come across as a bit of a gimmick, or something imposed. That’s been our ethos as we’ve continued to grow.



TELL US ABOUT HOW YOU HAVE BUILT AND DEVELOPED YOUR HR TEAMS?  

At one point, we were a department of two people and now we have a team of nearly 200 across the business. I’m immensely proud that we’ve been able grow that service, build kudos and remain sustainable. Like so many businesses, the pandemic really brought HR to the forefront, with all eyes on our profession and we stepped up to the plate during unprecedented circumstances. We asked ourselves a series of questions, such as; how are we going to keep people safe? How are we going to keep them employed? What about their physical and mental wellbeing? There were so many facets and I’m just so thankful that, by that point, we had a really good team in place and a strong structure meant that we were able to support the business and be resilient. Looking back, it was such a bleak time, but it was also a real opportunity to demonstrate value, focus on people, mental health and wellbeing. It changed the way we communicate and train our managers with the skills to support people and understand the personal pressures, which to some extent had been hidden from view. There’s nothing in the HR training manual that prepares you to navigate through a pandemic, but for me, it demonstrated the complexity of all the moving parts and daily, hourly and minute-by-minute changes. We had to be resilient and reactive and all of those dynamics have really affected how people operate and we emerged more pragmatic and analytical, but also more flexible.



WHAT IS YOUR OPINION OF THE BUSINESSES THAT ARE PUSHING TO A RETURN TO THE CONVENTIONS OF WORK IN LOCATION AND TIME?  

Clearly, people have become used to a way of working for a sustained period and you have to understand that you will lose talent if you try and reel in freedoms and reimpose old methods of operating. The challenge now is finding balance and certainly younger generations are expecting flexible/remote and hybrid working as standard. There are obvious concerns surrounding the positive elements of human interaction that make traditional work practices compelling for many people. These include in-person team working and peer-to-peer relationships. What is inescapable, however, is Pandora’s box is open and now it is about replicating those traditional and valuable work experiences in the flexible-hybrid setting. The detail is important, particularly those crucial human interactions and ways of tapping into learning & development, mentoring and finding opportunities for a team day in the office. It’s still evolving and will continue to do so for some time. Largely, it is a positive – people are productive and where there is trust and you focus on output and delivery, it builds empowerment and self-responsibility.



RSK HAS GROWN CONSIDERABLY DURING YOUR TENURE. THROUGH ALL THE GROWTH, MERGER AND ACQUISITION ACTIVITY, HOW DO YOU MAINTAIN THE VALUES AND CULTURE?  

Our ethos is centred on having the right people and this is as true in recruitment as it is when we’re looking to buy businesses. It’s not just about what the business does, because diversity can be a strength in mergers and acquisitions, it’s about the people leading the business. Experience shows that if two businesses with very different cultures collide, it can be at least unsettling and at its worst, things can derail, with all the cost and disruption that entails. The synergy we seek is about identifying like-minded businesses and having respect and understanding for all our partners on the acquisition journey. It’s not about acquiring a business, absorbing it and ultimately changing it to remove everything it was and everything it has achieved. It’s about supporting them on the next chapter of their story and maximising the opportunities ahead, allowing them to flourish. We do encourage our businesses to work together where they can and build internal ecosystems that support this. This has been achieved successfully across RSK and drawing on this global wealth of skills and experience is extremely useful to our clients, who value what we can offer in terms of this end-to-end application and project management. As a global business operating in many countries, from an HR perspective, we have a centralised team managing our international people base. We also have our local HR people on the ground and we have a business leadership team with many years of experience in managing those relationships.

T he dynamics are such that crisis is part of the business plan and we have the mechanisms in place for business continuity and support. Returning to values and cultures, these are extremely important to a business like ours, as they are to all businesses. It’s about balance, understanding and being sensitive to local cultures in everything that we do. We have to apply that local filter and we have to think about the impacts in all business interactions. A case in point is an enhanced diversity monitoring project that we are carrying out at the moment in the UK, with a view to rolling out globally. There are so many nuances to the questions that we might ask in the UK that would not be acceptable in some territories and so you have to have one foot in your own values and culture and the other in being pragmatic and understanding of others. There is no blanket approach and it’s essential to hear from people locally. A valuable resource for RSK and our people is the opportunity our colleagues have to share their thoughts with the business through our global employee networks. Hearing directly from our people on a range of issues that are important to them and the business, has been very informative and the more you communicate, the greater the awareness and understanding. We now have a Neurodiversity Network, a Unity Network, a Pride Network and a Women’s Network and we’ve just launched our Armed Forces Network and I’m sure we won’t stop there. Making positive progress can seem like a huge challenge, but our employee networks are crucial to our ability to make informed decisions that benefit everyone, because these are rooted in giving many different communities a voice. I think an important consideration is how you perceive challenges. If it’s a case of bemoaning that the goalposts are constantly changing, then that is counterproductive to growth and positive progress will never come from negativity. Our employee networks are a great example of what can be achieved and we’re seeing fantastic collaboration across the different networks and our workforce as a whole. HR challenges are about being pragmatic and accepting that people are going to make mistakes. DEI is such a dynamic and fast-moving field and what many people remember as being acceptable a few years ago, might not be acceptable today. We have to be consistent in education and awareness raising and make sure that we create a safe space where people can talk openly. Our networks have been fantastic, we’ve achieved so many things and there is great traction on some of the very important areas. If we hadn’t had our networks in place when we came to do our diversity monitoring project, it would not have been as successful. We’ve had a third of the UK workforce engaged already and it’s only been launched a couple of months, so that’s really positive to see that people are already feeling able to disclose that information. To me, that demonstrates that they feel that they are in a safe environment for that information to be shared and they can see that it is something that we genuinely care about. T his is of course important feedback, but it isn’t for us as a business and it’s not about a tick-box exercise, it’s about understanding our people and how we can support them better. We are working hard to have a company culture where everyone is set up to thrive and to do that, we need to understand where there may be barriers to participation. The typical approach for many organisations, is to identify an issue and invest in a tool that they think will help, but if you don’t know who you’re trying to support and why, how do you know it’s going to be of value? We’re very much working collaboratively with our networks and we are constantly hearing back from our members. We have our group DEI strategy, but we are also very much working hand-in-hand with our employee networks to hear from them, to hear from their people about what is going to make lives easier in the workplace and to understand the challenges that they’re facing and how can we overcome them. Those are the issues that we’re really focusing in on. What is really positive is when they can see the direct correlation between having their voices heard and how that leads to change. It’s so important there is action as well as a realistic understanding that we can’t do everything. It’s very much a collaborative journey and it’s important that we travel together and share the same goals.



AI AND MACHINE LEARNING ARE NOT SCIENCE FICTION ANYMORE, THEY’RE COMING INTO THE WORKPLACE AND THEY’RE INFILTRATING ELEMENTS OF JOBS THAT WE SIMPLY DID NOT CONSIDER. HOW DO YOU PLAN AND STRATEGISE TO MEET THAT CHALLENGE AND OPTIMISE THE ADVANTAGES AND OPPORTUNITIES?  

This is top of our discussion agenda now and we do not underestimate the impact that technology will have across our organisation. Many of the operations in our businesses are very specialised and so I see that there is generally a positive expectation that AI will assist and serve, as opposed to superseding jobs. Undoubtedly, there is and will continue to be change and you would be naive to think that people will not have to adapt and reskill along the way and that is why a culture and mindset of continuous learning is so important now. Technology is accelerating and dictating change, rather than us inviting it into our world. But most importantly, we need to be pragmatic to change, not suspicious and try to short-circuit it. Technology is vital to a better future. What is also true is that it has always been there and, when people become accustomed to change, the advantages and improvements become evident. These can include taking the drudge and repetition out of jobs and enabling people in all disciplines and skills to focus on creativity, quality and forging positive relationships. Technology gives that time and space for thought, consideration and strategy. It’s not just about efficiency, it’s about quality, interactivity with peers and human ingenuity.



WHAT DO YOU THINK OF HR AS A PROFESSION IN 2024? DOES IT HAVE IMPACT? IS IT STILL RELEVANT?  

This is an important time for HR, which has been at the crossroads for some time, because people management technology is providing incredible insight to inform on decision-making. It’s enabling HR to be elevated above the nitty-gritty of people management and plan ahead. Looking across our business, the conclusion that we have arrived at is that, AI doesn’t know our business – it can generate some common threads – but the human equation is as essential as ever. It’s also important to dispel the paranoia and fear and not be consumed by the constant change narrative around technology. Today, RSK represents a group of more than 200 companies and so you can imagine how challenging that is to communicate with and be connected. I think that if you have too much technology and not enough humanity, connectivity and cohesion are quickly undermined. I think we’re probably at that point now, where we need to think about how we move forward, because technology is moving at such a pace and employees can quite quickly become overwhelmed and disengage. What we’re finding in our workforce is that there is so much communication happening every day. You have all these different external and internal platforms and it is overwhelming.  Who can remember the days when you used to actually go home, shut the door and you didn’t physically have a computer in your house to access anything? Compare to now where we’re 24/7 hooked up to technology and it is having an impact on people’s mental health, because you can’t switch off. I think there is some technology that will evolve in the workplace that will be helpful, but I think as employers, we have to be mindful that actually, there’s a lot of overload out there. I do think people are fatigued with it and I think we might see that turn slightly because there’s only so much that our brains can cope with. There’s a lot going on both in and out of the workplace, so we don’t want to add to it. Rather, we want to be sensitive to this and ensure we put the right measures in place to support a position of balance, which allows us to use the lessons we have learned about mental health and wellbeing and how this ultimately benefits productivity.



HOW WELL IS RSK COMPETING ON THE WORLD STAGE AND WHAT ARE THE BIG CHALLENGES IN TERMS OF FINDING AND KEEPING THE RIGHT AND ESSENTIAL SKILLS ACROSS THE BUSINESS?  

The importance of employer brand has become a something of a cliché, but I think it is even more important in this more disparate work era. This is particularly true if you are a global company like RSK, which is constantly growing and diversifying. Our brand is that we do care about our people, that we do embrace diversity and we are unapologetically really vocal and demonstrative on those important issues. We want to give everyone an opportunity to shine and so we are really focused on inclusive recruitment, making sure that there are no barriers around diversity to join our workforce. In terms of skills gaps and the war for talent, employers have been battered for some time. That’s why hiring for potential has become one of the most significant strategies in resourcing. Traditionally, recruitment was about finding people with the appropriate skills and whittling candidates down to the best, invariably the one with the most appropriate qualifications, experience and skillset. But the tables were turned, thanks to the various impacts of the external environment – COVID and Brexit for example – along with employees leaving the jobs market and taking on different careers. For me, it’s about embracing diversity, recognising that the idea of the linear career path is consigned to history and that how employees engage with work is changing beyond recognition. So again, that’s where our networks and that connectivity to the outside world is so integral, because they are real people in real jobs and can demonstrate that they have been able to overcome some of those challenges. I would say that, if DEI is not a primary focus, a business will struggle, as job seekers have all the information they need, straight from existing employees and industry-wide about what working for a particular company is all about. T hey will turn down jobs if they don’t see that employers are aligned to their values. T he new generations coming through are really switched on to this and I think, as an employment brand, if you don’t live up to your corporate mantras, then the outcome is obvious. It’s not about having a fancy strapline on your website, it’s about what people really feel throughout their whole employee journey, starting right from their first interactions with an organisation. For any growing and dynamic business, this is a continuous journey and, while I think we’re making real progress, there is still much to do, but it’s our overarching goal.



WHAT IS TOP OF MIND FOR YOU FROM AN HR POINT OF VIEW, IN TERMS OF BUSINESS AMBITION ALIGNMENT AND SUPPORT?  

We have just released our strategy for 2030 and right now, we’re on another growth trajectory and looking to grow to around 40,000 people and that is a massively ambitious arc. Much of this growth will be acquisitive, although we are proud of the organic growth our businesses continue to achieve. We want to make sure that as we continue to grow, we don’t lose all of the qualities and values that make RSK a really great business and an employer of choice. That means making sure that our culture and our flexibility are retained. Obviously, that is a challenge and that’s something that as a leadership team, we are looking at intently. We are constantly asking, what do we need to do to remain an employer of choice? From an HR point of view, I feel we are integral to this next phase of growth – our people are at the heart of our business and without them, we have nothing. We have to make sure that the employment experience continues to be the best that it can be and that requires a lot of effort and focus, alongside a robust plan for growth. We need to bring all of our people along in pursuit of our 2030 vision and that’s about providing people with accessibility and making sure that wherever they are, we make our organisation work for everybody. In addition to our growth through recruitment to support our global expansion strategy, we are also keen to emphasise opportunities for our existing workforce. Opportunities for professional development are crucial to a happy, productive and engaged workforce and it is important to me that we communicate this to our colleagues. Our growth should provide corresponding growth for our people.

 

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